Celtic now must travel to Udine and win after succumbing to a slim defeat to group winners Atletico Madrid. Arda Turan’s ever-so-fortunate first-half strike flew over Beram Kayal’s head, and the unsighted Fraser Forster’s hands weren’t strong enough. Though the hosts started brightly, Atleti seemed to be holding back from stepping up the gears – and in the end put in just enough to hold off a feisty Celtic.
As thoroughly expected in the tictactic preview, manager Neil Lennon had to make the difficult decision of dropping one of either in-form Gary Hooper or Anthony Stokes, in the name of stability, matching Atleti’s expected 5 man midfield.
It was Hooper who had to be dropped – his hat-trick against St Mirren on Saturday not enough to usurp the more consistent (at least this season,) Stokes. Ki Sung-Yeung came in – with 44 international caps, one of Lennon’s most tried and trusted employees.
Tactically, the positioning of the wide midfielders highlights just how attacking Saturday’s 4-2-2-2 is in nature, as here they played in similar positions in a 4-3-3. With Ki also pressing high early on, the formation was arguably a highly aggressive 4-2-3-1.
Better news though on the injury front, with Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew fit for the bench.
Though the winners of the 2009-10 competition in the lead-up to this match were all but through to the next stage, the deal was yet to be sealed and therefore a full-strength side was fielded by Gregorio Manzano.
So strong in fact, that only 1 change was made to the side that lost 4-1 away to arch-rivals Real Madrid. Mario Suarez started in central midfield in a like-for-like swap with Paulo Assuncao. €40m striker Falcao was only fit enough after injury for the bench, while Thibaut Courtois was retained in goal despite his red-card at the weekend.
Manzano lined his side up in the trademark 4-2-3-1, with Diego possibly further forward, closer to Adrien than his positioning against Real Madrid – likely in an attempt to take advantage of the “open” space between the lines.
Celtic’s bright opening
While the early period was closely contested, if anything Celtic were emerging as the more keen to create chances. Kayal and Wanyama were providing a veritable shield in front of the back four, while the attacking players – particularly Samaras and James Forrest on either flank – were potent and direct. The Greek continuing his current blistering form where as Forrest putting in a dribbling performance finally enough to turn the heads of Europe’s richest.
Still, Atleti threatened on the break with Eduardo Salvio scunnering a gilt-edged chance in the very early stages – his stooped free header in the 6-yard box going wide, and Salvio again almost capitalising on confusion between Forster and his defence.
With regards to a familiar theme on this blog – Lennon’s perfect 10 – Ki seemed to be pushing as high up as possible – close to the striker. Not his natural best, and unfortunately, so uncomfortable as not to have too much input into Celtic’s attacks.
Just when it looked like one of the urgent bursts forwards would yield a goal, Arda Turan stunned the home support with a fairly fortuitous goal. After failing to convincingly clear a corner, Turan forced a strike through a congested ruck of bodies. Forster was unsighted and probably anticipated a (difficult) header from Kayal. The ball whizzed over the Israeli’s head, unsettling Forster’s rhythm and squeezing through his gloves.
Perhaps it was an indirect repercussion of Lennon’s setup at corners. More defensive bodies than ever have been committed to defending the 6 yard box, and it was only really James Forrest getting out belatedly to pressurise the strike.
Majstorovic was causing problems attacking corners and perhaps the two best chances fell to Samaras – first flicking on a Majstorovic header which was saved well by Courtois, and then blasting over from 18 yards after a fine lay-off from Stokes.
Having enjoyed most of the possession in the opening 30 minutes, the goal seemed undeserved – but that’s the clinical quality of a side like Atleti. The goal also had a serious effect on Celtic’s gameplan.
It was a high-energy approach based on selflessness and hard-work – epitomised strangely by Stokes’ uncharacteristically hard-working and tiring display. His contribution in what is often known in football, as “the graveyard shift” was spot-on, it’s just that it doesn’t see the best of his talent. It will rarely see him running on to quick passes from others, or getting on the end of flashed crosses.
To gain a breather from the all-action energetic approach, the big ball to Samaras was creeping in to play. But the howling wind and rain didn’t suit that approach, becoming a sure-fire way of losing possession. Another clue that the “deck football” is Celtic’s forté – perhaps even competing at this level.
Atleti were as a result coming more into the game and the technical quality shone through. In one such attack, Joe Ledley came off worse in a nasty looking collision with his own team-mate. The short spell down to ten men before Charlie Mulgrew’s introduction greased Atleti’s wheels, as the Spanish pressure mounted.
Wanyama was withdrawn at half-time for Gary Hooper, and though it wasn’t clear at the time it transpires that the Kenyan suffered a knock. It appeared though, that Lennon was making an optimistic attacking change in search of the equaliser.
Ki was forced deeper into a slightly more familiar role, replacing Wanyama, and Hooper occupied something between the ‘number 10’ role and a more conventional striker.
If Ki was a bit out of place “in the hole”, then Hooper was very out of place – seemingly unsure what positions to take up and what player to track.
His desire to play off the defender’s shoulder was palpable and instinctive, and in fact contributed to a kind of “4-2-2-2” feel to the system. Very probably too attacking – especially now without Wanyama.
When chasing a goal against a technically superior, counter-attacking side, it’s rarely a very good idea to make significant attacking changes. The idea is normally not to concede / sneak a goal either on the counter or from a set-piece.
Lennon’s hand was probably forced by the Wanyama injury, but the attacking nature of the change opened Celtic’s midfield in a fairly subtle but damaging way.
With the more open midfield, Diego was really flourishing between the lines – and his working bringing Turan and Salvio into the game was becoming a real problem for Celtic. If there’s one thing Loovens and Majstorovic aren’t suited to, it’s tricky attackers running at them, but the killer second just wasn’t happening. The superstar Falcao was brought on around the hour, and for all his clever movement (particularly getting on the end of open-play crosses), again, Celtic were hanging in.
The high energy approach had taken it’s toll on the likes of Samaras, Forrest, and especially Stokes who by now was exhausted. Scott Brown came on – arguably Lennon ‘retracting’ his ambitious initial change but more likely, (seeing as the Hooper/Wanyama switch was enforced) simply rotating for energy reasons.
Ki was pushed back forward with Hooper as the lone-ish striker, but the momentum from the period of the goal to this final switch after 76 minutes, had already faded. Ki came deceptively close with a late free-kick, and even after a reasonable spell of desperate pressure, the sought-after equaliser wouldn’t come.
It’s becoming depressingly frequent, but the old addage of ‘taking plenty of positives’ rings true again. A very good team performance undercut by a soft goal. While the “error” somewhere between Kayal’s ducking and Forster’s floppy hands wasn’t as cut and dry a mistake as say, Hooper’s penalty conceding against Udinese or Cha’s (and Forster’s) own goal against Rennes, it was still a game-defining blunder.
Considering the level of attack that Atleti face on a weekly basis, it’s difficult to underplay how impressive Forrest, Samaras and Adam Matthews were getting forward. It was straight-forward “beat your man” stuff which in the latter two cases certainly, will be an open advertisement if nothing else.
Loovens’ and Majstorovic’s fairly composed defensive performance will encourage a support fed-up with shoddy workmanship in that area, and previous under-performers like Kayal, Samaras and Hooper continue to raise hope.
As it happens, a draw wouldn’t have made too much difference – either way a win in Udine is essential. But the hard way has become a hall-mark of this side. Perhaps progress in the Europa League this season is a bridge too far, but on performances like tonight’s, progress in general is clear to see.