CLUJ 2 CELTIC 0
NEIL LENNON fielded a team that had never played before in Romania tonight – and they performed like a team of strangers as they slid to defeat.
It was an evening, in fact, when they did not have a worthwhile shot on target.
Celtic lost their first Europa League group E encounter at the sixth hurdle when it didn’t really matter, so you can’t be too hard on the section winners on this occasion.
It was a disjointed display in Transylvania as the Hoops were beaten – and outmuscled – for the second time this season against Dan Petrescu’s crafty old side with an average age of just under 30.
It all fell apart for the visitors after the interval when the defence went to sleep twice – and the home outfit capitalised on both occasions. Unfortunately, returning left-back Boli Bolingoli was at fault on both goals.
ON THE RUN…Christopher Jullien races after Lacina Traore.
IT TAKES TWO…Jullien v Traore in another tussle.
The first arrived three minutes after the turnaround with a simple corner-kick from the right that was clipped in by Ciprian Deac. The Belgian lost his player, Andrei Burca, and he was allowed to race on to the inviting cross and thunder a six-yard header beyond the helpless Craig Gordon.
And it was all over in the 70th minute when Gordon allowed a left-wing cross run across the face of his goal with Bolingoli switching off at the back post. Deac caught it before it went out of play to whip it back into the box and Damjam Djokovic got in ahead of Kristoffer Ajer to wallop a ferocious effort into the net.
And that was that with Celtic happy to see the back of Clluj who celebrated wildly after realising they had pipped Lazio to a place in the Europa League knock-out phase.
All eyes were on 18-year-old debutant Scott Robertson at the start and the initial reaction was the central midfielder looked comfortable mixing at a higher level. He looked composed and controlled as he shuttled the ball around.
HEY REF…Mikey Johnston complains to Turkish official Halis Ozkahya after some rough treatment.
Olivier Ntcham, skipper for the night, was eager to play the part and was stroking the ball around and snapping into challenges as he patrolled Scott Brown’s usual berth.
Leigh Griffiths looked lively as he wanted to make an impact and the same could be said, too, for Scott Sinclair on the left who was making his first competitive start of the campaign.
In the 16th minute, there was some neat play from the Hoops as they came forward with Ntcham and Roberston combining before a pass found Lewis Morgan running free on the right. The winger, looking more accomplished in his normal position after his stint as makeshift striker, first-timed a cross into the box, but the home defence dealt with the danger as Griffiths menaced.
Two minutes later, Gordon produced an excellent save to deny the Romanians the opening goal.
ALL ALONE…Leigh Griffiths looks for company up front.
Romanian dangerman Billel Omrani, who scored two goals in his side’s shock 4-3 win at Parkhead that sent Neil Lennon’s men through the Champions League exit, played a one-two on the edge of the box and raced in to flash a 14-yard drive at goal.
Gordon’s positioning was absolutely spot on, though, and he managed to dive to his left to block the shot and the defence mopped up the threat.
in the 33rd minute, Robertson and Bolingoli were involved in a swift exchange on the left with the defender storming towards the opposing penalty area.
He played a clever one-two with Mikey Johnston, but, unfortunately, his first touch was poor and he knocked the ball harmlessly over the bye-line.
END GAME…Boli Bolingoli and Scott Sinclair discuss the defeat.
PERPLEXED…Kristoffer Ajer looks puzzled at the end.
A minute from the interval, Johnston sidestepped two challenges as he swept upfield to lash in a vicious right-footed 25-yarder. It took a deflection off a defender as it sizzled just wide of the keeper’s left-hand post.
Ajer replaced Christopher Jullien at the start of the second-half to remove the grave danger of a booking that would have kept the Frenchman out of the first of the knock-out games in February. Neil Lennon had obviously noted the fondness of some of the opposition to collapse to the ground at and any contact and then pathetically wave an imaginary card at the referee.
After the opening goal, Vakoun Issouf Bayo was introduced in the 67th minute for Morgan as the Hoops changed shape with the Ivorian going straight up to join Griffiths in the middle of the attack.
Karamoko Dembele came on for the ever-willing Johnston six minutes later to go into the Celtic history books as their youngest-ever player in European football at the age of 16. He was greeted by a Romanian defender moments later who pummelled him to the ground to give him a special welcome to proceedings.
It was an evening to forget for Celtic in what was largely a memorable European adventure towards Monday’s draw in Nyon.
TEAM: Gordon; Bauer, Bitton, Jullien (sub: Ajer 46), Bolingoli; Ntcham, Robertson, Morgan (sub: Bayo 67); Johnston (sub: Dembele 73), Griffiths, Sinclair.