Dinamo Zagreb 4 - 3 Celtic: Hoops lose thriller

Celtic players celebrate. Picture: AP
Celtic players celebrate. Picture: AP
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CELTIC have suffered more painful and significant defeats than this one on their European travels but even a loss without any tangible consequences can be a source of some concern.

Scorers: Dinamo Zagreb - Pjaca (14, 39, 50) Brozovic (48); Celtic - Commons (23), Scepovic (30), Pivaric (og 82)

On a night when several of Ronny Deila’s fringe players did little to suggest they are capable of becoming regular and reliable first picks, the Scottish champions produced a deeply flawed performance – most alarmingly in defence – which does not inspire confidence in their prospects of advancing further than the last 32 of the Europa League.

As they await Monday’s draw for the knockout phase where the standard of opposition will be superior to the Dinamo Zagreb side who defeated them last night, Celtic can console themselves in the knowledge this relatively meaningless final Group D fixture was never likely to bring out the best in them.

A hat-trick from teenager Marko Pjaca proved decisive in allowing Dinamo, already eliminated, to end their campaign on a high note at Celtic’s expense. For Deila, a goal for struggling Serbian striker Stefan Scepovic – making his first start since the 1-1 draw at Astra on 6 November – was one of the plus points of the evening, although his £2.3 million purchase contributed little else of note.

Scepovic was not the only player handed the opportunity to make a fresh and positive impression for Celtic, who had secured their place in the last 32 two weeks earlier. Ghanaian winger Mubarak Wakaso was also handed his first starting appearance since that draw in Romania, while Callum McGregor joined him in midfield as he looks to re-ignite a season which has personally fallen flat after his headline-grabbing displays back in July and August. Both failed to last the 90 minutes and were badly off the required pace.

This was an evening when self-motivation was required from anyone wishing to make an impact on proceedings. The atmosphere inside the 35,000-capacity Maksimir Stadium was of the surreal variety, the ongoing boycott by Dinamo supporters leaving vast sections of the stands empty.

The travelling Celtic fans, around 1,200 of them, were barely outnumbered and were certainly in no danger of being out-sung by their hosts. But the lighting of a flare among the visiting contingent just as the match kicked off was witless in light of previous Uefa sanctions applied to Celtic for a variety of disciplinary breaches involving their followers in recent seasons.

The pattern for a contest which would earn neither team any awards for solid defending was set in the second minute when Pjaca and Josip Pivaric made progress all too easily down the left to set up a chance for Domagoj Antolic whose shot was blocked by Efe Ambrose.

Celtic responded with a couple of efforts from distance, McGregor blazing over before Commons forced Dinamo ‘keeper Eduardo into a decent save.

The home side were forced to make a change at the back after just 11 minutes, Jozo Simunovic replacing French central defender Jeremy Taravel who was withdrawn with a nasty facial cut sustained in an accidental clash with McGregor.

It did not prove enough of a disruption to prevent Dinamo taking the lead three minutes later. Celtic appeared static and uncertain as a miscued shot from Arjan Ademi broke into the path of Pjaca who cut inside Adam Matthews’ lacklustre challenge and curled a right-foot shot beyond Gordon’s left hand into the corner of the net.

Celtic trailed for just nine minutes as they profited from some equally unconvincing work at the back by Dinamo to equalise. Nir Bitton earned a soft-looking free-kick around 22 yards out when he went down under Antolic’s challenge. Virgil van Dijk, Celtic captain for the night in the absence of Scott Brown, saw his effort from the set piece deflect high into the air off the defensive wall. With Eduardo and his defenders looking to each other to intervene, Commons reacted first to scuff home a close-range header.

It sparked a decent spell of territorial control for Celtic who made the most of it by going 2-1 ahead in the 30th minute. It was the consequence of another free-kick, Commons taking it this time after he had been fouled by Marcelo Brozovic and striking the crossbar from 25 yards.

Bitton nodded the loose ball back towards goal where Scepovic displayed thus far rarely seen predatory instincts as he volleyed home decisively from close range.

If the lead flattered Celtic a little, their failure to hold on to it until half-time would be a source of irritation for Deila. Six minutes before the interval, it was 2-2 when Pjaca dispossessed Matthews inside the penalty area and beat the exposed Gordon with a firm low shot.

Dinamo ended the first half firmly on the front foot, Pjaca forcing a fine save from Gordon, and they carried that momentum into the start of the second half with a vengeance.

Gordon did well to keep out a stinging effort from El Aarbi Soudani in the 47th minute but was left helpless just a minute later when Dinamo went 3-2 in front. Antolic surged down the left and cut the ball back for Brozovic who swept a left-foot shot beyond the ‘keeper’s reach into the corner of the net.

Celtic were under siege, Gordon making another excellent stop to deny Angelo Henriquez before Dinamo made it 4-2 in the 50th minute when Pjaca completed his hat-trick. Receiving the ball from Josip Pivaric, he took a couple of strides before firing in a magnificent right-foot shot which beat Gordon to his left.

Celtic threatened a late revival, Pivaric putting through his own goal under pressure from Scepovic with eight minutes remaining, but were unable to avoid their 25th defeat in 33 away fixtures in European group stage football.

Dinamo Zagreb: Eduardo, Pinto, Sigali, Taravel (Simunovic 11), Pivaric; Brozovic, Ademi, Antolic; Soudani, Henriquez (Cop 65), Pjaca. Subs not used: Mikulic, Machado, Fernandes, Santos, Vukojevic

Celtic: Gordon, Matthews (Fisher 56), Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Bitton, Johansen; McGregor (Henderson 63), Commons, Wakaso (Stokes 76); Scepovic. Subs not used: Zaluska, Tonev, Griffiths, O’Connell.

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