CELTIC could not have wished for much better preparation for the launch of their latest Champions League campaign than the 4-0 drubbing they administered to Rangers at Celtic Park.
According to the list of entrants for this season’s edition of the tournament, Rangers are a Champions League side, but on the evidence of the Glasgow Derby match at Celtic Park that is simply not the case. Celtic were so much stronger and quicker than their city rivals that an uninformed observer would never have guessed that both sides are part of the continent’s elite tournament.
Ange Postecoglou’s men rampaged through the Rangers defence time and time again, but this was not even Celtic at their peak. Had it been required, there was surely another gear the Celtic players could have used. They were on form, together in everything they did and ready for a challenge which never really came, but they never really had to go deep to show all that they have. Rangers were awful.
A five-point gap now stands between the two sides at this early stage of the season, and the direction of travel since Postecoglou really got to grips with his squad in the second half of last year shows that if things go to plan Rangers may soon be reminiscing about the heady days of the early part of the season when only single digits divided them.
Coming on the back of a 9-0 triumph away at Tannadice and a 4-1 cruise against Ross County in the League Cup, the firepower on show at Celtic is breathtaking, but more than that the pressure Celtic can bring to bear makes them a nightmare for opponents.
“I’m really proud of the players,” Postecoglou said after the match. “I know I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but it was an enormous effort today. We knew what was at stake. It was a big game and everybody was suggesting that it was our first real test, even though I thought we’ve had some tests already. But the boys showed that in such a big game, they’re able to perform at the highest possible level.
“I thought our defensive work was outstanding through the whole team. If there was one thing which was a stand-out today, it was our press, our ability to close them down and not give them time in any part of the field, including when they got into our box.
“They’re a good team and they proved they’re a good team because they’ve beaten some very good teams, so we knew that we had to be on it today, and that’s the one area I was really pleased about. We’re a good football team but we’re a hell of a pressing team as well.”
The real test comes just as The Irish Voice goes to press, with a Champions League curtain-raiser at home to European giants Real Madrid. Celtic will be unlikely to find any soft matches in this group, but with RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk completing the draw for them there are certainly games which can be targeted with some confidence.
Not since 1980 have Madrid faced Celtic, but the famous 2-0 win at Celtic Park looms large in Celtic folklore and shows what can be achieved in the red-hot atmosphere which the Celtic support can create.
The sense that something special awaits that Celtic support somewhere in the group stage is building, and with the run of form Postecoglou has delivered his players are rightly straining at the leash.
Speaking after the match about the role the supporters played in lifting the players, club captain Callum McGregor praised the mentality which saw Giorgios Giakoumakis come on as an early replacement for the injured Kyogo Furuhashi and instantly dominate his opponents.
“It was up there with the 3-0 game last season,” McGregor said. “It was bouncing out there, right from the warm-up it was bouncing and it really helped us today.
“The goals were great goals. It was our football and the way we want to play, the patterns of play we work on all the time. The first and third goals are things we do in training, so to see the things we work on every day translate on to the pitch is really positive.
“It just shows the mentality into the group. I spoke about that to Giakomouakis after the game, to come on after a minute in this fixture and play like that shows the mentality of the group.
“Everyone is together and knows their part, and when you get that structure it’s difficult to live with. The place is buzzing, supporters are going home happy, the group are happy and what a fixture on Tuesday night [against Real Madrid] to look forward to. We need to rest up well, recover and go again on Tuesday.”
The Champions League can be an unforgiving place to play football, but what has been built at Celtic in just over 12 months is remarkable, and who would bet against seeing performances at that level which are more remarkable still?