Twenty-five years after he first coached South Melbourne in the National Soccer League, Australian coach Ange Postecoglou led Scottish giants Celtic for the first time.
First games are usually meant to be for a coach to ease their way in. This was a baptism of fire.
Celtic were up against FC Midtjylland, a well-respected team that has won three of the last seven Danish championships, in the first leg of their second round UEFA Champions League qualifier.
This match, and the subsequent qualifiers, are so important for Celtic and Postecoglou because should they go on to qualify for the Champions League group stage, they will automatically earn €15,250,000 ($A24.5 million) in prize money. It would be a vital cash boost for a club that desperately needs to rebuild their squad.
For the first time in 16 months, a limited number of fans were allowed into the club’s famous stadium Celtic Park; 9,000 of them spread across the 60,000 seats gave Postecoglou a loud ovation when he came out of the tunnel. These supporters are desperate to believe in something after last season’s disaster, where they failed to win a trophy for the first time since 2010 and had to watch their arch-rivals Rangers win the title without losing a single match in the league.
Postecoglou looked focused as he sat on the sidelines moments before kick-off, only for that concentration to be momentarily broken by Midtjylland’s Aussie winger Awer Mabil. Two Aussies on the other side of the globe, at very different stages in their careers but both determined to show the world what they’re capable of. A warm embrace was shared by the two before a fiery battle got underway.
The match finished 1-1 and with the away-goal rule now gone, sets up a perfect second leg in eight days time. Celtic dominated the match with 63 per cent possession and 16 shots to three, but couldn’t convert their chances and were let down by individual errors.
“I don’t think we will ever be as badly prepared as we were tonight going into such an important game and that’s on me,” Postecoglou admitted to BBC Scotland post-match.
“I haven’t done a great job so far because with the disruptions we’ve had, we haven’t been able to bring the players in.
“The players didn’t look for excuses. They put in a solid shift and I’m just disappointed they didn’t get the rewards for what I thought was an outstanding performance.”
It was an impressive performance and showed early that Postecoglou will have Celtic playing the same attacking, possession-based football that saw him dominate the A-League with Brisbane Roar and win a championship in Japan with Yokohama F. Marinos.
“Every team I’ve coached has had a very clear identity,” Postecoglou said at his unveiling in June. “I think that was one of the reasons I was chosen. In my 25 years in coaching, my teams have always played a certain way.”
Postecoglou opted for a 4-3-3 formation and left Socceroos midfielder Tom Rogic on the bench. The full-backs pushed high, the ball circulated quickly, Celtic looked to play on the front-foot.
The former Socceroos boss will be pleased with the performance of his new signing, 19-year-old Israeli forward Liel Abada who in 45 minutes scored Celtic’s only goal and created three more chances.
It was a magical debut cut short by his more-experienced international teammate Nir Bitton, who was sent-off in the 44th minute for needlessly picking up the second of two yellow cards for arguing with Midtjylland’s Anders Dreyer after the winger had gone down easily in the box.
Up 1-0 and with his centre-back given an early red card, Postecoglou opted to take off Abada for 18-year-old centre-back Dane Murray.
Despite being a man down, Celtic attempted to protect their lead in the second half and push for a second goal. They were given a lifeline in the 56th minute when Dreyer was sent-off after receiving a second yellow card for diving, much to the delight of the 9,000 fans.
However, those fans were left frustrated 10 minutes later when Evander smashed a wide free-kick in off the post to make the score 1-1. While the ball was struck perfectly by the Brazilian central midfielder, there were huge question marks over Celtic’s Greek goalkeeper Vasilios Barkas.
“Whatever way you look at it, he has killed the manager and killed the team,” Celtic legend Chris Sutton told Premier Sports post-match
“It’s not rocket science. (Former Celtic goalkeeper) Fraser Forster in goal saves that.
“This was a big game tonight and Celtic didn’t get the second and third their play deserved, but they should be taking a lead over to Denmark and they are not doing that because of the goalkeeper.”
Despite introducing Rogic in the 78th minute, Celtic were unable to find the breakthrough.
“We deserved the win,” Postecoglou said.
“We played really well, especially in the first half where we controlled the game, scored a good goal and hit the post.
“We went down to 10 men for a significant amount of time and had to work hard. We created some good chances again and limited them to two strikes the whole game.
“It was a little bit of a missed opportunity but at the same time a fantastic effort by the players.”
Local reporters raised questions post-match regarding the errors of individual players.
“Players don’t let me down. It’s disappointing for Bitton and he is probably the most disappointed out of anyone, as I know how much he wanted to contribute,” Postecoglou said.
“The important thing for me was the reaction from the players. I thought the two young centre-halves Dane (Murray) and (Stephen) Welsh, in a Champions League fixture, were outstanding.”
Bitton took to Instagram after the game to offer his apologies to the fans.
“This is my platform to speak and I just want to say sorry,” he posted.
“I lost my head for a second and got punished for that… sorry again.”
Bitton will miss the must-win second leg next week. Prior to that, Celtic will play a friendly against Premier League side West Ham this weekend.
It took Postecoglou two seasons to get it right with Brisbane Roar and two seasons to sort it out in Japan. The 55-year-old doesn’t have that kind of time at Celtic but the early signs are promising.
Next week’s return leg could prove pivotal in making the Postecoglou era a success.
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