Scotland in Europe – UEFA Champions League Match Week One
Written by Cameron Steer
It’s been a while since Scottish football fans were able to witness our two domestic giants compete in the UEFA Champions League, fifteen years in fact, but this week we were treated to seeing Glasgow Rangers and Glasgow Celtic begin their group stage campaigns together for the first time since 2007 with Celtic facing defending European Champions Real Madrid, and Rangers squaring off against Ajax, the champions of Holland last season. So with their work cut out for them, let’s talk about how Scotlands two biggest clubs fared in their deserved return to the highest level of European Football.
First up was another magical Champions League night under the lights at Paradise (Parkhead Stadium) as Celtic hosted the last season’s Champions of Spain, and defending Champions of Europe, Real Madrid, the most successful team in the history of this tournament. Celtic knew that they would have to be perfect on the night to challenge Los Blancos, and that a performance of anything less could have threatened to be dangerous. However, the hosts put on quite the show for their fans, Celtic absolutely going toe to toe with the European Giants for the entire first half, matching their energy, intensity and quality seamlessly. Jota on the left wing for Celtic was a job to watch, the skillful Portuguese attacker looked in flow against Caravajal down the Real Madrid flank and caused chaos at times for Real Madrid, leaving them in some very uncertain defensive situations at times.
I thought that the Celtic defence in the first half was tremendous in containing the Real Madrid attack, and especially the pace of Vinicius who provided a consistent threat throughout the match. Celtic should have really taken the lead as captain Calum Mcgregor saw his powerful strike cannon back off of the woodwork of the Real Madrid goal, just inches away from giving the hosts a well deserved lead in my opinion. Celtic were helped by Karim Benzema picking up an injury to his knee and having to be substituted from the field of play. Though Real Madrid lost their talisman, he was replaced by Eden Hazard whose quality changed the game as well as the style in which Real Madrid played. Even with the style and tempo of the game kept ebbing and flowing, both sides continued to have a good go at each other in a highly competitive affair, fizzling out into stalemate at the break.
The burning question for me as the game entered the half time break was, are Celtic going to be able to keep up this incredible intensity and quality throughout the second half to continue to match that of Real Madrid. Honestly, for the opening ten minutes or so of the half Celtic looked as if they had transferred their first half form through the break with ease, and really should have taken the lead through Japanese international Daezen Maeda, as the ball arrived at his feet from an inch perfect cross from right back Juranovic. However he miscued his shot as it appeared to take him by surprise, scuffing a volley into the Real Madrid goalkeeper’s grateful hands. This was Celtic’s second golden chance to snatch a result from Los Blancos, and it was the second one squandered. As many of Europe’s Elite know, if you don’t take your chances against Real Madrid, you open the door for them to punish you. Sadly for the Celtic players who had worked their socks off all night under the lights of Parkhead, this is exactly what transpired as the visitors took control and stamped their authority on the fixture.
It was the Brazilian speedster Vinicius Junior who broke the deadlock in the fifty-sixth minute of the game as he arrived in the box at the exact right time to connect with and cooly slot home a teasing cross from Federico Valverde which just snuck past the reach of an outstretched leg of a Celtic defender to put the hosts a goal down. After finding the back of the net, it appeared Real were energised and fluid in their play, looking like a threat everytime they attacked the wilting Celtic. Just four minutes following the opening goal, Real Madrid had doubled their lead over Celtic as captain Luka Modric curled home an elegant outside of the boot shot as the ball rebounded to his feet about eight yards from the Celtic goal.
At 2-0 the game looked to be wrapped up in Real Madrid’s favour, however Celtic continued to put up a fight in front of their home fans, with their substitutes making a difference to the wilting energy of the game. As is the cruel nature of the beautiful game of football however, Celtics hard work to get back into the game only hindered them further as they were left wide open at the back for Real Madrid to fashion a well made tap in chance for Eden Hazard who knocked the ball home from about 6 yards out, after this Real were really able to coast it out to the end of the game, fully in the driver’s seat with no worries at all. In the end despite an incredible effort and stern fight from Celtic throughout, the class of Real Madrid just proved to be too much for the hosts, the final score Celtic 0-3 Real Madrid.
Rangers were the visitors in matchweek one of this Champions League season which meant a tough trip to Amsterdam to face an inform Ajax side who have won all five of their opening league matches, the venue, The Johan Cruyff Arena. After Celtic’s unfortunate result yesterday against Real Madrid, I was hoping not to see Scotland’s other bid in European football meet a similar fate. Unfortunately for Rangers, it was also a night to forget on their return to the champions league as they quickly found themselves on the receiving end of a first round beatdown by the Dutch champions. I would say that there was a period of about fifteen minutes at the start of the game where Rangers looked as if they would give Ajax a real good go in the match, after warming into it. Unfortunately, it was the hosts striking first, and who were then reluctant to take their foot of the gas.
The man to break the deadlock was Ajax’s midfield general Edson Alvarez who thundered home a commanding header from a corner to open the scoring for the game in the seventeenth minute but even at that, the game still felt pretty open for both sides. What really got Ajax rolling was when Steven Berghuis doubled the lead in the thirty-second minute with a bit of fortune as his left footed shot crashed off of Rangers defender James Sands to elude the goalkeeper and creep past his outstretched leg. This deflection seemed to really deflate the Rangers mood. Their play seemed to suffer tremendously as well as their confidence, leading to lower intensity and energy, poor marking and some frequent mistakes which must be said were out of character. It was this breakdown which led to Ajax scoring a third first half goal just a minute after their second to really put the game out of reach. The goal came from a tremendous run from young Ghanain international Mohammed Kudus, who was my man of the match. He took on Rangers captain Tavenier, beating him for strength and outpacing him to create half a yard for him to smash the ball across goal, off the post and in. This tremendous strike just ten minutes before half time for me was the moment of the match, it was just one of those goals that made your jaw drop!
The Rangers players would have been relieved to hear the halftime whistle and have the chance to regroup. Truthfully, the half time break really must have helped the group, as they came out in the second half and appeared to put up a bit more of a fight. I couldn’t truly work out whether the game levelled out because Ajax finally took the foot off the gas or if it was purely based on the Rangers players stepping it up a level. Either way the second half was a completely different picture painted than the first, with the game going end to end and looking like a far more balanced affair. The only difference between the two sides was that killer instinct, and Steven Bergwijn certainly showed this with ten minutes to go to add a fourth for Ajax to really stamp their authority on the game. This appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for Rangers on an opening night to forget in Amsterdam as it seemed that their players were longing for the final whistle to come for the closing stages of the game. Full time score Ajax 4-0 Rangers.
To be completely honest, as a fan of Scottish football, I felt enormous pride watching Celtic go toe to toe with the biggest club in the world for as long as they did, I really think that Celtic could have gotten out of Parkhead with a historical win, had they had better fortune with their two clear cut chances. In the end, it really is true, that if you don’t punish Real Madrid, they will punish you.
After Rangers’ successful European run in the Europa League last year was an absolute joy, and while their campaign didn’t get off to a great start either in the Champions League, I think that as scottish football fans we just have two appreciate that two of our teams have made it to Europe’s Elite, and are doing a pretty good account of ourselves as a footballing country, especially considering Rangers and Celtic do not play teams of this quality every week! I choose to remain positive and hopeful that both teams will enjoy good seasons in Europe, and will look forward to watching them both going forward this campaign.