Having thrashed FC Astana 5-0 during the first leg of their final Champions League play-off, Celtic could have been forgiven for looking forward to an easy night as they travelled to Kazakhstan for the return encounter.
Instead, the Hoops endured a harrowing night in hot and humid conditions, falling 4-1 behind with more than 20 minutes to go as Astana punished a series of individual errors. Fortunately, Brendan Rodgers’ men recovered to score two further goals and seal their place in the Champions League proper for the second consecutive season.
So what did we learn from Celtic’s trip to Kazakhstan? Here are three key talking points:
Celtic still lack Champions League pedigree
Celtic have not lost in 52 domestic games, a run that included an unbeaten season and a clean sweep of trophies during Rodgers’ first year in charge.
Conversely, they did not win any of their six Champions League group matches last season, creating a stark contrast with their domestic form and highlighting the lack of pedigree afflicting Celtic on the European stage.
While they may have beaten FC Astana over two legs and scored eight goals in the process, their performance in Kazakhstan proved they require much improvement if they are to be competitive in the Champions League. They certainly need to be more focused and compact in defence, while showcasing greater composure on the ball when they are away from home.
Rodgers may need to strengthen his defence
In truth, the sight of midfielder Nir Bitton lining up in defence for Celtic should have been a cause for concern, even allowing for Celtic’s healthy lead heading into the second leg.
Bitton, who was caught out positionally on numerous occasions and allowed Patrick Twumasi past him far too easily for Astana’s fourth goal of the night, was filling in for injured duo Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchenko (the latter has also been linked with a move to FC Copenhagen in The Times). With Jozo Simunovic also absent, the Hoops looked short of experience at the back and were run ragged in the second half.
This is an area where Rodgers may well look to strengthen before the end of the summer transfer window, particularly of Sviatchenko is allowed to move on. A player with Champions League experience would also be a huge boon, especially as the club look to progress and compete more aggressively in Europe.
Olivier Ntcham is the real deal for Celtic
When French starlet Olivier Ntcham joined Celtic from Manchester City for around £4.5 million during the summer, those in the know suggested that the Hoops had signed a top international talent. Ntcham certainly impressed during the first leg against Astana, while the powerful midfielder made a telling contribution in Kazakhstan and was arguably Celtic’s classiest performer on a challenging night.
The youngster showed tremendous drive and composure as he strode forward from deep against a tiring Astana side, before firing home a nerve-settling second goal for Celtic with 10 minutes to go.
He certainly delivered when it mattered the most, which is a trait shared by all high quality players. Ntcham undoubtedly looks like the real deal for the Hoops, and along with Kieran Tierney he offers genuine hope that Celtic can acquit themselves well and make a positive impression in the Champions League this season.