By CRAIG GAMBLE
THE curtains have now come down on Celtic’s exploits on the continent this season.
Last night’s very creditable 1-1 draw away to English giants Manchester City was the final act in what has been a Champions League campaign of mixed emotions for the Hoops.
A quick glance at the final group standings tells you that Brendan Rodgers’ men finished bottom of their group with no wins and a goal difference of -11, but it doesn’t tell you the full story.
Draws at home and away against Pep Guardiola’s multi-million pound City stars and a share of the spoils in Germany against Borussia Moenchengladbach were all games that Celtic could well have taken three points from.
After a 7-0 thumping at the hands of Barcelona in the first group game, the Hoops redeemed some pride with their performances over the next five fixtures – and for the Parkhead faithful, there are still reasons to be cheerful.
Here, we take a look at five players who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Europe’s elite – and helped prove that the Scottish champions can compete on the big stage.
1. Moussa Dembele
Celtic’s £500k summer signing has been a standout performer in this season’s Champions League. His last minute penalty against Astana in qualifying seemed to kickstart the French hitman’s season – and he’s gone from strength to strength. A double against Manchester City in an exhilarating 3-3 draw followed, before the ex-Fulham striker netted again from the spot away to Moenchengladbach on Matchday Four. His performances have seen his price tag go through the roof, with even Pep Guardiola refusing to rule out a £30million swoop for the Hoops’ prized possession.
2. Scott Brown
The Celtic skipper’s performances in Group C have drawn plaudits from pundits and fans alike. Under Rodgers, Brown has been playing arguably the best football of his career this season which seemed unlikely after an injury-plagued last two years.
Brown grabbed a goal in the 5-2 win over Hapoel Beer Sheva in qualifying, but it’s his distribution that has been most impressive. The midfielder has played in every minute of Celtic’s campaign and has completed 393 of his 411 attempted passes, a completion rate of 95%. Of all the players who have haven’t missed a second of action so far in the competition, only Marquinhos of PSG has a better pass completion rate.
3. Tom Rogic
The Australian playmaker is fast emerging as one of Brendan Rodgers’ key players. He has added goals to his game this season and set the Hoops on their way to the 5-2 demolition of Beer Sheva in qualifying when he opened the scoring after nine minutes. The Celtic number 18 is central to most threats they carry and it was his sublime through ball that set up Kieran Tierney whose deflected shot put the Bhoys 2-1 up against Manchester City at home. Another player who Celtic will hope to keep hold of for their Champions League exploits next season.
4. James Forrest
Forrest is another player who is certainly enjoying life under Rodgers at the moment. The winger hasn’t been immune from criticism from the Parkhead faithful over the years, but they have been singing his praises this season. Forrest, Rogic and another Rodgers summer signing, Scott Sinclair, formed an attacking midfield three that can ask questions of any defence on their day. Last night, the experienced Bacary Sagna had his work cut out down the right hand side against the 25-year-old Scot, who showed once again that he can compete on Europe’s grandest stage.
5. Erik Sviatchenko
We hear you – how can a defender be a standout player if Celtic finished with a goal difference of -11? But, the Danish defender has turned in composed performances this campaign against some of the world’s top strikers. He’s also chipped in at the other end too – it was his header that Moussa Dembele deflected into the back of the net to give Celtic the perfect start against Manchester City. It seems that the 25-year-old stopper has become one of the first names on Brendan Rodgers’ team sheet, with the Hoops gaffer opting for defensive partnerships of either Sviatchenko and Kolo Toure, or Sviatchenko and Jozo Simunovic.