MAKING history proved beyond Ronny Deila and his Celtic players as they took their leave of European football on a night as frustrating as it was disappointing for the Scottish champions.
Scorer: Guarin (88) - Inter won 4-3 on aggregate
The curse of the San Siro on Scottish teams remains unbroken after an 88th-minute thunderbolt from Colombian midfielder Fredy Guarin earned Inter Milan victory in the second leg of this Europa League last-32 tie and sealed their passage to the next round.
For Celtic, it has been 180 minutes laced with regrets. The mistakes which contributed to the 3-3 draw in the first leg were compounded last night by a sense of injustice at the dismissal before half time of Dutch defender Virgil van Dijk for two bookable offences.
It turned an already uphill struggle into a mountainous task for the visitors but they will reflect that they have been eliminated by a less than stellar Italian side. This was a tie Celtic could and perhaps should have won.
Having stressed before the match of the need for his team to strike a more profitable balance between attack and defence than they did in the first leg, Deila almost saw them make an even more calamitous start than they did in Glasgow.
Seven days earlier, Celtic had found themselves 2-0 down after 13 minutes. Here, they almost conceded after just 13 seconds. They were fortunate that Inter striker Mauro Icardi was unable to take advantage of the space which opened up to allow him to get on the end of Xherdan Shaqiri’s through ball.
With the Celtic defence caught cold, the unmarked Icardi found himself with a clear sight of goal but failed to connect cleanly with his shot which was comfortably saved by Craig Gordon.
It was the precursor for a contest which proved equally open, if somewhat less frenetic, than the first leg. Play ebbed and flowed in the manner of a basketball match at times and while Inter had the edge in possession, Celtic were equally threatening when they got forward.
Gary Mackay-Steven had a glorious opportunity to put the visitors ahead in the seventh minute when a long diagonal pass from Emilio Izaguirre picked out his run on the right of the Inter penalty area. Mackay-Steven gathered the ball with a fine first touch but his low right-foot shot lacked power and was blocked by ’keeper Juan Pablo Carrido.
Inter counter-attacked immediately and Gordon was called into action again as he got down to hold Rodrigo Palacio’s shot. The home side then came close through Guarin when his strike from 20 yards flew narrowly wide of Gordon’s right-hand post.
Celtic’s attacking midfield trio of Stuart Armstrong, Stefan Johansen and Mackay-Steven appeared capable of causing the Inter defence plenty of anxiety at the other end with their pace, energy and movement.
Armstrong had a strong appeal for a penalty waved aside by the referee in the 14th minute when he went down under a challenge from Davide Santon. The Inter full-back appeared to nudge Armstrong in the back and was fortunate to get away with it.
Celtic’s next claim for a spot-kick was not as clear-cut. John Guidetti, replacing the injured Leigh Griffiths as Celtic’s lone striker, went down far too theatrically, even if there was a suggestion his shirt had been tugged slightly by Inter’s Brazilian central defender Juan.
If they were frustrated at those decisions, Celtic were at least holding their own with a fair degree of comfort. But the complexion of the contest changed dramatically with Van Dijk’s dismissal for two cautions within an eight-minute spell.
He could have no complaints about the first booking when he needlessly fouled Palacio in a wide area of the pitch. That sanction in itself meant Van Dijk would miss the first leg of Celtic’s next tie if they progressed. But worse was to come in the 36th minute when he fell foul of referee Ivan Kruzliak once again.
This time, the yellow card was questionable as Van Dijk appeared more clumsy than anything when he tangled with Icardi. But as soon as the Argentine forward tumbled to the turf, Van Dijk was in trouble as the Inter players called for a second booking. The referee duly obliged and Celtic were left to re-group and re-organise.
Mackay-Steven was the player sacrificed as Deila sent on Efe Ambrose to join Jason Denayer in central defence. Inter looked to take advantage quickly of their numerical superiority and came close to the breakthrough two minutes before the interval.
Denayer made a terrific block to keep out Shaqiri’s shot and when the ball ricocheted into the path of Danilo D’Ambrosio, his low strike was well saved by Gordon.
Celtic now needed to maintain that level of defensive defiance while still attempting to find a way through at the other end with only 10 men. Chances came and went at regular intervals early in the second half for Inter, the first of them wastefully blazed over by Palacio.
Gordon, whose uncharacteristic errors had proved costly in the first leg, was at his obdurate best on this occasion. He got down smartly to keep out a stinging long-range shot from Hernanes, then bettered that save with an alert block to deny Icardi from close range.
Deila replaced the badly tiring Guidetti with James Forrest just before the hour mark, injecting fresh pace into his team at the top end of the pitch in the hope they could cash in on the counter-attack. The Norwegian’s last throw of the dice came with 12 minutes remaining, Armstrong making way for Kris Commons.
But the playmaker was unable to conjure up the moment of magic Celtic needed. Instead, it was Guarin who settled the issue when he drove an unstoppable 20-yard drive high beyond Gordon two minutes from time.
Inter Milan: Carrizo, Santon, Rannochia, Juan, D’Ambrosio (Campagnaro 81); Guarin, Medel, Hernanes (Kovacic 80); Palacio (Puscas 89), Shaqiri, Icardi. Subs not used: Handanovic, Vidic, Kuzmanovic, Obi.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven (Ambrose 40), Johansen, Armstrong (Commons 79); Guidetti (Forrest 59). Subs not used: Zaluska, Stokes, Wakaso, Henderson.
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