PHEW! What was THAT all about?
Seemingly cruising into the Champions League group stages, effectively 6-1 up ( … with an away goal in hand … ) halfway through the ‘second half’ of the tie, early slackness after the break in Kazakhstan yesterday evening threatened to bring the whole thing crashing around our ears in what would surely have been the most humiliating episode in Celtic’s long and wildly varied European history. For a while, at 4-1 down, I for one certainly feared the worst; and if Astana ( … no slouches, btw … ) had capitalised on any more of the chances carelessly presented to them during that scary spell, we could’ve been facing a very different prospect this morning for the season ahead.
Fortunately, the ship got stabilised in the nick of time and we can relax and look forward to Friday’s CL draw with no little relish. In the midst of all the turmoil yesterday, though, I have to confess my reservations about the rash of what seemed to me like knee-jerk ‘consolidation’ substitutions calculated to send a charge! signal to our opponents, when it seemed they needed no such invitation at all.
In the event, strangely enough, Brendan’s assessment of the situation and its likely resolution was vastly superior to mine. If his plan was to suck Astana out and pick them off at the back, it worked a treat in the end, with N’tcham and Griffiths delivering the coups-de-grace to deflate the Kazak bubble and launch the Hoops into the stratosphere of further European glory and riches.
What stood out more than anything else for me yesterday, though, was the emergence in the white heat of battle of a new Celtic hero – a young warrior who took the situation by the scruff of the neck, kept his head when it seemed all around were losing theirs, and hauled us through a very sticky patch indeed. Take a bow, Olivier N’tcham, midfielder extraordinaire, who more than totally vindicated his manager’s prior assertion that he was capable of holding his own with the very best.
What a performance!
I watched and marvelled at the sheer virtuosity displayed by such a young man, whose potential knows no bounds and can give us great confidence in our chances when the real stuff gets underway later in the year.
The spectacular season just past was, rightly, dedicated to the Lisbon Lions, the squad that will forever be the benchmark for Celtic attainment. The Lions were famously blessed in midfield with the combined genius of Bobby Murdoch and Bertie Auld – and at times in Astana yesterday I thought I glimpsed in our young Frenchman’s display, something of the power, elegance and vision of “Chopper”, allied to the guile, grit and composure of “Ten-Thirty”. I can pay him no greater tribute than that.
Now that the dust and the nerves have settled, congratulations to an exceptional manager and a wonderful, if a tad raw ( … and yet in need of a little “je ne sais quoi” … ) set of players for again taking us to the heady heights of the Champions League proper.
Over to you, Brendan – and Hail! Hail!