Celtic have crashed out of the Champions League after conceding four times to CFR Cluj of Romania in a frantic game in Glasgow.
Neil Lennon’s side were 2-1 behind on aggregate at half-time thanks to Cirpian Deac’s header, but seemed to have turned the tie around with goals from James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard.
Billel Omrani’s penalty gave Cluj the lead on away goals with 16 minutes left, and although Ryan Christie forced the hosts in front, Omrani and George Tucudean struck to seal Celtic’s fate.
It means the Scottish champions now drop into the Europa League play-off round, where they will play Moldovans Sheriff Tiraspol or Stockholm side AIK, with the Swedes having won 2-1 away in the first leg last week.
Celtic reached the last 32 of that competition last season, having been knocked out at the same stage of the Champions League by AEK Athens.
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‘Cluj exploited Celtic and grew amid chaos’
An abject night began with a selection by Lennon that had a few among the home support a tad perplexed. Callum McGregor, one of his most dynamic midfielders, was picked at left-back. Lennon said that he wanted as many “technicians” in his team as possible. What he needed was more resistance, more nous, more defensive discipline.
Lennon wanted McGregor and Olivier Ntcham on the field and the only way to do it was to pick the Scot in defence, he said. Of course the other theory is that his trust in his first-choice left-back, Boli Bolingoli, is not exactly complete. Regardless of the reason, McGregor played at the back and Celtic struggled their way through a testy opening half.
Cluj arrived with intent, physicality and pace up front. They pressed Celtic hard and fast and looked dangerous on the counter attack. When the heat came on them later on, they delivered big-time. A raucous stadium didn’t make them bat an eyelid. They grew amid the chaos. They exploited Celtic and all the acres of space they afforded them.
The goal that brought collective palpitations to Celtic Park came just before the half hour. From an innocuous position, a throw-in on the left touchline, Cluj engineered the opener with an awful lot of help from their hosts. Omrani went up the wing, away from Scott Brown, and swung in a cross that should have been dealt with comfortably. Instead, McGregor let Deac get across him and the Romanian outjumped him and saw his header go in off Scott Bain’s left-hand post.
As it stood, Celtic were out of the Champions League, a fate that brought a mixture of anxiety and anger to the stadium. Celtic looked unsettled. Their supporters sounded furious, not (yet) at their team as such but at Mario Rondon who, having already picked up a yellow card, then thundered into Kristoffer Ajer without sanction.
‘Nightmarish night of violent turbulence’
A fascinating game only became ever more compelling. Celtic came back out for the restart with a lot more urgency: Ajer’s header getting cleared off the line one minute, Jozo Simunovic’s header saved the next. The game was madcap. A wide open, toe-to-toe slugfest.
The equaliser was greeted like a long lost son, McGregor blasting down the left before squaring to Edouard, who dummied deftly and let it run to Forrest. The winger was cool and clinical. Celtic Park erupted.
They upped it from there, Hatem Elhamed’s cross squeezing between the hapless Paulo Vinicius and Andonie Burca to Edouard, who put Celtic in front. Just over an hour had gone and Celtic drove on to get another. Christie lashed one wide as the home team appeared to be setting sail for the Champions League play-off round.
The violent turbulence of the night started to kick in. From a corner, the ball carried to the back post and Scott Brown handled. Penalty. The silence that descended on the place was something else. Omrani stood up and lashed it past Bain to make it 2-2. Once again, Celtic were going out.
But, no. Two minutes later it switched again when Edouard burst through on the left side of the box and slipped it across to Christie, arriving ahead of all others. Christie tapped it home. On this crazy night, Celtic were through again. And then they were out again.
Cluj were like a prizefighter, behind on points but still possessing the firepower for a knockout. Under the cosh for so long, they broke out and Constantin Paun, under little pressure, fired a shot on Bain’s goal. The goalkeeper flung himself away to his right and parried it, but when the ball broke free there wasn’t a Celtic man in sight. All of them were posted missing.
The one player who was where he needed to be was Omrani, who lashed his shot high past Bain to make it 3-3. Cluj were going through. Celtic tried to save themselves, but couldn’t. They had six added minutes but it only got worse. As they tried to get a winner they conceded a loser, George Tucudean making it 4-3 with the game’s last kick.
A nightmarish night for Celtic. Truly awful. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A shot at the Europa League group stage is all that’s waiting for them now.
Man of the match – Billel Omrani
Omrani scored two and made one. Apart from that, he was a threat with his physicality and his pace. Celtic’s defence struggled with him periodically and when the ball broke loose in the game’s pivotal moment none of them were anywhere near him. He was the only man on the pitch alive to what was going on. More than anybody, Omrani was the one who did the damage.