Referee ‘took game away from Celtic’ with Jeremy Toljan red card, fumes Brendan Rodgers

Brendan Rodgers believes German referee Deniz Aytekin cost Celtic the opportunity to pull off a dramatic comeback in their last-32 Europa League tie against Valencia.

Celtic's Jeremy Toljan is sent off against Valencia. Picture: Alberto Saiz/AP

The Celtic manager felt his team were on course to overturn their 2-0 first leg deficit until they were reduced to ten men eight minutes before half-time, when Jeremy Toljan was sent off for a second bookable offence.

Rodgers insists the referee got the decision wrong and should instead have awarded Celtic a free-kick for the clash between on-loan full-back Toljan and Valencia winger Goncalo Guedes.

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Substitute Kevin Gameiro’s 70th-minute goal gave Valencia victory on the night and completed a 3-0 aggregate victory for the Spanish side. 
But Rodgers was in no doubt the outcome could have been different if on-loan Borussia Dortmund player Toljan had stayed on the pitch.

“I thought we were much the superior team until that point,” said Rodgers. “The referee took the game away from us.

“I spoke to the referee just after the game. He said it was a definite sending-off. I thought it was really harsh. The players came together but I didn’t think it was a second yellow card, I thought it was a free-kick to us.

“You just sensed we were building into the game and it was disappointing.

“That was a key moment that took the game away from us. That changes the dynamic of the game.”

Rodgers, pictured, was full of praise for the performance of his team, who created chances to open the scoring before Gameiro killed off their hopes.

“Our shape worked really well for us,” added the Northern Irishman.

“We started the game ever so well, nice and tight defensively. We carried a threat in our penetration and looked like we were building our way through and get the goal we craved. The bravery of the players was absolutely incredible.

“We had a great chance to go 1-0 up through Kristoffer Ajer. But in the key moments over the two legs, we haven’t defended so well.

“The performance tonight, our supporters will be very proud of the team, having that courage to come and play and force the game against a very good side.

“I said last week we started the game well but if you make mistakes at this level you’ll get punished. Unfortunately for us, that’s what has cost us.”

This has been the second successive season in which Celtic’s European campaign has ended at the last 32 stage of the Europa League. 
Rodgers admits it will be challenging for the champions to progress deeper into the knockout stages in the future. “You are always looking to improve,” he added. “It’s maybe difficult for us. But we can’t give up hope. 
“You saw the team play very, very well tonight, so now we just have to look to qualify for European competition again next season and try to progress.”