NEIL LENNON finds himself on the precipice of a third successive European first-hurdle elimination as Celtic manager after his toothless side were unable to break down an unremarkable but resolute Sion side.
Lennon's men now face the archetypal uphill struggle in the shadow of the Alps next Thursday if they are to emerge successfully from this Europa League play-off tie. While they spent most of last night's first leg on the front foot, Celtic lacked the guile to find a way beyond the Swiss Cup holders, who were defensively drilled with almost military precision.
It was far from the result Lennon craved as he attempts to improve on last season's back-to-back Champions League and Europa League exits against Braga and Utrecht. Jeers rang around Celtic Park at full-time in response to a result which could have been worse for the home side had Cha Du Ri not made a tremendous penalty area interception to prevent Giovanni Sio from snatching a stoppage-time winner for Sion.
That would have been harsh on Celtic but they will have to raise their performance level considerably to progress next Thursday night.
Lennon's preparation for the tie had been far from ideal, losing the influential trio of Emilio Izaguirre, Beram Kayal and Gary Hooper to injury over the past couple of weeks, so the last thing he needed was another disruption at the 11th hour.
• In pictures: Celtic 0 - 0 FC Sion
But it came in the shape of a strain suffered by Kelvin Wilson in training, denying the central defender his European debut and forcing Lennon to reconstruct his back four. It had a distinctly makeshift look, Charlie Mulgrew joining Daniel Majstorovic in central defence, Cha drafted in at right-back while Mark Wilson was shuttled across to left-back.
Sion's selection problems had been slightly more complicated, the Swiss Cup holders having to decide whether to risk the wrath of Uefa and Fifa and field any of their six summer signings who are at the centre of a dispute which will be decided by the Court of Arbirtration for Sport the day after the second leg.
As they had declared beforehand, the visitors took the risk and included five of them. Two of them, former Hearts defender Jose Goncalves and attacking midfielder Pascal Feindouno, were in the starting line-up.
In a formless first half, Anthony Stokes created Celtic's first chance when his low cross broke to the edge of the area, where Kris Commons was denied a clear shooting opportunity by Arnaud Buhler's lunging block.Stokes then picked out Joe Ledley's break into the area with another cross from the left but the Welshman glanced his header well wide of Sion goalkeeper Andris Vanins' left hand post.
Georgios Samaras, preferred to Shaun Maloney as Hooper's replacement up front, missed Celtic's best chance of the relentlessly scrappy first half. South Korean pair Ki Sung Yueng and Cha combined to create it, the latter's fine cross from the right picking out Samaras, who should have done better than flick a tame header woefully wide.
Mulgrew forced Vanins into his first real save of the night after 33 minutes, the keeper touching over the defender's well-struck free kick after Commons had won the set piece with a direct run which earned Sion defender Michael Dingsdag the game's first caution.
Stokes quickly joined him into the referee's book, the striker penalised for simulation when he tumbled in the box in a bid to earn a penalty kick as he was challenged by Vanins.
As Celtic's frustration intensified, Wilson was the next man booked for a crunching foul on Guilherme Afonso. The home side finished the first half in the ascendancy, Commons heading another good Cha cross from the right straight at Vanins, but the muted reaction to the interval whistle spoke volumes.
Lennon made a tactical alteration at the start of the second half, moving Mulgrew to left-back while Wilson slotted inside as Majstorovic's new partner. The first chance after the restart came from the right, however, with Cha once more the provider of a more than passable opening for Samaras. The Celtic support groaned as one when he miscued his right-foot shot from around 14 yards and did not even call Vanins into action.
Lennon sent on James Forrest for the increasingly peripheral Commons in a bid to inject greater pace and urgency into his side's work. His second change quickly followed, Maloney replacing Stokes and he was quick to make an impact and came agonisingly close to opening the scoring in the 70th minute. Tripped by Adailton on the edge of the penalty area, Maloney took the free-kick himself and saw his sweetly curled effort around the defensive wall superbly saved by the scrambling Vanins low to his right. The goalkeeper could not hold the ball but Samaras, following up, saw his attempt to bundle in the rebound deflected wide.There was a collective sharp intake of breath around Celtic Park three minutes later when Sio broke clear of Majstorovic to plant a low shot beyond Fraser Forster but the Sion celebrations were cut short by a flag for offside.
Celtic: Forster, Cha, Majstorovic, Mulgrew, M.Wilson; Commons (Forrest 56), Ki, Brown, Ledley; Samaras (McCourt 83), Stokes (Maloney 64). Subs not used: Zaluska, Matthews, Wanyama, Slane.
Sion: Vanins, Adailton, Dingsdag, Goncalves; Vanczak, Die, Feindouno (Rodrigo 90), Obradovic (Gabri 85), Buhler; Sio, Afonso (Mutsch 46). Subs not used: Fickentscher, Prijovic, Zambrella, Ketkeophomphone.