Scottish Daily Mail
A SLUGFEST IN PARADISE
Celtic and City trade blows in a classic
IT was an embrace born of mutual respect. When the final whistle blew on an engrossing, remarkable game of football, Pep Guardiola and Brendan Rodgers came together like a couple of heavyweight sluggers.
For 90 minutes, Celtic and Manchester City exchanged haymakers with brutal intent. When it all ended, Scotland’s champions came off the ropes, bruised, bloodied and intact.
Say this for the Parkhead side. The financial chasm between these clubs is unbridgeable. Yet this was a night when Rodgers and his team contrived to ask more questions of Pep’s City in 25 minutes than the rest of the English Premier League have managed in six games.
The SPFL is routinely derided south of the border as a pub league. Yet City were denied a record here as they sought to match the 11-victory start to a season racked up by Tottenham’s double winners in 1960-61.
In a high-tempo start, Celtic scored their quickest-ever goal in the Champions League group stage.
The first team to go in front against Guardiola’s £400million team, they actually held the lead three times. In City’s 10 games so far this term, no other side has scored twice against the Etihad team.
After the embarrassment of Barcelona, then, here was Celtic’s atonement.
It was a pulsating, thrilling, no-holds-barred game of football played out in an unrivalled atmosphere. Celtic took the energy and mayhem pouring down from the stands and channelled it.
They snapped at City’s heels. They got in their faces. They pressed and harried and played some terrific football. This was no rope-a-dope, backs-to-the-wall night of toil. Far from it.
For long spells here, Celtic slugged it out, landing decisive punches. During those opening exchanges, City looked punch-drunk.
The opening goal came in the third minute during a whirlwind start from the home team.
Scott Sinclair, one of three former City players in the home XI, picked out James Forrest with a long, diagonal free-kick.
The winger’s first-time ball across a crowded box was nodded towards goal by Erik Sviatchenko, but the final ricochet off the chest of Moussa Dembele turned it past Claudio Bravo.
Against all expectations, Celtic were ahead. Guardiola’s team looked stunned.
Kolo Toure almost made it two just minutes later, turning with his back to goal to direct a Sinclair free-kick towards Bravo, only for the keeper to push it wide. On a night when supporters trudged through torrential rain nursing a sense of foreboding, there were people now rubbing their eyes.
No one harboured any illusions, though. With a squad assembled at a cost of £420million, City were nobody’s idea of cannon fodder. Weakened, unquestionably, by the loss of Kevin de Bruyne and — more than anyone — captain Vincent Kompany, their fragility in defence was offset by their clinical precision in midfield and attack.
An ability to capitalise on the slightest mistake from Celtic in midfield characterised their gritty determination to fight their way back from going behind three times.
And yet, there was nothing silky about their first goal in 11 minutes.
It owed much to a slice of good fortune, when — with only their second incursion into the Celtic half — Aleksandar Kolarov mis-hit a shot from the edge of the box. It might have gone anywhere. The misfortune for the home team was that it fell to Fernandinho instead.
One touch to steady and another to finish levelled the scores. It was rough on Celtic. To their credit, they refused to wallow in self pity. Relentlessly, they came again.
Tom Rogic — who had a fine game before being replaced by Stuart Armstrong — curled a free-kick inches wide of Bravo’s post.
The Australian’s most telling contribution had yet to come in 19 minutes, however, Celtic scoring a marvellous second.
It began with neat footwork on the halfway line from Nir Bitton. The Israeli, a former Manchester City trialist, played a pass which allowed Rogic to use his upper body strength. Celtic’s playmaker resisted the urge to play Sinclair through and delayed his pass for an overlapping Kieran Tierney on the left flank.
There was good fortune in what happened next. The left-back’s shot took a wicked break off the toe of Raheem Sterling and spun past Bravo. Making his 50th appearance, it was a strike which confirmed the teenager has what it takes to compete at this level. If anyone ever doubted it.
Credit Manchester City with a dogged refusal to be spooked by the intensity of Celtic Park.
Guardiola’s multi-talented team have blitzed English opposition and thumped Borussia Monchengladbach 4-0 in their opening game. They were being asked here to draw on some different qualities.
They levelled again in 28 minutes. It was a shame for Dembele, who justified his hype with another fine display. Nevertheless, the French striker’s short pass to Scott Brown left the captain little chance of repelling David Silva, whose superb ball for Sterling presented the chance to tuck a composed, patient finish past Craig Gordon for 2-2.
The half-time whistle was timely for Celtic. Spending the final third of the first half retreating deeper, it was natural to wonder if they could possibly maintain the staggering intensity of the opening half hour.
Remarkably, they went ahead for a third time shortly after the restart.
All but hanging a neon sign to draw EPL clubs to the light, Dembele — a bargain signing from Fulham — claimed his 12th goal in 16 games. Again, Guardiola’s team were ropey in defence.
A Forrest cross from the left flank was poorly dealt with by Kolarov. When it fell to Dembele, he had work to do. With his back to goal, however, the striker hooked it beyond Bravo into the corner of the net for 3-2. Celtic Park’s foundations could have crumbled in that instant and no one would have noticed.
We should have known better, of course. This was an extraordinary game of football. One where City refused to accept their fate.
Their equaliser was delightful and deserved. A dinked Fernandinho pass through for Sergio Aguero was sublime. You fancied the Argentine talisman to bury it. Not for the first time, however, Gordon justified his return in place of Dorus de Vries by parrying the ball out. His misfortune was the lurking presence of the excellent Nolito. City were level. Yet again.
It took every ounce of Celtic energy in the dying stages of the game. Besieged by a team wearing a live contender for the most objectionably garish away kit of all time, the home team dug in. They prayed for a point.
Fernandinho’s rasping strike from 25 yards sailed inches over the bar. Celtic’s vim and vigour was fading, but Gordon sustained them into added time with an instinctive stop from a certain Ilkay Gundogan goal.
Celtic had their point. Something to build on ahead of Borussia Monchengladbach’s trip to Glasgow in three weeks. God knows, they deserved it.