“We’re not here just to be a support act,” Brendan Rodgers had said but this time Celtic were not even that good and in all probability they will not be here at all for much longer, slipping off the European bill entirely. A 6-0 defeat at Atlético Madrid not only leaves them virtually out of the Champions League, it has them bottom of Group E on a single point, little chance now of even dropping into the Europa League. Nor was it just the figures, it was the way this felt; two goals each from Antoine Griezmann and Álvaro Morata, plus one apiece for the substitutes Samuel Lino and Saúl Ñíguez, a shot count that read 27-1 underlining a huge gulf between these sides.
If the Celtic coach had been entitled to claim that his team deserved more than the point with which they arrived in Madrid, that they had their moments against Feyenoord, Atlético and Lazio and had surprised opponents with the “quality and intensity” of their football; if, in short, they had competed in their opening three games, here they did not. A superb Atlético side never let them. Nor it must be said, did they help themselves. According to Rodgers, a still image on a screen did not either, VAR claiming another victim.
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Atlético had won 15 consecutive games here, so it was going to be hard enough anyway. With 10 men for almost the entire night after Daizen Maeda was sent off early, it was impossible. “We’re not daft; we know we need to get a positive result,” Rodgers had said before the game; after it, never mind progressing, or parachuting into the Europa League, he talked about Celtic’s target being to beat last year’s points total. Any chance of extending their continental calendar beyond the last two games was gone almost as soon as this one started.
Rodgers felt that his side had begun well, but football here is a higher level, less forgiving too, and when Callum McGregor’s header fell to Griezmann on the edge of the area, he controlled and sent his first shot skidding into the net off Cameron Carter-Vickers’ boot. That had been avoidable, the Celtic coach said.
Five minutes in, Atlético were already a goal up. Five minutes later it might have been two, a wonderful sweeping move taking them from one area to the other, where McGregor had to block Rodrigo Riquelme. And five minutes after that, they were a man up as well, when the referee, Ivan Kruzliak, was called to the VAR screen to take a second look at a challenge from Maeda on Mario Hermoso, replacing the initial yellow with a red when he saw a set of studs planted on Hermoso’s shin.
Celtic’s Daizen Maeda is sent off by the referee, Ivan Kruzliak, after a VAR check. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
“That was a big turning point,” Rodgers insisted. “The first image he is shown is the foot up; that’s not representative of the actual challenge. You see the influence of the VAR: it feels more like a computer game, decisions are taken away from the field and into a room somewhere. He gets influenced and changes his mind. And then they scored some fantastic goals, from all angles.”
Until then, Maeda had appeared the player most likely to trouble Atlético – one superb nutmeg stood out, forcing Griezmann to snuff out the danger. From then, no one really did. Atlético took control and never relinquished it. Griezmann, in particular, glided. What a player he is, all things in all parts of the pitch. He and Riquleme combined superbly for a shot over soon after and repeatedly picked their way through with an apparent ease.
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Indeed, if there was a potential problem for Atlético it was that it might feel a little too easy. There was a warning while the lead was still a single goal when Morata almost sliced into his own net, forcing a sharp save from Jan Oblak. Besides, Griezmann insisted after, “the way to respect opponents is to compete, not to mess about” and it showed. Nahuel Molina volleyed wide, Morata scored but was offside and Joe Hart saved from Griezmann before they did get the second just before half-time. It was superb too. An outrageous 30-yard diagonal from Griezmann found José María Giménez to nod into the path of Morata to score.
Still they came, relentless. Hart saved from Ángel Correa. Next Giménez hit the bar. And then Griezmann turned sideways and connected with a lovely volley for the third. He was withdrawn to a standing ovation soon after, Riquelme joining him, his work here done. The ambition though remained: there was more fun to be had for the home fans, more suffering for the Celtic supporters. Griezmann had barely sat down when one of the men heading in the other direction, Lino, bent in a brilliant fourth. If that was well hit, Morata’s shot for the fifth was even better. Saúl then scored from considerably closer, the sixth goal reflecting an inescapable reality.