WE HAVE been here before. All too many times. Celtic played with courage and command in the San Siro last night.
Scorers: Izaguirre (og) 82, Muntari 85
Referee: W Stark (Germany)
For 81 minutes it appeared they had played with enough conviction to earn a point from their opening Group H Champions League encounter.
Indeed, at that point,a winner did not look beyond their reach with Anthony Stokes having just curled a free-kick on to the crossbar.
Then cruel fortune intervened. Cristian Zapata fired in an effort from the edge of the box that was going away from goal until it struck the boot of Emilio Izaguirre and beat the helpless Fraser Forster.
Four minutes later the jib was well and truly up for Neil Lennon’s side when Forster clawed out a Mario Balotelli free-kick only to send it into the path of Sulley Muntari, who forced the ball in from ten yards.
The denouement was ill-deserved with Celtic proving a match for an injury-depleted and recently diminished Milan for more than an hour. In the one measure that truly counts, though, they were ultimately found wanting and their group excursion could prove an exhausting experience with Barcelona and Ajax lying in wait.
Lennon’s team selection and tactics could not be faulted, however. His pre-match coyness over Stokes’ potential inclusion did not prove a harbinger of doom for the striker, whose starting role represented his first-ever taste of the Champions League. A deserved reward for his stirring form this season, the 25-year-old spearheaded a selection that was more cautious than anticipated.
Along with Stokes’ striking rival Teemu Pukki, Derk Boerrigter started on the bench – they both appeared late on – in order that Adam Matthews could be accommodated on the right of midfield. Considering that, ahead of last night’s encounter, Celtic had the grand total of one win and one draw from 24 away assignments in the competition proper, Lennon’s bolstering of his midfield was not only understandable, but probably advisable.
In term of the wholly ill-advised, that dishonour goes to Celtic supporters in the San Siro who set alight a flare just before kick-off – only a week after being fined for letting off fireworks in the Champions League qualifier against Cliftonville.
The smoke would have caused eyes to water and so would the ropey moments their side initially endured.
With Alessandro Matri looking in the mood to cause damage in his Champions League debut for Milan, just as he had with two goals for Juventus against Celtic last season, the home side found space and openings to call Forster into action.
He had to beat away a Balotelli volley, block at the feet of Valter Birsa after he had been sent through by Matri, and then push away a powerful header from the £9.2million summer signing across the opening 20 minutes.
The only concern for Milan in this period came from a curious episode in the 15th minute. A sweeping Celtic move down the right ended with Brown poking the ball towards keeper Christian Abbiati under pressure from Zapata. When Abbiati picked the ball up, erratic referee Wolfgang Stark signalled for a passback. The award, eight yards from goal, was a gift from which Celtic couldn’t make full capital. Milan massed their ranks on the goalline, and when Kris Commons touched the ball to Mulgrew, Kevin Constant charged forward to blocked the Scotland midfielder’s battered effort.
Pretty soon, though, the forward charge was all being provided by Lennon’s men. They courageously worked their way into the confrontation by easing their way out of tight spots with smart, intelligent possession retention, a fluidity emboldening their play that caused Massimilliano Allegri’s side to begin to look ragged. Brown was the orchestrator with interventions that were by turns towering and tenacious, ably assisted by Charlie Mulgrew. The Celtic captain really has taken his game to another level this season as previous ailments appear to have been alleviated.
By the close of the first period Celtic had impressively claimed more time on the ball than they hosts, the audible grumblings of the home support who have watched their side faltering in Serie A a reflection of the wicked momentum shift in the tie. By half-time Celtic might have also nicked themselves a goal.
Birsa proved wholly careless with a passback and in so doing allowed Stokes a run in on his opponents’ penalty box.
But after turning Zapata inside out, the striker’s delay in shooting allowed the Milan player to block his angled shot from six yards.
The second half began with the teams trading scoring opportunities as if slugging in search of the knockout punch. Samaras might have delivered it when he burst past three men and unleased a 25-yeard drive that narrowly drifted the wrong side of the upright. Muntari should have provided it, only for him to get his head under and send over a cross from the left by Zapata with the goal at his mercy.
But those two Milan men were to provide the lethal combination that sent Celtic to the canvas in a continental ring once again.
AC Milan: (4-3-1-2): Abbiati; Zaccardo, Zapata, Mexes, Constant (Robinho 75); Muntari, Jong, Nocerino; Birsa (Emanuelson 63); Matri, Balotelli. Subs: Amelia, Poli, Christante, Benedicic, Lotti.
Celtic: (4-4-1-1): Forster; Lustig, Van Dijk, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Matthews (Boerrigter 75), Brown, Mulgrew (Biton 90), Samaras; Commons (Pukki 76); Stokes. Subs: Zaluska, Rogic, Balde, McGeouch.