At once a genuinely unique occasion, and also a relatively routine win for Real Madrid. Celtic Park joyously showcased the deafening decibel levels a Champions League night should reach, but the European champions reminded them of the level required to actually compete.
Those last few words are why there is absolutely no shame to this 3-0 defeat for Celtic, who should instead be proud of the manner of their performance.
This is just the modern Champions League. Ange Postecoglou has also ensured it’s a very modern Celtic.
They put it up to Madrid more than Chelsea did at home last season, or even Paris Saint-Germain in the second half at the Bernabeu. There were long periods – and some tantalisingly thrilling moments – where it seemed like something even more special could be happening. Celtic had the chances. It’s just, since they didn’t take them, Madrid were always going to have the decisive quality.
It was a vintage European night in that way, too. If you don’t take your chances, the best sides will punish you.
Shortly after Daizen Maeda had missed the best opportunity of the game, Madrid decided that Celtic had enough chances.
Vinicius Junior – and then Luka Modric and Eden Hazard – went and applied a bit of reality to an occasion that had fired the imagination.
It was why, for all the clinical quality of Madrid’s goals, the highlight of the game came before it even started. That was the deafening roar that greeted the Champions League anthem and continued right through it, complete with a light show. There’s rarely been anything like it. It certainly made quite a difference from the number of stadiums that boo it.
It was about something much bigger than any individual grievances. Celtic fully appreciate what it means to be here. That roar wasn’t just a celebration of returning to the Champions League after five years away. It was an appreciation of 67 years of history, of which this club have formed such a mythical part.
Postecoglou certainly had them playing to live up that legacy. There was no doubt, hesitation or anything like fear of the European champions. There was only the healthiest of disrespect, as Celtic displayed so much that is good about Postecoglou’s football. They were both intense and intricate, Reo Hatate suddenly cutting a hole in the Madrid backline with a precise ball after a flurry of pressing. Callum McGregor then almost blew the game open with one thunderbolt off the inside of the post from distance.
There was a point when Toni Kroos had to get on the ball and slow the game down, just to try and disrupt Celtic’s energy.
On a night that had so many echoes of the 1960s, Postecoglou’s side played with the adventure that typified the era.
That couldn’t completely overcome the traits of the modern game. While Madrid had stars that are seeking to win the World Cup, Celtic had players at different stages of their careers, such as Liel Abada and then Daizen Maeda.
While both carried out their roles with rigour, there were some signs of the height of the occasion affecting their game. Abada got in behind three times only for his basic execution to let him down.
What a moment it would have been had the Israeli striker carried the emotional momentum of the build-up right into that electric first Celtic attack. With the stadium ready to erupt, Abada finished erratically.
Maeda, on at half-time, was no better in a similar position. After Josip Juranovic had drilled a volley across goal, the substitute could only fumble his finish.
So, with Celtic having admirably put it up to Madrid, the European champions decided it was time to bring them back down to earth.
The relentless Federico Valverde first gave a rather literal illustration of Madrid’s strength by winning the ball in the centre of the pitch and then purposefully striding forward. In a similar move to the goal that won the Champions League final, Valverde exquisitely swerved the ball across the area, for Vinicius to so clinically slide the ball into the corner.
Madrid were now in the mood, and Hazard was getting into form. On for the injured Karim Benzema in what was the Spanish side’s one negative note on the night, the Belgian playmaker might have given them a big positive.
It might have only been against Celtic, but this was the sort of display that has been missing in his time in Madrid. His first big moment was admittedly more about Modric’s finish. After Hazard had careered his way through the centre, the Croatian took the ball to take the breath away, once more showing the decisive deftness of the outside of that right foot.
Following a goal of such individual brilliance, Madrid then conjured something of collective brilliance: A flowing, passing move of course went through Kroos, who of course picked out Dani Carvajal with a lofted ball. Celtic had been opened up, as Hazard shut it down.
Through it all, the Parkhead crowd kept singing, at quite a noise. The big teams just keep winning, though.
It is the irony of what an occasion like this was so precious, and yet still predictable. That’s the modern Champions League. Celtic at least illustrated they have the most modern of managers, well suited to vintage European nights.