ZENIT ST PETERSBURG 3 CELTIC 0 (Agg:3-1)
SORRY Celtic pressed the self-destruct button to send a nerve-ridden team into European oblivion after an awful display against Zenit St Petersburg this evening.
There is no way of dressing up this latest failure on foreign shores. The players were bereft of the conviction and character that had seen them overwhelm the same opponents in Glasgow last week.
Tonight, though, in front of 50,492 spectators, they disappointed on a major scale and Brendan Rodgers will have to go into overtime with his team to restore confidence ahead of the dangerous trip to Pittodrie on Sunday to take on an Aberdeen side who enjoyed a midweek off.
The Parkhead men conceded in the eighth minute to nullify all the good work done at Parkhead to build a one-goal advantage for the second leg of this Europa League encounter.
It was a cheap goal to give away and it typified a poor display throughout the 90 minutes with too many of his team-mates failing to respond to skipper Scott Brown’s efforts to try to raise the spirits and bring purpose and character to proceedings.
When Aleksandr Kokorin got in behind Mikael Lustig, shockingly slow to react to the threat, to knock in No.3 beyond the unconvincing Dorus de Vries just after the hour mark it was the 13th goal the Hoops had lost in their last four away games in Europe – and that included a 3-0 win over Anderlecht in Brussels.
Craig Gordon conceded seven in Paris to PSG and three to Bayern in Munich. Tonight it was the turn of his deputy to lose three.
Frankly, that is not good enough. European dreams are not built on quicksand.
The misery started when Zenit forced a right-wing corner-kick after De Vries had pushed a low shot from Leandro Paredes round the post.
The same player took the award and swung it into the middle of the goalmouth. Alarmingly, no-one picked up Branislav Ivanovic and the giant Serb threw himself at the ball to head wide of the flapping De Vries from eight yards.
If the visiting defenders were red-faced after their futile attempts to cut out that danger, it was nothing to how their keeper felt in the 27th minute.
On this occasion, it was an absolute howler from De Vries that allowed the Russians to double their advantage.
The Dutch veteran made a complete mess of attempting to deal with a 30-yard right-foot drive from Daler Kuzyaev.
A space opened in front of the attacker as Anton Zabolotony knocked a throw-in on the left touchline into his path. No-one tracked his run and the defence was too slow to come out to shut him down.
He thumped in a happy-go-lucky shot with the ball moving in the air, but that shouldn’t have been enough to wrong-foot De Vries in such a manner.
He went to his right before frantically throwing out a left arm as the ball ripped into the middle of the goal.
The 37-year-old goalkeeper didn’t need anyone to tell him he should have done so much better as he sat dejected on the turf.
But it would be far too easy to simply point the finger of blame at De Vries. Too many players in front of him simply didn’t turn up.
Lustig is clearly toiling at right-back and his passing was fairly appalling, either too short, too long or lacking in precision.
Jozo Simunovic never took command of the backline, Kieran Tierney didn’t make the ponderous Ivanovic work too hard on his defensive side of the game, Eboue Kouassi, withdrawn at the interval for Tom Rogic, never looked too sure about his role in the formation and Moussa Dembele, although starved of service, still didn’t look sharp when the ball did arrive at his feet.
James Forrest tried hard as usual, but his night ended in the 70th minute when he was hooked for Charly Musonda. Presumably, the manager will want to make sure the winger is fit for Pittodrie.
Rodgers introduced Scott Sinclair only moments after some incredible lack of awareness in the 61st minute from Lustig at the back post allowed a cross from Ivanovic, still unburdened by anyone running at him and making him turn, swept into the danger zone.
De Vries elected to stay on his line and, as the Swede fatally hesitated, Kokorin slid in to knock the ball into the inviting net.
Celtic rarely troubled Andrei Lunev and most shots were either driven at him or were waywardly wide or over the crossbar.
Two minutes from the end, the ball broke in front of Sinclair four yards from goal, but he dithered for a split-second and the chance was lost.
Alas, that was the story of Celtic’s evening in St Petersburg.
CQN Man of the Match: Scott Brown
TEAM: De Vries; Lustig, Simunovic, Ajer, Tierney; Kouassi (sub: Rogic 46); Brown, Ntcham; Forrest (sub: Musonda 70), McGregor (sub: Sinclair 61); Dembele.