Celtic 3-4 Cluj (Agg: 4-5): Neil Lennon’s side dumped out of Champions League
Celtic have been knocked out of the Champions League in the third qualifying round after a 4-3 home defeat to Cluj saw them lose 5-4 on aggregate.
The Romanian champions put Celtic’s backline under intense pressure early on, and Ciprian Deac’s glancing header gave Dan Petrescu’s team a deserved lead.
After being sloppy in the first half, Celtic were scintillating after the break as they turned the tie on its head inside 15 minutes. James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard both produced classy finishes to put Celtic in front.
Scott Brown’s bizarre handball then gifted Cluj a penalty which was converted by Billel Omrani, but Ryan Christie restored Celtic’s lead with 13 minutes left.
However, Omrani equalised again with a tremendous finish, after Scott Bain’s parry fell kindly to him in the box, before George Tucudean clipped home the winner on the night in the sixth minute of stoppage time, prompting boos from the home support.
Celtic now drop into the Europa League play-off, where they will face Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova or AIK of Sweden. It’s the second successive season the Scottish champions have fallen at this stage, after last year’s defeat to AEK Athens. The frustration this time is that they had the tie well under control in the second half, only to let their lead slip not once, but twice.
Having spent over £10m on three defenders during the summer, Lennon left two of them on the bench. Left-back Boli Bolingoli, who endured a torrid evening in the first leg in Transylvania, was dropped, with Callum McGregor slotting into the defence. Christopher Jullien was also among the substitutes, as Jozo Simunovic and Kris Ajer started at centre-back.
Petrescu had rested his first-choice XI at the weekend, and the recalled team started fast, knowing they had to score to stand a chance in the tie. Camora tested Bain with an early snap shot, before the Cluj bench were then off their feet in outrage looking for a penalty, as McGregor challenged Deac at the back post – but the Latvian referee was unmoved.
As in the first leg, play was stretched, with the home team playing virtually on the counter-attack as Cluj pressed high on their defenders. When they got behind the press, Forrest and Michael Johnston had plenty of room to run from deep, and it was Johnston who had Celtic’s first real chance, firing a shot wide from the edge of the box after 25 mins.
Sixty seconds later, Cluj silenced Celtic Park, as Deac jumped above McGregor to flick a header in off the far post, putting the Romanian champions ahead in the tie. On the balance of play, it was a deserved lead, with Celtic unable to get a grip on proceedings.
Christie seemed most likely to inspire, but his cross was flicked over by Edouard, who should have done better eight yards out. Forrest then weaved his way past a bunch of defenders, but the angle was tight as he dragged his shot into the side-netting. It was uninspired stuff from the Scottish champions, as Cluj reached half-time with goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis not needing to make a save.
Within a minute of the restart, Arlauskis was called upon twice, punching clear Ajer’s header before getting down low to palm Simunovic’s effort away. Celtic had upped the tempo, and they soon got their reward.
Once again it was Forrest who struck, after he had scored the equaliser in the first leg. McGregor’s cross was dummied by Edouard, allowing the winger time to coolly step inside the left-back, before he hammered the ball into the top corner with the outside of his right foot.
The tie was now on a knife-edge, with both teams leaving themselves open. Edouard slammed Christie’s cross wide when well placed; Cluj then surged forward and Bain was forced to block Omrani’s shot – one more goal for the visitors would leave Celtic requiring three to win.
As the decibel level rose, Edouard broke the tie open, guiding the ball into the far corner after Elhamed’s cross was missed by Burca. Cluj were tiring, and Christie nearly made it 3-1 with a powerful drive that flashed just wide. The Romanians appeared to be on the ropes, but then Brown’s handball gave them a route back into the tie on 72 minutes.
The Celtic captain needlessly stuck a hand in the air at the back post to deflect a ball away from Rondon, when it was hard to see how the striker would have controlled the ball. Omrani’s run-up took an age, but his finish was low under Bain’s right hand.
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