Champions League: Zadok the Priest for Celtic instead of another death march

Celtic fans celebrated in the Israeli heat
Celtic fans celebrate in the Israeli heat

Celtic fans might not have expected it to be easy, but few could have thought it would be so hard.

A team looking like a fighter on the ropes, covering up for dear life and awaiting the sweet music of the final bell.

A clock that ticked so slowly that you thought on occasion that time had stood still.

A prize that was so close and yet so far away. Glory or despair - no Celtic fan who craved Champions League group stage football almost as much as they craved their next breath could be altogether sure which one it was going to be.

At the end, the cameras picked out some Celtic players and again the boxing metaphor seemed apt. There was joy, no doubt, but some of them looked too exhausted to celebrate. They were physically spent after playing two matches - the one against Hapoel on the pitch and the one against themselves in their heads.

Celtic wrestled with their own shortcomings all night and it must have been mind-altering. Their passing, defending, attacking and physicality. Nothing was easy. They had to dig deep to haul themselves across the line.

They did it, just. But 'just' is OK for now. 'Just' is absolutely fine when you've spent two years outside the Champions League watching the party with your nose pressed to the window.

'Celtic were poor, but they did not cave'

They have many improvements to make, but they can think about them against the backdrop of Zadok the Priest - the soul-stirring Champions League theme song - rather than the death march that would have played on a loop had Tuesday gone wrong.

Celtic's recent history is littered with the names of men who have sickened them in the final minutes of European games, opposition players who capitalised on weakness and turned good Celtic nights into moderate ones and desperate ones.

Jo-Inge Berget for Malmo at Parkhead last season, Lasse Schone and Vaclav Cerny for Ajax in Glasgow and Amsterdam a few months later. Marcos Tavares for Maribor the season before. Jonathan Soriano for Salzburg, William de Amorim for Astra, Freddy Guarin for Inter.

Craig Gordon saved an early penalty from Maharan Radi
Craig Gordon saved an early penalty from Maharan Radi

Late goals that, mostly, turned Celtic wins into Celtic draws and Celtic draws into Celtic losses, all of the sucker-punches coming no more than 15 minutes from the end and the majority coming a whole lot closer to the conclusion than that.

The concession of late goals in Europe was a Ronny Deila curse and, in Israel, on Tuesday, it looked like the hex was about to transfer to his successor, too.

The endgame showed that Hapoel's dominance of possession stood at 62%. They launched a total of 21 attempts on Celtic's goal - three times Celtic's number. Uefa have a statistic for what they call dangerous attacks - Hapoel had 50, Celtic had 18.

Uefa also have possession stats. Celtic's inability to hold on to the ball was palpably obvious - and almost completely ruinous - in real time, but the numbers are worth a visit in any event. No starting Hapoel player had a passing accuracy of less than 70%.

Nobody will have much heart for beating up on Craig Gordon after his outstanding late save in the first leg and his penalty save in the second, but his distribution is something that Brendan Rodgers is looking at and his accuracy figure on Tuesday was 26%. Of the 10 goalkeepers in Champions League action on Tuesday night, Gordon was the least economical with the ball at his feet.

Kieran Tierney's number was 55%, Mikael Lustig 59%, Scott Brown 62%, Callum McGregor 63%, Scott Sinclair 65%, Saidy Janko 69%. They can be better. They'll have to be.

Ben Sahar (left) scores with his first touch to give Hapoel Beer Sheva the lead
Ben Sahar (left) scores with his first touch to give Hapoel Beer Sheva the lead

Celtic gave away a penalty (it was not a penalty, but it was given) and they survived it. They conceded a goal after 21 minutes that was farcically soft, then conceded another after 48 minutes that had the hallmarks of Chaplin and Keaton rather than Janko and Gordon.

Celtic were in freefall at 2-0. They gave Hapoel easy possession and free headers on goal, they gave them space and time and invitations to shoot. Celtic were out-played and out-muscled. It was as if the humidity had not just impacted on their ability to run and pass, but their ability to think.

But they did not cave, that was the difference, the change to the narrative. They found enough resilience and resistance, like that boxer on the ropes, ducking and diving and doing all they can to see it out.

'Job done, but Celtic fans expect more big nights'

For the past seasons it has seemed that all that mattered to Celtic people was getting back to the Champions League. Qualification was the be-all and end-all, but it isn't, not really, not to Celtic supporters.

They say that making the group stage is 'job done' and 'mission accomplished' and while that seems like enough right now, it won't necessarily feel that way to the fans when the smoke clears in the coming weeks. They will not expect last 16, but they will expect something. Some big nights, some wins, some glory.

Saidy Janko (second left) had a tough 90 minutes for Celtic
Saidy Janko (second left) had a tough 90 minutes for Celtic

Neil Lennon got a lot of love for bringing Celtic to the group stage in 2013-14 - and then a lot of grief when Celtic fared poorly against Barcelona, Milan and Ajax, winning just one from six. The feel-good of qualification dissipates. Rodgers knows that.

He will know that he needs to plug some holes in his team. He needs another option to Lustig at right-back and needs another passer, or two, in his midfield for those exacting, but thrilling, Champions League games to come.

On Tuesday night, given the drama, he might also have needed a blast of oxygen. He would not have been alone in having an unnatural heart-rate in those closing minutes. Celtic fans would have been forgiven for lapsing into hyperventilation, blowing into a bag on the full-time whistle while applying a wet towel to their brow.

It was that kind of night. The beauty for the club is that there is now a promise of more of them.

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