Astra 1-1 Celtic: Hoops slip up in Romania mist

Callum McGregor vies for the ball with Joaozinho (L) of Astra. Picture: Getty
Callum McGregor vies for the ball with Joaozinho (L) of Astra. Picture: Getty
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THAT Celtic failed to hold out for the 1-0 victory that would have ensured their Europa League progress from Group D was no great surprise. They don’t do clean sheets on their travels in sectional European games. The 79th-minute strike from substitute William Amorim that cancelled out a first-half opener from Stefan Johansen means they have conceded in all 32 of these fixtures.

Scorers: Astra Giurgiu - William Amorim (79); Celtic - Johansen (32)

Nevertheless, Celtic felt hard done by in not getting the win that would have secured their place in the knockout stages with two games remaining. Leigh Griffiths had the ball in the next six minutes from time only for Ukrainian referee Sarhiy Boiko to pull him up for a nudge on Cristian Cros. Television evidence suggested the Scottish champions were right to feel aggrieved as there appeared little in the challenge by the Celtic substitute. In truth, though, they should be angry at themselves for the fact this proved a pivotal moment.

Celtic manager Ronny Deila tried to hide his frustration afterwards, but he was well aware that there was a needless aspect to the club’s latest failure to win away in Europe. Astra Giurgiu looked every inch a team struggling for confidence and form. Deila did point to the fact that the equaliser was the product of a stonking hit from Amorim, who steered an unstoppable shot into the far corner from the left-hand edge of the box, but questions can be asked about the shanked clearance from Virgil van Dijk that put the attacker in possession.

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Griffiths, brought on for the completely ineffective Stefan Scepovic in the 62nd minute, will question himself over two one-on-ones with Silviu Lung in which the Astra goalkeeper emerged the victor. Two minutes before the Celtic striker’s disallowed effort Lung smothered at his feet, having earlier pulled off a terrific stop to deny Charlie Mulgrew just before Astra struck to earn their first point in Group D. Mulgrew was in the wars in stoppage time after a horrible, nasty lunge on him by Vincent Laban which earned the player a straight red card. Even in the fog it was crystal clear that was the only course of action open to the referee Boiko.

Boiko seemed one of the few – Deila was another – who felt the game could go ahead despite the mist shrouding the pitch. In the early afternoon the possibility of a postponement was mooted by local journalists. By an hour before the local kick-off time of 8pm, the feeling had hardened that the tie would be rescheduled for early afternoon today. Then Boiko marched his team of officials out of the tunnel and, after much deliberating, started to lead them through their warm-ups that told us the match was on. No matter that, from the touchline on the far side, the six referees seemed to disappear into the night when they paced towards the dugouts.

It is difficult to say if the poor visibility had much effect on the proceedings that followed. And, in Boiko’s defence, there seemed to be a slight, if temporary, dispersal of the fog come the second half. It might be tempting to suggest that Astra keeper Lung might have been unsighted – hell, who wasn’t? – when Johansen hammered the ball past him from 22 yards after 32 minutes. Yet that doesn’t square with the fact that a minute from the end of the first period, Lung made a brilliant block to touch away a ferocious effort from Mulgrew. Celtic, with Johansen immense, then started to exert their authority. The Norwegian seems to enjoy playing Astra, having scored in the 2-1 win between the sides in Glasgow a fortnight ago. But while he required a spill from the keeper then, his return counter was all his own doing. When a free-kick from Mulgrew rebounded off the Astra defensive wall, he absolutely melted a first-time drive to give Lung not a hope.

Celtic, having played on the front foot for most of the opening period, did not continue in the same vein following the break. Their passing became a little frayed, they found themselves on their heels too often, and they began to look a little tired in their fifth game in 15 days. Yet, none of these aspects looked like it would prove costly until Amorim struck. The goal took the shine off Celtic’s 300th European game. From being on course to becoming the first Scottish team to qualify from a Uefa group stage after only four games, they now face two tricky encounters to seal their place in the last 32. First up is a home tie at the end of the month against Salzburg, whose 5-1 thrashing of Dinamo Zagreb keeps the Croatians five points behind Deila’s side. Victory would seal qualification for Celtic. A slip-up could leave them needing something from an awkward final game in Zagreb. It didn’t have to be this way.

Astra Giurgiu: Lung Jr, Pliatsikas, Ben Youssef, Oros, Junior Morais, Laban, Yahaya (Seto 81), Enache, Budescu (Florescu 62), Joaozinho (William Amorim 46), Bukari. Subs Not Used: Coman, Chitu, Gaman, Rus.

Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Denayer, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Mulgrew, McGregor, Johansen, Wakaso (Matthews 81), Scepovic (Griffiths 73). Subs Not Used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Biton, Tonev, Kayal.

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