It’s one of the many oddities of football in the shadow of Covid that, as Celtic strolled through the first step of their Champions League journey for this season, the sharp end of last year’s competition was still being played out elsewhere.
While Paris St Germain were dismantling RB Leipzig to reach the final of the elite tournament for the first time, Neil Lennon’s side were negotiating the first hurdle of many they have to overcome just to face Europe’s best.
In normal circumstances, Celtic’s first qualifier would come in early summer, curtailing holidays and stretching the season for players who already play too many games.
Danger lurks when the draw for each round is made: some games are fraught affairs with any slip coming with huge cost, others are David v Goliath ties where Celtic’s giant are mixing essential competition with useful pre-season training.
Tuesday’s 6-0 win over KR Reykjavik fell firmly into the latter category and couldn’t have come at a better time for Lennon and his players. After an enforced two-game domestic lay-off due to Boli Bolingoli’s misadventures, Celtic needed a boost ahead of challenges to come and this emphatic win ticked all the boxes.
It helps that the opposition wasn’t the strongest. Ahead of the game, KR boss Runar Kristinsson had drawn comparison with Iceland’s shock win over England at Euro 2016. At Celtic Park his side didn’t have the qualities needed to replicate that performance, and Celtic weren’t short on the focus and drive that England were accused of lacking that night in Nice.
The contest in Glasgow was as good as over when Arnor Adalsteinsson’s own goal followed Mohamed Elyounoussi’s opener to put Celtic 2-0 up. With UEFA having changed the format from two-legged ties to one-off matches, the four goals that followed came from Celtic’s drive to turn the game into a useful exercise.
Lennon’s post-match comments emphasised what he took from the game, other than the main priority of reaching the next round.
“It was important to try and increase the intensity and get the game into the legs,” he said.
“We’ll see how they are on Thursday but they should get a benefit from that. We’ve got a big couple of weeks coming up so it’s important we keep our focus.
“The ten days off didn’t help and we only had two competitive games before this game, whereas a lot of other teams have had four or five, so we’ve got a little bit of catch-up.”
The mismatch also allowed Lennon to rotate his squad a little and look at different options that may be useful when the fixtures come thick and fast in weeks to come.
Israeli duo Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed started in the back four. Bitton was relatively untroubled defensively and drove play from the back, while Elhamed showed again that he has plenty of attacking quality to make him a serious alternative to the youthful effervescence of Jeremie Frimpong.
New signing Albian Ajeti came off the bench to begin his integration into the side, and fellow striker Patryk Klimala got more minutes under his belt.
Olivier Ntcham was also introduced and his contribution, including the assist for the sixth goal, added more evidence for those who argue that he deserves a starting spot. Tom Rogic being an unused substitute added to the reminder of Celtic’s creative options and that’s before even considering TV pundit Gordon Strachan’s assertion that Odsonne Edouard’s talents make him a better number 10 than a 9.
The Frenchman’s best starting position is one for Lennon to ponder in the months to come but the Celtic boss is unlikely to find another game soon where he can experiment without real risk. The league games come with little room for error as Celtic play catch-up after their two postponed games. The upcoming Scottish Cup semi-final even less so.
And next week Djurgardens or Ferencvaros will pitch up at Celtic Park hoping for a Champions League upset. Either side will pose a stiffer test than KR but they will come up against a Celtic side that has reaped the benefits of a productive first qualifier.
While PSG and Bayern Munich or Lyon tie up last year’s Champions league, Celtic will be glad to be moving on after their disappointment in qualification last season.
The win over KR was a small step but an early indication that the focus on a return to the top table hasn’t lessened.
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