That we got a decent result has kinda been forgotten. The news that Kieren Tierney was in London with a view to signing for Arsenal has become the main focus. Both tonight’s events mark where we are in the real football world context. Not the fantasy football context.
There is a reason why we are playing these qualifiers. A reason why we are playing the champions of Romania and giving it a right good go. There is a reason that KT, van Dijk, Dembele and even Rodgers left and it’s linked to us playing games in Transylvania and Sarajevo and Tallin and possibly Prague. It’s called the Scottish Premiership and we are playing these games as that is our level. I could write thousands of words about why that is the case and most would be uncomplimentary about subscription tv, UEFA and oligarchs and sovereign wealth funds but this is not that article. It shouldn’t be the case but it is. And it stinks but it’s our reality. I can only embrace our reality like a bosom for a pillow.
We got a result tonight against a side that is limited, well organised and very effective. They know what they want to do and they do it well. It was a tough test and one that was surprisingly open in the first half, but that was what Cluj wanted. You can see that they thrive on the chaos of the long diagonal switch, quick balls and runners into the box. They love the chaos and the push and shove of a set play. We also enjoyed the freedom and chaos in that first half. We found spaces, we had half-chances and, if our final ball had been better, we might have won the game.
It wasn’t and we didn’t. We lost a breakaway goal that Cluj seem to specialise in. We showed great courage and determination to get back in the game and see it out. After the first 15 minutes of the second half, we broke up the game and took control. Cluj are an experienced side and our superior fitness showed in the final period as we played the game on our terms. A couple of scares but we are away from home in Europe, you have to expect that.
In saying that, our left-hand side had a night to forget. Boli Bolingoli is showing all the signs of frustrating inconsistency and brain freezes. He has played pressure games in Europe before, so for him to look so out of place is a worry. Yes, he needs time to settle and get used to new team-mates but he was really out of sorts and this affected Lewis Morgan. This is a step up in level for the player and it showed. He lacked the basic physical makeup to contribute and seemed to spend most of the game on the deck after being pushed off the ball. It’s steep and unforgiving at this level, our level, and he needs to learn quickly.
We have over 700 games worth of European experience in the squad and that showed at times tonight. Scott Brown became the focal point for our opponent’s pettiness as we ground out the game and ran the clock down. McGregor and Christie were busy, there was a fine cameo by Ntcham. Not all games will see them at their creative best but sometimes you just have to be impressed by the selfless shift they put in for the team.
James Forrest had his markers back-peddling in fear all evening. His pace is a weapon at this level. Our level. When you also add the pace, strength and the improving game intelligence of Odsonne Edouard, who tonight played the loan front role as well as he could, then we have two players that can occupy and trouble backlines. Forrest once again scored an important European goal. A goal when most would have struggled to get the ball out of their feet nevermind get that accuracy.
In these games, our back four have to be disciplined and stand tall. We have mentioned Bolingoli but the others were solid on the night. Kristoffer Ajer, Jozo Simunovic and Hatem Elhamed all were the right sides of decent. The right-back, who we all thought wasn’t a right-back, was the most impressive of the lot. Mainly because we haven’t seen much of him and he is still in the infancy of his Celtic career. He read the game well, he overlapped well and was consistent in possession. We could maybe do with a left-hand-side one.
We went to a venue and played a team who have the ability to trouble us and have European momentum. They seemed to know that they needed a result tonight and they didn’t get what they wanted. They also know that we have the ability to hurt them and are fitter than them. We go into the second leg as slight favourites and we fully deserve to be after tonight’s performance. This is our level and tonight was a satisfactory night.
Kevin GrahamListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast