Celtic continue to learn only harsh lessons in the Champions League. For the second game in succession, nobody could reasonably claim they were outplayed by RB Leipzig but the more ruthless team prevailed.
Timo Werner struck the initial blow to Ange Postecoglou and his team. Emil Forsberg added gloss to Leipzig’s victory. Celtic’s manager was short of integral resource and, contrary to cliche, it would be unfair to suggest his style was responsible for this result. Celtic are just finding games with the big boys tougher than they had imagined.
Nobody attended this fixture thinking they would witness anything approaching the mundane. Last week’s clash in Germany, which Leipzig won 3-1, was chaotically open. Defensive connoisseurs may have sniffed at that but it provided wonderful entertainment.
The sense of a rollercoaster ride was endorsed within seconds of kick-off, as Daizen Maeda flicked Reo Hatate’s cross narrowly over the bar. Leipzig responded via Dominik Szoboszlai, who volleyed just wide after David Raum’s excellent delivery.
Celtic’s desire to play on the front foot here was partly dictated by the fact they had precious little option. Oliver Abildgaard, a defensive midfielder signed for occasions such as these, was not deemed fit enough to start. Matt O’Riley and Hatate, who are both considerably more effective in the final third than the opening one, had to play as anchors. Leipzig spent the opening stages trying to expose Celtic’s forward-thinking instincts.
Instead, Celtic came the closer to an opening goal. O’Riley cracked a shot against a post from 20 yards, with Greg Taylor’s attempt from the rebound bouncing off the crossbar. Leipzig, initially so composed, had been creators of their own problems after Raum passed the ball straight out of play for a corner. As Kyogo Furuhashi headed narrowly over the visiting bar, Celtic Park believed this Champions League campaign had a pulse.
Celtic, already minus the influential Jota and their captain, Callum McGregor, owing to injury, watched Liel Abada limp off before the interval. Leipzig almost rubbed salt in the wound; Joe Hart produced a fine save to deny Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku.
Hart was called into action again within five minutes of the restart. After a spell in which Celtic failed time and again to clear their lines, the outstanding Amadou Haidara threaded a pass to Willi Orban. Hart smothered the centre-back’s low drive.
News that Shakhtar Donetsk had taken the lead against Real Madrid seemed to fuel the desire of the Celtic support. Three points, desirable before a ball was kicked against Leipzig, suddenly felt a necessity.
Szoboszlai almost piled on the agony. In a bizarre, slow motion moment after being sent through on goal the Hungarian slipped on his backside. Celtic mopped up the danger as Szoboszlai clambered back to his feet with red face. It summed up Leipzig’s evening to that point, which had included only traces of menace with half an hour to play.
Postecoglou soon rolled the dice. Furuhashi and Hatate, ordinarily key players, were among three withdrawn. The arrival of Giorgos Giakoumakis suggested a more direct approach. This, at a time when Leipzig were beginning to tighten their grip on the game. Mohamed Simakan was next to endanger Hart’s goal, with a shot which flew high and wide of the goalkeeper’s upright.
Hart breathed a sigh of relief after VAR adjudged he had not upended Nkunku inside the penalty area. The forward’s pace in almost reaching nothing more than a hopeful pass was quite the sight, but he was looking for the spot-kick long before tumbling to the turf.
The brief flurry of controversy soon paled into insignificance. Werner, who had been quiet until that point, banged a header beyond Hart from an André Silva byline cut-back. It was a majestic goal.
O’Riley blasted a shot which stung the palms of Janis Blaswich. Giakoumakis fluffed his lines at the back post. Enter Forsberg, who made no mistake when concluding a sweeping counterattack. Werner had turned creator. Yet another moment of brilliance summed up the difference between the two sides. Celtic must focus on the domestic front.