FK SUDUVA 1 CELTIC 1
APPALLING in Athens. Lethargic in Lithuania. The Celtic fans must be hoping their team will be glorious in Glasgow next week.
The Scottish champions stuttered to a stalemate this evening after an enterprising start, but must be favourites to finish the tie and book their place in the Europa League group stages at Parkhead next Thursday.
The Hoops’ cause against the Lithuanian champions wasn’t helped by the injury to Jozo Simunovic only seven minutes after the turnaround leaving boss Brendan Rodgers to restructure his rearguard.
But the team should still have had far too much for poor opponents who looked as though they were there for the taking.
The game had just edged into the third minute when the Hoops took the lead and with a sweep of his right foot young Mikey Johnston showed why he was given a place in the starting line-up.
Lively and eager to get involved from the off, the left-winger accepted a pass on the edge of the box, looked up briefly and almost lazily sent a ball curling into the danger zone.
Olivier Ntcham timed his run to absolute perfection as he arrived smack in front of goal and from six yards he nodded past the exposed and helpless Ivan Kardum.
It was the start Rodgers had been plotting in an effort to ease any tension and his players looked comfortable as they moved the ball around against the Lithuanian champions.
The last time the teams had met in European competition was in 2002 and Martin O’Neill’s side chalked up a 10-1 triumph on their way to the UEFA Cup final in Seville.
On the evidence of the early play there was little to suggest Rodgers’ men couldn’t at least emulate that feat.
There was a scare, though, in the sixth minute when Simunovic had his almost obligatory lapse in concentration when, under no pressure, he gave away possession to a grateful opponent about 12 yards away.
Thankfully, Kieran Tierney cleared up the danger as Suduva attempted to mount a quick counter-attack.
In 13 minutes Simunovic alarmingly switched off again as the home team drew level. They had hardly been in Celtic’s half, but Croatian referee Tomislav Petrovic adjudged Tierney to have fouled an opponent wide on the right wing about 30 yards out.
The ball was swung in left-footed and it didn’t appear to present an immediate problem. And then Ovidijus Verbickas got in front of Cristian Gamboa and behind the dithering Simunovic who made no attempt to head clear.
Craig Gordon was hardly blameless as he left his line to anticipate the ball dropping into his hands on the six-yard line.
The Suduva attacker got there first, made contact with his head and the ball flew into the empty net.
Once again, a simple ball into the penalty area had highlighted the fragility of the Hoops backline and, disconcertingly, the middle of the rearguard.
It was a dreadful goal to present to the opposition and the statistics didn’t look too clever for Rodgers’ side by the time half-time arrived.
AEK Athens had claimed three goals in four attempts over the two legs in the Champions League exit and now the Lithuanians had one after a solitary effort at Gordon.
After the break, Simunovic fell awkwardly and limped off for treatment with skipper Scott Brown taking his place in central defence.
The Croat couldn’t recover and the curse of the Celtic centre-half struck again. With Jack Hendry injured and Dedryck Boyata not mentally or physically attuned, Rodgers put on Mikael Lustig.
Shortly afterwards, the ever-busy Ntcham slid a pass in front of Moussa Dembele who took a touch before waywardly lashing a shot into the sidenet. At the very least it should have been on target.
In the 56th minute Gordon had to leap to tip over a drive from Cicilia after Suduva had built a promising move on the left and later on the Celtic keeper had to dive to his right to knock away a piledriver from substitute Kasparavicus, left unattended on the 18-yard line by a hestitant defence.
In the 63rd minute, Tierney tried his luck from 25 yards and his wicked left-foot effort zipped just wide with the keeper scrambling.
Rodgers then put on Leigh Griffiths and Emilio Izaguirre for Johnston and Gamboa as he attempted to balance the team.
Eight minutes from the end, a cunning Griffiths right-wing corner-kick fell to Forrest on the edge of the box. He didn’t connect properly and his shot went 20 yards wide of the keeper’s right-hand post.
That was the story of the night for Celtic. It looked so promising one moment – and fairly dismal the next.
There is no scope for mistakes in a week’s time.
TEAM: Gordon; Gamboa (sub: Izaguirre 66), Simunovic (sub: Lustig 52), Ajer, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham; Forrest, McGregor, Johnston (sub: Griffiths 66); Dembele.