Celtic found themselves on the wrong side of one of the most remarkable European fixtures their stadium has witnessed as their dreams of lucrative Champions League group stage football were shattered by Cluj.
A contest which ebbed and flowed in scarcely credible fashion saw Neil Lennon’s side undone by the Romanian champions who, after opening the scoring, twice came from behind to book their place in the play-off round.
Crestfallen Celtic must now turn their attention to the Europa League where they will face either AIK Stockholm or Sheriff Tiraspol in the play-off round. It will feel like scant consolation to the Scottish champions.
Lennon would take no pleasure in his wariness about the fine balance of this tie being vindicated as Cluj made life uncomfortable for both his players and the home support from the opening exchanges.
Kicking off in the knowledge they would have to score at least once to preserve their hopes of progress, Dan Petrescu’s men adopted a positive approach and fully merited Deac’s breakthrough on the night which cancelled out the away goal Celtic had claimed in Romania last week.
By contrast, Celtic appeared uncertain about their own strategy. The tactics were familiar, the team selection not as easily anticipated. Lennon opted to deploy Callum McGregor, so consistently Celtic’s most influential midfielder, at left-back.
It’s a position McGregor has occasionally filled in the past, but his presence there on this occasion was far from a ringing endorsement of the early impression £3 million summer signing Boli Bolingoli has made as he dropped to the bench.
Olivier Ntcham slotted into central midfield alongside captain Scott Brown but Celtic struggled to find the kind of rhythm in that area of the pitch which McGregor often seems to provide almost effortlessly.
One of McGregor’s first duties in the full-back position saw him appear fortunate not to concede a penalty in the eighth minute. It was perhaps only the theatrical sprawl from Deac as the pair contested a dangerous cross from Billel Omrani that persuaded referee Andris Treimanis to wave away the frantic appeals from the Cluj players.
Celtic gradually managed to make some inroads towards the Cluj goal, albeit without causing goalkeeper Giedrius Arlauskis any great anxiety. James Forrest, scorer of Celtic’s equaliser in the first leg, saw a shot blocked by Andonie Burca before Ryan Christie burst into the area to drill in an effort which was deflected over.
Cluj continued to enjoy good spells of intelligent possession which prevented Celtic finding any sustained momentum.
Just as Lennon’s did finally look as if they were exerting some authority on proceedings, with Mikey Johnston coming close with a fizzing shot narrowly wide of Arlauskis’ left hand post, it was Cluj who opened the scoring.
It was an alarming goal for Celtic to lose from a defensive perspective as Omrani was allowed too much space on the left to deliver a cross which found Ciprian Deac unmarked just outside the six yard box. The Romanian international winger’s glancing header beat the helpless Scott Bain via the inside of his left hand post.
Celtic were rattled, while Cluj looked composed and capable of inflicting further damage. Slowly but surely, however, the hosts forced themselves back onto the front foot and began to carry a greater threat.
As they increased the tempo towards the end of the first half, Odsonne Edouard came close with a near post flick from a Christie cross. The French striker was denied again by a brilliant piece of defending from Burca which prevented him tucking home a superb cross from Hatem Elhamed.
Celtic began the second half with an even greater injection of urgency and it soon brought them the reward they craved. It was frenzied stuff as Kristoffer Ajer saw a header cleared off the line before Jozo Simunovic’s effort was saved by Arlauskis.
Cluj were becoming seriously stretched at the back for the first time and they were duly breached in the 51st minute as Forrest levelled the tie once more. It was a composed finish from the winger after Edouard had dummied a low McGregor cross into his path.
Celtic now had the bit firmly between their teeth and went ahead for the first time 10 minutes later. A comical mix-up in the Cluj central defence allowed Christie’s cross to find Edouard who made no mistake from around eight yards.
At last, Lennon’s side seemed to be in control but a tumultuous contest took another twist in the 74th minute. Brown’s instinctive reaction saw him block a dangerous corner from Mihai Bordeianu with a hand, the referee immediately pointing to the spot.
Amid a crescendo of jeers from the home fans, Omrani stayed calm to slot the penalty beyond Bain. But the Celtic support were soon celebrating again as their side went 3-2 up just two minutes later, Edouard linking brilliantly with Christie who steered home a fine finish from eight yards.
Cluj, however, were able to match Celtic’s resilience and spirit as they responded with their own third goal in the 80th minute. Bain managed to parry a shot from substitute Constantin Paun but was beaten as Omrani smashed the rebound high into the net.
There would be no late drama in Celtic’s favour. Instead, it was Cluj substitute George Tucudean who piled on the agony when he lobbed home a fourth with the last kick of stoppage time.