WHENEVER a Scottish club’s European hopes go up in smoke after they come within a cigarette paper of achieving a flaming success, the plotlines always seem depressingly familiar. There is the big chance. There is the big decision. And then there is the big mistake. Each was ticked off the checklist as Celtic’s courage and composure counted for diddley squat in the San Siro last night.
It might seem that the 1-0 win on the evening that sent Internazionale through to the last 16 of the Europa League after a second leg in which Roberto Mancini’s men had 16 goal attempts to Celtic’s two ultimately made for an expected and deserved resolution.
Yet, had there been different outcomes in the moments the chance, decision and mistakes occured, then there is genuine reason to believe the final scoreline could have been a whole heap different. Yes, we have heard it all before. However, it is an age since Celtic last looked the technical equal of a major European power on that opponents’ home soil – as they did for more than half an hour. Their poise, passing and pressurising high up the field seemed to be the Ronny Deila philosphy writ large and in letters that seemed formed by 100-watt bulbs. In that spell they owned the San Siro pitch for long periods and made Internazionale look increasingly skittish.
It is hard to determine which one of the tie-costing triumvirate mattered most in the fact that Celtic couldn’t ultimately manouvre themselves into a winning postion – something they never did across the two legs, it must be acknowledged. It is easy to settle on the mistake from Virgil van Dijk that left them with ten men. The centre-back was guilty of a part-pull, part-bump that resulted in Mauro Icardi hitting the deck.
Whatever the merits of a first yellow card shown the Dutch defender eight minutes earlier when he took the ball on, forcefully tackling Rodrigo Palacio from the side – and it didn’t seem to have much merit whatsoever – Van Dijk’s judgment with his Icardi intervention was hugely flawed. In providing the invitation to red-card him that was not declined, the prospects of Celtic pushing on to find a goal and defend it seemed to move into once-in-a-blue moon territory. Much was made pre-match of a headline-making performance being required from Van Dijk to show that he could acquit himself at the level he believes he should be playing every week. The wrong sort of headline-making display will do nothing to convince his doubters that Van Dijk looks so imposing on a regularly basis because he faces such limited tests in a Scottish context.
Yet, the fact that with ten men Celtic, until the 87th minute, kept Inter at bay – courtesy of Craig Gordon redeeming himself after his first-leg mistakes – means it could be argued that the chance, and the decision mattered as much as the mistake. Only six minutes had elasped when Celtic’s chance came. Gary Mackay-Steven showed a superb touch to pluck a ball out of the air that sent him through on goal but his inability to send his shot anywhere but straight at the keeper will make it a moment the winger will replay with head on pillow for many weeks.
The mistake might be considered more contentious, but repeated viewings seemed to suggest that referee Ivan Kruzliak got it wrong in failing to award a penalty to Deila’s men when Davide Santon nudged Stuart Armstrong on the back as the attacker bounded into the box after 14 minutes. Put all the key elements together and you have what forever douses hopes of a Scottish team catching fire in Europe: a sob story.
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