CELTIC perpetrated the footballing equivalent of leaving a winning lottery ticket in the pocket of a pair of jeans in the washing machine as they slipped out of the Champions League last night.
Scorers: Maribor - Morales Tavares (75)
NK Maribor win 2-1 on aggregate
Odds-on favourites to reach the money-spinning group stage for a third successive season following their third qualifying round reprieve against Legia Warsaw, Ronny Deila’s team were unable to see out a winning position against Maribor.
Brazilian striker Marcos Tavares scored the only goal of a desperately frustrating night for Deila, consigning Celtic to the consolation prize of Europa League football. The Scottish champions were undone by a combination of feckless finishing and, at the crucial moment, fatally indecisive defending.
Although Celtic began the evening in a winning position, courtesy of Callum McGregor’s away goal in Slovenia, there was little concession in their strategy to simply holding what they had.
For, while playmaker Kris Commons was again named among the substitutes, with Beram Kayal preferred for additional defensive security in midfield, Deila’s team were immediately on the front foot as they set a ferocious tempo in the early stages.
There was anxiety for the Maribor defence inside the first 60 seconds when Mikael Lustig burst forward and found Emilio Izaguirre on the left. His teasing cross narrowly eluded Anthony Stokes’ stretching attempt to connect with it in the six-yard box.
The breathless pace of proceedings, with Celtic pressing hard and high up the pitch, held the promise of an early breakthrough. It so nearly came in the fifth minute from a situation similar to how Celtic scored in the first leg. Stefan Johansen found Jo Inge Berget on the left of the penalty area and the midfielder drove the ball low across goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic towards the centre of the six-yard box.
It looked as if Stokes was going to be presented with a simple tap-in to an unguarded net but Maribor central defender Marko Suler slid in at the last second to divert the ball narrowly wide for a corner.
Celtic were unable to sustain that intensity of pressure, however, and the visitors gradually worked their way back into the contest with some patient and precise passing football of their own.
Agim Ibraimi’s clever movement, as he foraged in the space behind striker Jean-Philippe Mendy, began to pose problems for the home defence. The Macedonian international posted Maribor’s first effort on goal with a 20 yard shot just off target. The shift in momentum continued when Ibraimi tried to set up Tavares with a smart reverse pass into the penalty area, the forward denied a shooting opportunity by Efe Ambrose’s block.
Virgil van Dijk passed up a fine opportunity to ease the growing tension for Celtic when he was picked out by Stokes’ corner from the left in the 23rd minute, but the big Dutch defender wastefully headed the ball wide of Handanovic’s left hand post from a couple of yards.
That let-off did nothing to lessen Maribor’s growing confidence and they came close to taking the lead six minutes later. Mitja Viler was afforded all the time he needed to drive infield from the left and drive in a dipping shot which Craig Gordon could only parry back out into the path of Tavares.
Fortunately for Celtic, the Brazilian striker was unable to control the loose ball which simply cannoned off him and went straight back into the hands of the goalkeeper. Deila, whose body language in the technical area betrayed his unhappiness at the way the match was progressing, decided change was needed at the start of the second half and introduced Commons for Kayal.
Although his first involvement saw him collect the first booking of the night for dissent, Commons duly provided the fresh impetus and attacking imagination Celtic required.
Ambrose flashed a right foot shot narrowly wide from a Stokes free-kick, then Callum McGregor came agonisingly close to another precious European goal when his stabbed effort from close range struck the crossbar after good set-up play from Berget and Stokes. As Commons then sent a dipping 25-yard shot just over, the Celtic support were re-energised. But Maribor remained a threat on the break and almost made one count in the 66th minute, Dare Vrsic breaking free and seeing a close range shot well saved by Gordon.
But the recalled Scotland international keeper was left helpless when Maribor stunned Celtic Park with Tavares’ 75th minute goal. It was a defensive mess from Celtic’s point of view, Ambrose and Izaguirre both unable to clear in a scramble after a Vrsic shot was blocked. The ball broke to Tavares whose shot bounced up off the turf and looped over Gordon into the roof of the net. Maribor almost put the outcome beyond doubt two minutes later when Ambrose, enduring a wretched night, allowed Mendy to cut inside him and curl in a shot which Gordon did well to keep out as he dived to his right.
Ambrose and van Dijk both missed simple close range opportunities to force the tie into extra-time and the celebrations belong to Maribor as they joined European club football’s elite for the first time since 1999.