BRENDAN RODGERS expressed his pride in his Celtic players, despite the 1-0 loss to Valencia that halted their Europa League progress.
The Hoops toppled out on a 3-0 aggregate following last week’s disappointing capitulation at Parkhead.
Rodgers also criticised German referee Deniz Aytekin who banished right-back Jeremy Toljan in the 37th minute following two extremely soft yellow cards in the Mestalla.
The Hoops were in control and the home fans were whistling their derision until the match official’s bewildering intervention.
Asked if he thought the Toljan dismissal had been the key moment, Rodgers answered: “Yes, I thought we were much the superior team up until that point.
“I think our shape and everything worked really well for us. We started the game ever so well, nice and tight defensively, pressing at the right times. We had confidence not just to keep the ball, but we carried a threat in our penetration.
“It looked like we were going to get what we craved.
“I thought the referee took the game away from us. That was disappointing.
SEEING RED…ref banishes Jeremy Toljan.
“I thought the players came together, but I didn’t think it was a second yellow card. I thought it was a free-kick to us the player has come on the blindside and made contact with Jeremy. That changed the dynamic of the game.
“I spoke to the ref just after the game. He said it was a definite sending-off. I thought it was really harsh.
“You just sensed we were building into the game and it was disappointing.”
With tonight’s confrontation still locked at 0-0, Kristoffer Ajer had a golden opportunity to break the deadlock just after the hour mark when he was unguarded smack in front of goal following a cute right-wing free-kick delivery from Ryan Christie.
Unfortunately, the giant Norwegian got under the ball and managed to send a header spiralling over the cross bar from four yards with keeper Neto rooted to his line.
THANKS, FANS…Brendan Rodgers applauds Celtic support.
Shortly afterwards, substitute Kevin Gameiro bundled the ball into the Hoops net from close range leaving Scott Bain, who produced a string of superb stops, helpless on this occasion.
Rodgers applauded his players and admitted their poor performance in the 2-0 defeat at Parkhead a week ago was the reason for the European exit.
He added: “The bravery of the players was incredible. They kept going and they made chances. They tired a little bit towards the end.
“The difference over the two games was that in the key moments we haven’t defended so well. But, overall, I thought we were excellent, I was very proud of the team.
“Our supporters will be very proud of the team, having that courage to come and play and force the game against a very good side.
“I said last week we started the game well, but if you make mistakes at this level you’ll get punished. Unfortunately for us, that’s what has cost us.
“Of course, you are always looking to improve. It’s maybe difficult for us, but we can’t give up hope. You saw the team play very, very well tonight.
“We have to look to qualify for European competition again next season and try to progress.”