‘Outstanding’ Celtic give glimpse of Europa League future
Celtic’s victory against Zenit showed that despite recent struggles in the Champions League, they can still make an impact on the European stage. By David Ronney
In recent years Celtic have been faced with the prospect of being too strong domestically but too weak on the European stage. However, this debate was brushed aside on Thursday night as Brendan Rodgers’ side dominated, outplayed and outclassed Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg in a 1-0 Europa League win at Celtic Park.
Celtic’s ongoing dominance in the Premiership has resulted in criticism at times this season when their standards have slipped. With the bar set so high after last season’s invincible treble, it was only to be expected that criticism would land on some players this campaign.
Players such as Scott Sinclair, who was an unused substitute against Zenit, have been criticised for their overall performance despite, in Sinclair’s case, being one of Celtic’s top scorers this season.
James Forrest has been without a doubt Celtic’s star player this campaign, as shown by his first senior hat-trick in the 3-2 Scottish Cup win over Partick Thistle last week. While by no means Forrest’s performance was lacking in the Zenit clash, the remaining squad stepped up and not a single passenger could be seen on Thursday night.
Celtic could have been three goals up at the break after both Kieran Tierney and Moussa Dembele missed chances. Tierney again showed that belongs on the biggest stage. He played with confidence and adopted more of a wing-back role as he was allowed space to take on Smolnikov in the opposing full-back position.
The second half saw Celtic’s dominance continue. Zenit allowed the hosts to play the game they wanted as Celtic dictated the tempo over the 90 minutes. It should be considered that this match was the first competitive game the Russian side has played in more than two months and it really showed, especially in the final stages.
Charly Musonda’s introduction to the game was reminiscent of the impact Marco Asensio made for Real Madrid a night prior. Both players were brought on relatively late into the game but each players’ speed, skill and creativity meant their respective clubs took the lead late on.
In Musonda’s case, the Belgian won the ball in Celtic’s half to start the attack, before putting in a shift to get up the field. The ball from Dembele was a difficult one to control but the 21-year-old improvised brilliantly with a flick up and over to Callum McGregor at the far post, who matched the quality with an excellent finish into the top corner.
“It was a great piece of skill by young Charly,” Rodgers said afterwards, “then an absolutely brilliant finish by Callum. Tactically we were excellent tonight. We stayed calm when we had to defend, but with the ball I was really pleased with their personality in the game. Control and calmness, and as I said, we played with great maturity.”
What remains to be answered is can Celtic replicate this performance in Russia and score that all so crucial away goal? Celtic have now only lost once against Russian teams in seven games but Zenit have a strong European record at home, with only two defeats on Russian soil since 2002. So, despite the lack of regular football in recent times for Roberto Mancini’s side, they potentially have the odds in their favour if their home record is anything to go by.
A good European run is something fans of Celtic, and arguably Scottish supporters, would like to see. The Scottish Champions were at their best on Thursday night and with progression in the tie potentially resulting in the chance of playing more teams who can match and potentially exceed Celtic’s standard, it can only mean more exciting football to come.