Be honest – this past July and August was far more relaxing. No, worries about teenage centre halves making their debut alongside Nir Bitton or having to play a goalkeeper you knew was dodgy. No trips to far away place against teams you’d only just heard of. No Neil Lennon curveball selections.. Yes, not having to qualify for the Champions league makes for a far less stressful summer.
So first up and lets get it out the way. To have made it straight to the Group Stages, we had to win the league, something I quite publicly doubted when Postecoglu was announced. So yes, I’m eating a big dollop of humble pie on that one and happy to do so.
I totally underestimated Ange’s strength of character to come to Glasgow and turn the mess around.(and make no mistake he inherited a shocking situation, player wise) Delighted to be proved wrong. However whilst I called it incorrectly on Ange, that doesn’t mean that the directors deserve plaudits.
After the Eddie Howe debacle, names such as Paul Lambert were thrown about in the boardroom. A call to the Etihad and they were given a name. Postecoglu has come in and done brilliantly domestically but this was not some kind of Christoph Freund master strategy. It was a Hail Mary pass from the directors, that landed in the End Zone.
Anyway back to our adventures on the Continent. When the draw was being announced, as a Pot 4 team, we hoped for three things.
1). A Glamour tie – preferably against someone we hadn’t played in a while. We all wanted Real Madrid
2). A Pot 2 team that wasn’t one who should be in Pot 1
3). A pot 3 team we had a chance of beating.
So we got our three wishes. Real Madrid, RB Leipzig and Shakhtar were as good as we could have hoped. Real Madrid with Modric and Benzema was the type of match you can’t wait to see, Red Bull are never a pot 1 team and had lost to Rangers last season whilst Shakhtar would play their home matches in Poland and has lost players such as Solomon and replaced them with Maryan Shved.
In terms of getting third spot, we certainly had a chance. The only black mark on Ange’s record last season was the home and away defeat against Bodo Glimt. Elsewhere in Europe, he did well to put out Alkmaar, given the team he had and to get 9 points in a group against Betis, Leverkusen and Ferencvaros was decent – again taking into account how the team was almost thrown together at the last minute.
So this season we were looking for them to kick on. Given Shakhtar and Ukraine’s issues, we had a chance to still be playing in Europe beyond Xmas.
So it began at home to Real Madrid. We created chances, didn’t take them and at around the hour mark, gaps the size of a parted Red Sea started to appear in our defence. We lost a goal and promptly lost another. And after much excitement, the game was beyond us after 75 minutes.
Onto Warsaw. Shakhtar had surprised everybody with a 4-1 win away in Germany and expectations (and I include myself) that beating them should be straightforward, were correctly scaled back. None the less in terms of an away CL performance, we totally dominated them and a 1-1 draw seemed scant reward for our effort. We missed chances again and it was one of those rare occasions away in the Champions League where you thought, we are a decent team and we should have had three points.
However the two games against Lepizig, the home game against Shakhtar and away in Madrid would see the faultiness that appeared in our first game return with avengeance. With the exception of the last match, we were still in the ties after 55 minutes and then it would all go pear shaped. Our forwards – Kyogo in particular – would miss chances they should take. Our defence would either be caught on the break or we would make silly mistakes and the opposition would score easily. We would then quickly lose another goal – the one exception being at home to the Ukrainians where they gave us probably the miss of the century.
We finished bottom of the group on two points. Four behind Shakhtar. So no European football for us at the start of 2023. And if we being honest that is disappointing. In Mudryk, Shakhar have a player that reminds me of Oleg Blokhin and will end up at a top team. Their goalkeeper was decent and we could have done with a wily old fox such as Stepanenko in midfield. But they were there for the taking and we didn’t do it. Unlike Warsaw, by the end of the match at Parkhead we can have no complaints about the draw.
In Postecoglu’s defence over the campaign he can point to injures to Carter-Vickers, Jota, Starfelt and in particular McGregor. The fixture list also certainly helped the Ukrainians. It is fair to say that Shakhtar benefited from getting Red Bull just as Tedesco’s reign at the club was unravelling (although his replacement, Marco Rose, did lose to Van Bronkhorst as well last last year) and playing Madrid at home may well have been easier later on in the group if their qualification was already assured.
None the less, I would still argue that we should have finished ahead of them and got at least something at home to Red Bull. The fact that we didn’t, is because we seem to tire after 60 minutes and a failure to bury opportunities that come up. We also seem to lack a certain street-wise knowledge on these occasions. There are times where you are screaming for a Celtic player to take a booking when we are being exposed on the counter-attack.
Going forward, I think we have to address the following areas :-
Goalkeeper. Joe Hart has been a great signing. He showed much needed leadership last year but I didn’t feel he was at his best in this European campaign and I would be looking to have a replacement.
Centre of defence. Hopefully the singing of Kobayashi means that we will be better placed next season.
Defensive Midfield. As mentioned earlier, a Stepanenko type players is much needed to protect our back four and read the game
Attack. Kyogo buried chances in last year’s qualifiers and in the group stages. This year he had a mare. To progress we will need somebody to put those opportunities away.
Postecoglu has received a lot of plaudits and rightly so since he came here. He has proved doubters such as myself wrong. But this season in Europe wasn’t good enough. He has said so himself and we all hope the team will learn. But there is a naivety about us in these situations. Somebody remarked to me that Canada reminded him of us when they were playing Belgium. Causing the opposition all sorts of difficulties, missing chances and then getting hit by the sucker-punch.
If we are to progress in Europe that will have to change. There has to be some kind of pragmatism. No one’s suggesting Wattanacio, but we have be able to retain some kind of shape going into the last quarter of the game. We mustn’t become so ragged and we have to stop the pattern of losing one goal and then another shortly afterwards. It helps if we are scoring goals at the other end but you also have to have a Plan B if that’s not happening or if you’re not getting the rub of the green. Especially – as in all likelihood – should we make the CL next season, the draw will probably not be as kind.