After last week’s defeat to Shakhter Karagandy in Astana, Celtic found themselves with a lot to answer for from a defensive point of view, but they were able to come up with the necessary modifications ahead of the return match at Celtic Park.
The Hoops relied heavily on a defence that came under severe pressure at several points in the match, but a new-found solidity due to the return of certain players and new hunger to win enabled them to come through the contest unscathed.
Firstly, Celtic fielded a modified back-line to what they had used in the away match eight days ago, with the return of Matthews, Ambrose and Lustig in place of Van Dijk, Mouyokolo and Izaguirre.
This brought down the average height of the defence, an element that Neil Lennon had deemed necessary to increase in Kazakhstan, due to the height of the opposing team, but that had sacrificed organisation, given that the players the manager put out this time round were the more generally accepted starting line-up and used to playing together, unlike last week’s starting back four.
The three changes played their role well, especially Ambrose who acted as a sweeper behind the others when Karagandy hit them on the break and covered Kizhnichenko well, something that had not been done previously.
There was also a renewed eagerness in the team to win, with translated itself not only into more players committing to the attack, but also into more players tracking back and helping to clear their lines when the goal was under threat.
An example of this is the young winger James Forrest, who was a constant presence all over the pitch, not only in Shakter’s half, but equally in his own and even took a nasty blow to the ankle in a tackle by Zenkovich when sprinting back to cut out a pass from an opposing player.
He also went on to score in the dying minutes of the encounter, showing the new-found hunger from Celtic players to contribute in every way they could.
Of course, the victory was not only due to solidity at the back. Indeed, Celtic were clinical in their finishing, much more so than they had been in the first match, taking their chances when they got them, as well as creating something special when they needed it, such as when Commons found an opening on the edge of the opposite side’s penalty area and blasted the ball past a clearly beaten Mokin to open the scoring just before half-time.
The same goes for Samaras who reacted well to side-foot the ball in the top of the net when he found the ball at his feet and no one to beat but the keeper.
It would also be an exaggeration to say that Celtic’s defence was perfect, as they had several dangerous moments, the most obvious of which came in the 63rd minute when a long throw-in was allowed by the keeper and all the players in the Glaswegian box to bounce and hit the crossbar, causing a good few of those who were outside the area to think it had gone in - and almost giving heart attacks to the watching crowd.
However, the performance overall from the back-line was much better than previously and promises more for the rest of the competition, especially if Lennon manages to put his post-match interview into action and sign a few more quality players.
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