Evolving Celtic lay Champions League foundations

Celtic
Celtic's return of two points from three away games is their best Champions League group stage haul

Even if Nostradamus came back from the dead and applied all his psychic powers in the football world, the chances are that he would hold up his hands and admit defeat if asked to forecast what lays ahead of Celtic in Europe under Brendan Rodgers.

We know that the Celtic of September in Barcelona is not the Celtic of December in Manchester. We know that as a team they have gained confidence, if not a lot of points, in a very short space of time in Europe's pre-eminent club competition.

It's obvious that they have grown up these past few months, from the spooked innocents of the Nou Camp to the mature competitors we saw at Etihad Stadium.

We can't know where Celtic are going - Rodgers' budget in the transfer market and his luck in the draw should they make it back to this stage next season will have a lot to do with that - but we know something about where they have come from.

Sixteen months ago, they lost 2-0 to a modest Malmo side and crashed out of the Champions League in the qualifying stage. Their world seemed to be at an end. Now they have just completed the group stage - earning in the region of £23m - and their world is infinitely brighter.

Fifteen months ago they led Aberdeen 1-0 in a league match at Pittodrie before losing 2-1. Now they swat Aberdeen aside 3-0 in a cup final. Thirteen months ago they completed their double-header against Molde in the Europa League, losing 5-2 over two matches, and tried to dress it up as an unfair reflection of where they were at. It wasn't.

On Tuesday, they got a fully deserved draw in a Champions League match against a Manchester City team that might have been missing many stellar names but was still put together for a total of £92m with another £129m sitting on the bench.

Twelve months ago they went ahead against Motherwell at Celtic Park and lost 2-1. Now they go 2-0 down against Motherwell at Fir Park and win 4-3.

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Rodgers: Celtic have set standard

We can see the journey to this point very clearly. We can see the difference a good manager can make. Rodgers' calm authority, motivational excellence and tactical nous has galvanised things in a major way.

He's done it quickly and with not a lot of money. His starting line-up in Manchester only contained one player that wasn't around last season - Moussa Dembele. Much has been made of Dembele's capture and there is no doubt that it's been a coup. Much has also been made of the arrival of Scott Sinclair and he, too, has been a big success.

The major difference that the manager has made, though, has come not in the players he has signed but the players he has reinvented.

Maybe Scott Brown, now free of injury, would be playing with the authority of old no matter who his manager was this season, but Rodgers made him a special case from day one and has love-bombed him at every turn.

James Forrest was on his way out of the door at Celtic Park and has been yanked back in and restored to something approaching his best form, even if inconsistency still dogs him.

Stuart Armstrong looks a different player. Tom Rogic has upped his level. Celtic now have a partnership at centre-back that is bedding in nicely.

The irony of ironies here is that one of the few players who has gone backwards under Rodgers is the one who stood out under Ronny Deila. Leigh Griffiths remains in Dembele's shadow. It's easy to see why, but Griffiths has started just two games since returning from injury in September and has nine goals compared to 18 this time last season.

Scott Brown
Celtic captain Scott Brown has been revitalised under Brendan Rodgers this season

With 12 minutes left in Manchester on Tuesday, Griffiths, a second-half substitute, had a chance to put Celtic back in front but he snatched at it and the moment passed. You wondered then would the Griffiths of last season have done more with it.

This is a continuing challenge for Rodgers. Dembele is his young star, but he can't afford to let Griffiths' confidence drain away on the bench.

It would be easy - and a little unfair - to deride Tuesday's game. Of course it was a dead rubber. Of course City were missing some of their biggest guns. Nine of the players who lost to Chelsea last weekend didn't play against Celtic - among them Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva.

That still left Ilkay Gundogan, Nolito, Leroy Sane and Kelechi Iheanacho as the chief attackers and Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Pablo Zabaleta and Fernando as vastly experienced defensive players. Guardiola went with some youngsters but there was heaps of experience around them.

What was obvious on the night was how comfortable Celtic looked, how they played without any fear, any regard for the reputations of some of those they were playing against. Weakened or not, that City team would have done damage against Celtic last season.

Celtic's football has got better over the course of six games, but that couldn't have happened had their mentality not got better. They've come on a ton in that regard. They're a more robust side now. They believe in themselves more than they did before.

Leigh Griffiths
Striker Leigh Griffiths is struggling to find his best form

They could have beaten City. After Patrick Roberts burst through to score the opening goal, there was a Forrest-inspired chance for Dembele, then a penalty that should have been given for a foul on Roberts, then Griffiths had a chance, then Gary Mackay-Steven had the best chance of all, just seven minutes from the end.

City had opportunities as well, but it was hard to find a single soul at the game who thought they were better and deserved to win. What they were saying was that Celtic may not have won the match but they won respect. Across two contests with Guardiola's team they scored four times and went unbeaten.

A new attitude has taken hold under Rodgers. The great frustration comes in the eight months they must now wait for another shot at getting back to this level. In the meantime, Rodgers and his chief executive, Peter Lawwell, have much to talk about.

The manager has taken Celtic forward without having spent the earth. It only amounted to three draws from six games in the Champions League this season but consider those three points as a firm foundation for next season. Rodgers has prepared the ground. The challenge for the club is building on top of it.