ACCEPTABLE isn’t a word that has warranted use in describing Celtic’s Europa League efforts of late. However, in Istanbul last night, Ronny Deila’s men brought the curtain down on a miserable campaign very much in acceptable fashion.
Indeed, the 1-1 draw earned against Fenerbahce – who joined Molde in progressing from Group A despite finishing with ten men after Diego received a straight red card in 67 minutes for petulantly kicking out at Stefan Johansen – could easily have been transformed into a victory. A superb headed equaliser by substitute Kris Commons with a quarter of an hour remaining gave way to a sustained spell of pressure spearheaded by fellow match-changing second-half arrival James Forrest.
The home side had few answers to the winger’s lacerating runs from the left flank and when he flicked the ball forward and cut inside towards the penalty area with only minutes remaining, home captain Gokhan Gonul clearly appeared to thrust his arm in the direction of the ball, which it clipped on the upper part.
Deila’s side falling short of victory means the torrent of stats threatening to submerge the Norwegian will not be stemmed. Their run without a win in the Europa League now stretches to 11 games, and with the three points in their section accrued from three draws, this latest group campaign becomes the first in 12 that Celtic haven’t dug out at least one win.
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There was plenty to encourage Deila, though, from a difficult assignment. For the first time in eight European outings his team didn’t concede two goals in a game. There was an appreciation of structure and safety in Celtic’s play. The back four of Mikael Lustig, the again impressive Jozo Simunovic, Dedryck Boyata and bright teenage prospect Kieran Tierney look capable of competing at this level.
Of course there was the obligatory brain freeze that cost a goal, but goalkeeper Craig Gordon was the culprit this time, just as Efe Ambrose was when Fenerbahce were offered a way back from two goals down in the 2-2 draw between the sides at Celtic Park in October.
A calamitous misjudgment by Gordon six minutes from the interval followed from the Scotland international racing from his goal to cut out a long and hopeful pass by Fenerbahce skipper Gokhan Gonul to Lazar Markovic. It appeared as if Gordon would scoop the ball up but inexplicably let the ball go through his legs and the Fenerbahce wide man, on loan from Liverpool, slid the ball in from a tight angle.
Celtic’s recovery from the sort of absurd defensive lapse that proved fatal to their qualification hopes depended on Commons and Forrest entering the fray. Commons was the last person to net in the Europa League against the Turks, who had claimed clean sheets in taking four points from Ajax and beating Molde in a two-month spell when Celtic had two awful losses against the Norwegians and were beaten at home by the Amsterdam club. The 32-year-old attacker made it two in two against the Istanbul side only moments after his arrival as a substitute for Scott Allan in the 73rd minute to entirely change the complexion of the encounter. It was a belter of a goal, the curling right-wing cross by Lustig almost as masterful as Commons’ body twist to deliver a devastatingly powerful and precise header into the top corner.
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Celtic had travelled to Turkey for the first time guaranteed to finish bottom of Group A after taking just two points from five fixtures. They had held their own in the first half with striker Nadir Ciftci missing a good chance before the Gordon aberration. Fenerbahce midfielder Diego, booked early in the first half after an altercation with Hoops midfielder Stefan Johansen, might have given Celtic reason to believe when giving Belgian referee Serge Gumienny, only a few yards from him, no choice but to show him a straight red for a kick at the Norwegian.
But Celtic created their own impetus and Allan, in his first start since his summer move from Hibernian, produced several openings with intelligent passes that Ciftci, deputising for the injured Leigh Griffiths, could not make count. The same was true when Nir Bitton released him through the middle 24 minutes in. Hesitation allowed defender Abdoulaye Ba to get in a saving tackle.
Gordon, who had touched a Mehmet Topal drive on to the post in the early minutes, spilled a long-distance effort by Diego shortly after Ciftci’s squandered chance, but made amends by knocking Souza’s angled shot from the loose ball over the bar for a corner which Celtic defended, only for him to fail in these duties in the 39th minute. For a change, such a lapse of judgement won’t be all that Deila is forced to dwell on.
Celtic XI: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney, Bitton, Johansen, McGregor, Allan, Armstrong, Ciftci
Subs: Bailly, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Rogic, Forrest, Mackay-Steven, Commons
Fenerbahce XI: Fabiano, Gonul, Ba, Bruno Alves, Kaldirim, Markovic, Souza, Topal, Potuk, Diego, Fernandao
Subs: Demirel, Tufan, Zeybek, Ozbayrakli, Kadlec, Civelek, Erkin