Rodgers: Win is proof of progress
Brendan Rodgers believes Celtic's progress over the last year was there for all to see in the 5-0 thrashing of Astana at Parkhead on Wednesday night.
The Hoops all but guaranteed themselves a place in the Champions League with a convincing first-leg win over the Kazakhstan champions.
Scotland's treble-winners beat Astana in the third qualifier last year but needed a stoppage-time penalty from Moussa Dembele to win 2-1 and go through 3-2 aggregate.
However, this time there was no anxiety after returning midfielder Tom Rogic's strike in the 31st minute was helped into his own net by defender Evgeni Postnikov.
Attacker Scott Sinclair notched a double, one either side of the break, winger James Forrest added a fourth and a drive from Leigh Griffiths took a deflection off Igor Shitov for number five and only a remarkable turnaround next Tuesday in Astana will see Celtic lose out on the reported £30million-plus riches from Champions League participation.
Rodgers, who took over from Ronny Deila last summer, said: "You look at the marked difference to when we won 2-1 last year.
"You see a clear difference, you see a maturity in the performance, an excitement, and a creation of chances.
"Tactically the players are thinking about football, not just going out and running about and hoping.
"They think about when we go in, when we are creative and also how we negate the strengths of the other team and that allows us to play the game to a better level with and without the ball."
Rodgers singled out midfielder Nir Bitton who again played at centre-half due to injury.
He said: "There were big questions asked about Nir Bitton, a lot of speculation.
"No one knows if he is good enough or not better than me.
"I wouldn't play him if I didn't think he was good enough. He makes less mistakes than many centre-halves that I see, who are actual centre-halves.
"I thought he was outstanding last night, defending, taking the ball to build and when he is pressed he has that ability to find a midfield player.
"So in this model he is absolutely perfect if needed, to play in that position.
"But the players deserve a huge amount of credit."
Celtic next face Kilmarnock tomorrow (live Sky Sports Football, KO 12.30) before the long trip to Astana for Tuesday's tie.
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