BRENDAN Rodgers has insisted Celtic have made significant progress in Europe despite losing five of their six Champions League group games this season – but admitted they will have to perform far better when they enter the Europa League in February.
The Glasgow club booked a place in the knockout rounds of the Europa League on Tuesday night despite playing poorly in their final Group B match against Anderlecht at Parkhead and being beaten 1-0.
They will go into the last 32 draw at Nyon in Switzerland on Monday along with the likes of AC Milan, Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Lazio, Sporting Lisbon and Villarreal due to having a better head-to-head record than their Belgian rivals.
Rodgers was deeply unhappy with how his team acquitted itself during the first half of their meeting with Hein Vanhaezebrouck’s side and acknowledged their passing in particular will have to be of a far higher standard in future if they hope to compete.
Still, the Northern Irishman is adamant Celtic would not have dealt with the situation they found themselves in as professionally as they did when he took over and stressed that remaining involved in Europe was an accomplishment that should be celebrated.
“It is a brilliant achievement for us,” he said. “We have to be clear about that. On Tuesday night we saw the level that even Anderlecht are at and the quality that they have. For us to come through the group and get into the Europa League is a big achievement for us.
“We had some good performances. I thought we played really well against Bayern Munich at home. Away we got the result against Anderlecht which has now be shown to be a fantastic result.
“Yes, we have had some lessons along the way as well. But we should, particularly given where we are at domestically, take huge pride as players and as a club to be in the Europa League in February.
“I don’t want to be too negative. We are disappointed that we lost the game, but how we stuck in there was good. That mentality that we have built up over a period of time got us through the game.
“There has been a huge psychological shift in the team. We went 1-0 behind, but we still stayed calm. We also had to change the shape of the team to try and block out the central area of the pitch while giving us enough cover behind. Tactically and psychologically we were good in that moment not to fall away. But, of course, I will always demand us to be better in possession.”
Celtic may not be drawn to face a Bayern Munich or a Paris Saint-Germain in the knockout rounds of the Europa League, as they were in the group stages of the Champions League, but they could still be paired with a club from a major footballing nation next week.
Rodgers anticipates, though, that his players will acquit themselves better than they did against Anderlecht whoever they are pitted against.
“We will play against a tough opponent,” he said. “Let us learn the lessons from the six games we have had here. We want to be better, we want to improve. We have made strides in the last 18 months which have been incredible really. They have absolutely earned the right to go there.
“We have qualified for the Europa League last 32 where the club hasn’t been for a number of years and are disappointed we have lost the game. That is a really good sign for me. It is good that we put that demand on ourselves to be better. When it comes around in February we will be better again.”
Rodgers revealed he had relished the challenge he was faced with on Tuesday night as Anderlecht, who needed to win 3-0 to book a Europa League place, immediately took control as Celtic struggled to gain a foothold in the game.
“I enjoy that side of it, the in-game management,” he said. “It was getting away from us in that early stage of the game. I could see very quickly the rhythm of the game. We weren’t passing it well enough. We were getting rid of it instead of passing it and there is a huge difference.
“We changed the structure to keep it together and get us through to half-time at 0-0. Then we brought on two players who could keep the ball better than the two players who came off were doing. So that allowed us to be better in the second half and enjoy longer spells with the ball than we had done. It also allowed us to play the shape we wanted to.
“Okay, we lost the own goal. We could have been better in that moment. But we stayed calm. We knew if we had conceded another one then we would have been under real pressure. They didn’t have too many opportunities and we had a couple of chances we could have done better with ourselves.
“I felt a lot more comfortable in the second half in terms of our ability to keep the ball. That is absolutely vital at this level. We had too many players giving the ball away cheaply. We were technically short. We are not always technically short, but on Tuesday night we were technically short. This is a level where if you cannot look after the ball you get punished. But it is job done and see you in February.”