FOR Neil Lennon, last night’s disappointment in Astana was a deeply unwelcome step back towards square one of his European journey as Celtic manager.
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Having achieved so much progress on the continental stage for his club over the past couple of years, most notably in turning around their previously risible away record, the 2-0 defeat to an intensely motivated but unremarkable Shakhter Karagandy side was a rude shock for Lennon. It is Celtic’s first defeat in Champions League qualifying football since their 3-0 loss to Braga in 2010 in what was Lennon’s first European game at the helm.
He has grown significantly as a manager since then and learned much of what is required to compete credibly in Uefa’s blue riband tournament. And he will need to fully utilise all of that knowledge and nous if the Scottish champions are to overturn the deficit they carelessly sustained in the Kazakhstan capital.
Against the lowest-ranked team left in the Champions League, Celtic were sloppy at both ends of the pitch at crucial moments in the Astana Arena.
It was a far cry from the focus, composure and tactical discipline which has characterised much of their previous work in the tournament under Lennon.
Despite having 65 per cent of possession on an artificial surface far more conducive to passing football than the one they encountered in the previous round against Elfsborg in Sweden, Celtic were unable to convert that dominance into the away goal which would have put a very different complexion on this play-off tie.
As it stands, Shakhter will head into next Wednesday’s return leg at Celtic Park brimful of confidence that they can become the first Kazakh club to reach the group stage of the Champions League.
Captain Andrei Finonchenko’s 12th- minute opener and Sergei Khizhnichenko’s 77th minute goal, both eminently avoidable from Celtic’s perspective, have placed Shakhter in a strong but hardly impregnable position.
Celtic will now look to the positives and how to maximise them next week.
In the opening ten minutes last night, there was little hint of the problems to come. Lennon’s men started brightly, troubling Shakhter with a burst of early corner kicks from which the hosts were fortunate to emerge unscathed.
But to prove that forewarned isn’t always forearmed, Celtic fell behind from the kind of set-piece they had been made fully aware was the biggest threat in Shakhter’s arsenal.
The long throw-in of Lithuanian defender Gediminas Vicius is a staple for this physically imposing side and Celtic simply couldn’t handle his first missile into their penalty area.
It was flicked on all too easily by Nikola Vasiljevic and, with both Emilio Izaguirre and Joe Ledley failing to react in time to Finonchenko’s movement towards the six yard box, the veteran Shakhter player was able to stab a low shot beyond Fraser Forster.
Kris Commons, by some distance Celtic’s most imaginative and threatening player on an evening when the touch and decision making of too many others left much to be desired, was unfortunate not to level just eight minutes later when his sweetly-struck long range shot hit the underside of the crossbar and bounced down on to the goal line.
Georgios Samaras, so often the most influential performer in Europe for Celtic on Lennon’s watch, then missed a glorious chance to add to his impressive tally of away goals when he headed Charlie Mulgrew’s free-kick wide from close range.
Shakhter, for whom Colombian midfielder Roger Canas was the most technically eye-catching performer, grew in confidence the longer their 1-0 lead lasted.
While Celtic continued to dominate possession, there was always a sense the home team could take further advantage of a less than certain full debut by Virgil van Dijk in the heart of the visitors’ defence. So it proved when the Dutchman failed to react smartly enough to Vicius’ deflected cross, allowing Khiznichenko to head the second goal beyond Forster with 13 minutes remaining. Mulgrew missed a late chance to snatch that away goal for Celtic, heading over from eight yards, to leave Lennon with much to fret over on today’s six-hour flight back to Glasgow.
Many will point to how significant the recent sales of Victor Wanyama, Gary Hooper and Kelvin Wilson were in leading to the inadequate performance level delivered by Celtic last night.
They may certainly reflect that it would have served them better to retain the services of central defender Wilson until this play-off tie was done and dusted.
This was Celtic’s most mortifying European loss since the 5-0 defeat to similarly unheralded Artmedia Bratislava in 2005.
So at least Lennon, who played in that match, knows last night was far from as bad as it gets.
He will be counting on a thunderous occasion on and off the pitch in the east end of Glasgow to turn the tie around and ensure Celtic grab their share of the Champions League riches and prestige for a second successive season.