HAVING stayed behind at the San Siro on Saturday evening to berate their failing stars, the AC Milan supporters hung about Celtic Park last night for an altogether different reason.
Anger and bitterness have been the dominant emotions among the Rossoneri this season, but now there is a feeling of a love restored. Massimiliano Allegri was not quite serenaded at the end but his hangdog look had gone. For dejection, you had to turn to Neil Lennon, his team routed, his hopes of European football beyond Christmas now dead and buried.
Celtic have been guilty of so many self-inflicted wounds in this competition this season that they only have themselves to blame for their exit. Go back to Scott Brown’s indiscipline against Barcelona. They could have done with him last night. Go back to the chances missed in Milan, the passiveness of their performance in Amsterdam and the combination of errors they committed here. No team can afford to defend as Celtic did. No team can afford to waste the chances Celtic wasted. No team can hope to progress in Europe when scoring a paltry two goals – a penalty and a lucky deflection – in five games. No team deserves to.
Celtic got what was coming to them and the fact is that though Milan found some better version of their true selves they were far from imperious. Kaka was marvellous at times, but this is a decidedly average Milan team that had been weakened further by injury before it ever got here. Injury and uncertainty following a wretched beginning to their Serie A season, their worst start to a league campaign in more than 30 years.
What Milan did was to show character and enough class to dismantle a team with a death-wish. The visitors had four shots on target and scored from three of them. They were well organised, well motivated and well out of Celtic’s league when it came to killer instinct. Once again, Lennon’s side created some opportunities and flunked them. The one time they had the ball in the Milan net it was ruled out for offside. Typical.
You cannot fault Celtic’s effort. They tried. They ran themselves into the ground. They had heaps of the ball and many efforts on Christian Abbiati’s goal but watching them in the Champions League this season has had a touch of Groundhog Day about it. A chance made and a chance spurned. Another chance made and another chance spurned. All Lennon can do is hope that his players improve and learn how to become clinical. Either that or he is given some financial freedom to go out and buy a couple of players of European class whose ratio of goals-to-chances is a whole lot more respectable than the attacking players he has at the club right now. To be fair, he signed most of them himself. That’s a matter of ambition and money, of course. Celtic say they have ambition but will they spend the money to back it up? A debate for the days ahead.
Derk Boerrigter came into the team last night. In fairness, Boerrigter knows what Champions League football is all about having played, and scored, in this competition for Ajax in the past two seasons. He played in Manchester when Ajax drew 2-2 with City. He played in Madrid and scored, albeit in a 4-1 drubbing by Ronaldo’s Real. The season before he went to Zagreb and scored in an Ajax victory over Dinamo. He has pedigree, the Dutch winger. Three million quid’s worth. The problem is that he’s had injuries and indifferent form ever since he came to Scotland, so picking him last night was an educated gamble by the Celtic manager. And, in fairness, to Boerrigter, he did okay, for a little while. For a man starting his first game in two months, he looked sharp. But not sharp enough when it mattered most.
This was a night when Celtic had to break the habit of their Champions League season and become ruthless. After two breathless minutes, they had a chance to take the lead and passed it up, the moment falling to Boerrigter at the back post. It was ridiculously early in the match, but it was a reminder all the same of what ails this Celtic side. They do a lot of things well. Boerrigter put in some inviting crosses. They dominated possession for parts of the match. They made some more chances. But that clinical dimension was missing again and, being realistic, it’s not going to be found easily. It’s going to cost money to find it.
That’s a question for Peter Lawwell and his board. Do they want to spend a little extra to go a little further in the Champions League? Or is he happy as they are? Where they are is fine. They’ve made the group stage two years on the trot. They have made buckets of money. The club is on a rock-solid footing. Lawwell might see this as a glass ceiling and maybe he is right. But what frustration for Lennon. He is crying out for a quality striker and he’s making do with honest tryers and unproven youngsters. It was just about enough to get them into the Champions League in the first place – just. But they will go no further and they cannot have a single gripe about that fact.
Hard graft can only get you so far. Celtic had that early chance with Boerrigter and then another when Beram Kayal found himself alone, for a second, in the Milan penalty area with only Abbiati to beat. A slight hesitation and the chance was gone, Cristian Zapata doing enough to disrupt the midfielder and force him to hitting tamely wide. There was another of these wasted moments a while later when Charlie Mulgrew shot weakly when in good position and with Samaras in space hollering for the ball outside him.
By then, Celtic were behind. Milan have lost many wonderful players in recent seasons but they re-signed one at least; Kaka. The Brazilian was fluid and dangerous all night. He didn’t need the Celtic defence giving him presents in the penalty area in order to threaten their goal, but he got one nonetheless from a Valter Birsa corner. Celtic’s, and Virgil van Dijk’s, defending at that set-piece was an abomination. Kaka hardly had to get off the ground to put his header past Fraser Forster.
Such a goal – so cheap and so avoidable – was bad enough, but then news started to come through from Amsterdam about Ajax’s heroics against Barcelona. The perfect footballing storm had swept into Glasgow and it blew ever harder the longer the night went on. Celtic’s inability to take advantage of their chances has almost become a parody of itself, Van Dijk failing from close range early in the second half, a piece of profligacy that was met with some Milan ruthlessness directly after, just as it had been for the first goal.
We talk about Celtic’s problems in front of Milan’s goal but their problems down the other end were acute also. A lack of awareness cost them the first time and the same failing was at play when Antonio Nocerino was allowed the space to side-foot across the penalty area to Cristian Zapata, who tapped home at the back post. Such awful defending again.
Balotelli’s third was just decoration, a cherry on top of Celtic’s bucket of sick. At journey’s end, a record-equalling European loss at home in the place we like to call a fortress. No more.