Celtic’s hopes of a return to the top table of European football were shattered by a resurgent Ferencvaros side on a painful and costly night for the Scottish champions who lost 2-1 at Parkhead.
For the third season in a row, Celtic will be absent from the group stage of the Champions League and miss out on the £30 million bounty which accompanies it.
Without leading striker Odsonne Edouard, sidelined by a thigh injury, Neil Lennon’s men lacked the cutting edge needed against the Hungarian champions whose reputation as one of the most famous old names of European football continues to be restored by coach Serhiy Rebrov.
It is Celtic’s earliest exit from the Champions League since they last lost in the second qualifying round to Artmedia Bratislava 15 years ago. Unlike on that occasion, this time they at least have the consolation of parachuting into the Europa League. But that will feel like scant consolation to Lennon and his players right now, nor to their supporters whose absence from Celtic Park last night will not diminish their sense of dismay and disgruntlement.
It was a night when it quickly became easy to appreciate just why Ferencvaros enjoyed an unbeaten record away from home last season when they reached the group stage of the Europa League.
Although Celtic were first to threaten, when goalkeeper Denes Dibusz was forced to punch away a stinging shot from James Forrest after good work from Mohamed Elyounoussi, the counter-attacking menace of the visitors - highlighted before the game by Lennon - evidenced itself in devastating fashion in the seventh minute.
Celtic looked as if they had contained the danger when Scott Brown managed to get back to cut out a cross from Brazilian midfielder Somalia after Ferencvaros had broken down the pitch at lightning pace through the dangerous Tokmac Nguen.
But from the corner which Brown was forced to concede, Celtic’s defending was less than convincing as Isael’s delivery from the left was cleared to just outside the penalty area. The hosts were too slow to react to the loose ball which Somalia nodded into the path of David Siger who had all the time he needed to shape himself for a magnificent right foot shot which beat the helpless Vasilis Barkas low to the goalkeeper’s right.
Celtic now knew exactly what to expect whenever they lost possession but initially didn’t find it any easier to deal with. Just five minutes later, Ferencvaros launched another rapid raid but, fortunately for Celtic, this time Somalia and Nguen were unable to make the most of a promising situation.
Celtic were stretched again at the back when Isael burst clear on the left, Kristoffer Ajer coming to the rescue on this occasion as he got across to cut out the cross.
Unsurprisingly, the absence of a recognised centre forward impacted on Celtic’s efforts to respond. The lack of a focal point up front often led to them taking one touch too many in the attacking third of the pitch against a tactically disciplined Ferencvaros back four.
It was a thankless task at times for Ryan Christie in leading the line, a role he eventually rotated with both Olivier Ntcham and Elyounoussi as Celtic attempted to compensate for Edouard’s absence.
Christie did come close with a shot deflected just wide of Dibusz’s right hand post and, as Celtic responded to Lennon’s touchline exhortations to ‘move the ball quicker’, Elyounoussi was unfortunate to see a shot deflect just over after he brilliantly controlled a cross from James Forrest on the corner of the six yard box.
As Celtic gradually built some momentum, the lack of a natural poacher’s instincts perhaps played a part in Christie’s failure to get enough of a touch on Greg Taylor’s inviting cutback across the face of the six yard box.
Celtic finished the first half firmly on the front foot and Elyounoussi, looking as likely as anyone to find a way through the visitors’ defensive set-up, was unlucky to see a shot slide narrowly wide of Dibusz’s right hand post after cutting in from the left.
Having brought greater intensity and fluency to their play, Celtic carried it with them into the opening exchanges of the second half and if there was a touch of fortune about Christie’s 53rd minute equaliser, it was no less than they deserved.
Some patient and precise build-up play from Forrest and Elyounoussi culminated in the Norwegian feeding the ball into the path of Christie on the edge of the box. His left foot shot deflected off the head of Ferencvaros defender Adnan Kovacevic, leaving Dibusz stranded as the ball looped over him into the net.
Celtic were firmly in the ascendancy now and came agonisingly close to taking the lead five minutes later. Hatem Elhamed worked a great position on the right and found Ntcham with a cutback. The French midfielder’s powerful shot bounced off the turf and smacked off the underside of the crossbar.
Ferencvaros were now being afforded precious few opportunities to exhibit their pace and directness on the counter as Celtic largely hemmed them into their defensive third of the pitch. But when another chance to break finally came their way with 15 minutes remaining, they took full advantage to leave Celtic staring down the barrel of elimination again.
A long ball out of defence saw Elhamed caught flat-footed and unable to match the pace of Nguen. The striker, who made his professional breakthrough under former Celtic boss Ronny Deila at Stromsgodset, showed great composure as he surged into the penalty area and slid a low shot beyond the advancing Barkas.
Lennon sent on £5 million signing Albian Ajeti for the closing stages but the Swiss striker, considered not match fit enough to start, was unable to rescue Celtic from a deeply dispiriting outcome.
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