Real Betis 4 (Miranda 32′ Juanmi 34′, 53′ Inglesias 50′) Celtic 3 (Ajeti 13′ Juranovic (P) 27′ Ralston 87′)
It’s a result for which Ange Postecoglou has never made apologies. Celtic held an early two goal lead away from home against the more-fancied Real Betis in their opening Europa League fixture, pressed for more, and left empty handed at 4-3.
Celtic were the better side for much of the match but suffered five-minute periods in either half where they were totally at the mercy of Betis, who flexed muscle to establish a four-goal swing before sweating through the final stages.
It had all the hallmarks of the early stages of a Postecoglou project: exhilarating, frustrating, promising, disappointing. Clubs that stay the course always reap benefits, but never before a good deal of patience.
A combustible first half saw both sides commit numbers forward with gusto at the expense of defensive responsibility. Even as Albian Ajeti’s chest and Josip Juranovic’s penalty swept Celtic to their lead, Postecoglou fist-pumping on the touchline, they were leaning on goalkeeper Joe Hart at the other end.
Manuel Pellegrini fielded an admittedly second-string lineup with his focus on La Liga but could still call upon Joaquin, in his 13th European campaign, to fire his teammates into action.
The 40-year old was incensed with their early deficit, and the referee, and there was an air of inevitability as Juan Miranda barged through the box from right-back to pull one back. They then equalised with one for the highlights reel; a total dissection of Celtic’s high line saw Borja Inglesias square up for Juanmi, easy as they come.
Another five minute patch in which everything they touched turned to goals took place early in the second half as Juanmi added his second and Inglesias grabbed one for himself, Celtic momentarily rattled.
Postecoglou has only been at Celtic since June, but European football moves fast and four of his starting back five including Hart have signed during his tenure. It will be difficult to pass the defending off as a layover from a previous era, although it was the odd man out in Tony Ralston who looked most at sea.
In fairness Ralston huffed and puffed and went some way to repaying the damage, scoring his third of the season from a header late in the piece to put Betis back on alert through the closing stages.
In positive signs for Celtic (and the Socceroos) Tom Rogic continued his sublime form, leading the Betis midfielders a dance each time he found himself on the ball. He was central to the move that won the penalty, and two other near misses. To his right Benfica loanee Jota proved a constant threat and should have no problem in Europe going forward, let alone Scotland.
Celtic also keenly felt the absence of skipper Callum McGregor and Liel Abada, through injury and religious reasons respectively. McGregor’s energy would have been useful when Betis took control, and Abada’s replacement Adam Montgomery battled.
Postecoglou may also rue his decision to start academy product Ismaila Soro at the base of midfield ahead of the more experienced James McCarthy. Soro was lucky to stay on the pitch in the first half and was run ragged at stages.
‘Mixed emotions, really proud of the players. Against a quality opponent we took the game to them and had our moments where we could have got away from them. Unfortunately we didn’t do that and then they’ve got some quality up front that punished us’, Postecoglou said.
‘I couldn’t ask any more of the players, the football we played was exactly the kind of team we want to be. There’s still some areas to improve but when you come away from home and score three goals and created many more chances apart from that, I think moving forward there’s some good signs there.’
‘We’re trying to build resilience with this group, we don’t want to make excuses. We want to be a certain kind of football team irrespective of the circumstances and that’s what the players showed today.’
In Group G’s other match Bayer Leverkusen defeated Hungarian side Ferencvarosi TC 2-1. Celtic’s next European match will be at home to Leverkusen on October 1, while Betis will travel to Hungary.