Brendan Rodgers was keen to accentuate positives after Celtic’s latest European disappointment. Perhaps he was quite right to; from a Champions League section that also included Bayern Munich and Paris St-Germain, Europa League football after Christmas was always the fairest target.
Celtic confirmed third place in unimpressive fashion, though, and with only three points. Victory in the head-to-head scenario with Anderlecht was necessary to extend Celtic’s European stay, after the Belgians secured success in Glasgow which should really have been by more than one goal. Celtic were second best in every department with their manager, curiously, citing the “context of the game” as problematic. It was Celtic who entered this tie with the glaring advantage, after all, having swaggered to a 3-0 success in Belgium.
Rodgers is rightly lauded in these parts for a domestic record of being unbeaten in 67 games. Yet it would be remiss of onlookers not to pinpoint failings visible throughout this European campaign. Celtic must improve if they seek to enjoy a Europa League run worthy of the name.
“They were better than us tonight,” Rodgers admitted. “But over the bigger picture, our aim at the beginning of the competition was to get through to the Europa League. We have done that. There is immense pride but it’s hard to feel that when you’ve lost. There is a story for some of our players in that they have a long way to go before they can call themselves be players at this level. But we’ve shown over the course of this campaign that we can be better.”
Any sense of Celtic complacency was undermined by their starting lineup. Rodgers named his strongest available team, with Moussa Dembélé returning from injury to spearhead the home attack. In one way, Celtic had a point to prove; 10 matches had passed in group stages of either the Champions or Europa League without them winning at home. Such a statistic contradicts the widely held notion of this being a venue to intimidate continental opposition. The winless figure increased before 10pm.
Anderlecht had shown marked improvement since the reverse to Celtic in Brussels and yet, like the Scottish champions, they had found Group B a struggle; Anderlecht arrived in Glasgow having scored just a single group goal.
That should have been doubled during the opening exchanges in which Anderlecht were by far the more composed team. Henry Onyekuru cut the ball back for Sven Kums, with Craig Gordon forced into a smart save with his legs. With Celtic struggling to impose themselves, Adrien Trebel was the next to test Gordon courtesy of an acrobatic effort.
If there was concern for Anderlecht during the first half, it resonated in the failure to turn dominance into meaningful reward. The probings of the visiting captain, Sofiane Hanni, caused all manner of problems for the Celtic defence with Rodgers’s team woefully unable to retain possession when in the Anderlecht half.
Rodgers replaced two ineffectual players, Stuart Armstrong and Scott Sinclair, at the break. The Belgians again opened on the front foot, though, with the outstanding Hanni narrowly failing to connect with a Pieter Gerkens cross just six yards from goal.
With Celtic showing improvement, James Forrest sought to rub salt into Belgian wounds with a curling effort which Frank Boeckx scrambled wide of a post. Fortune was soon to favour Anderlecht at the other end. Sloppy Celtic defending allowed Dennis Appiah possession on the right, with the defender’s cross seemingly straightforward for Jozo Simunovic to clear. Instead, the centre-back miscued a header beyond Gordon.
Simunovic could have atoned for his blunder with a 67th-minute half-volley which instead flew over Boeckx’s crossbar. Dembélé squandered another chance, 18 minutes from time, after Kieran Tierney had fed him at the end of a typically marauding left wing run. This was to be Dembélé’s last act as he limped off to be replaced by the PSG loanee Odsonne Édouard.
Hanni almost intensified a slightly edgy Celtic Park scenario with a 20-yard drive which had Gordon worried. Thankfully for Celtic, this proved the extent of their fright.