Yes, the 3-2 defeat by Bayer Leverkusen that has closed the door on progress in the Europa League may have resulted from the loss of two goals in the final eight minutes of normal time. But it could not be argued that the home side did not deserve their win that has made them unassailable at the top of Group G, and condemned Celtic to the Conference League in preventing them being able to usurp Real Betis.
For all that Ange Postecoglou’s men flirted with the possibility of posting Celtic’s first victory in 13 outings on German soil – courtesy of taking a 56th minute lead with a sublime counter-attacking move that allowed Jota to produce a finish to match – they were not the equal of their hosts. Even when this second goal followed on from them having equalised courtesy of Josip Juranovic netting an outrageous Paneka-style penalty kick that crossed the line via the underside of the bar...the 39th minute spot-kick awarded after a smart VAR spot that keeper Lukáš Hrádecký had horribly wiped out Kyogo Furuhashi as he bounded out to deal with a cross.
There is no shame that Celtic were ultimately second best, that their late undoing means they have now conceded more goals – 13 – than any other team in the Europa League. Postecoglou’s men were competitive in a country in which they have so often failed to make any sort of impression across a host of previous visits. It would be easy to point to Celtic substitutions as turning the encounter. Certainly, the visitors seemed destablised when the commanding Nir Bitton was forced off with injury midway through the period, to be replaced by James McCarthy. Similarly, that could be argued of Postecoglou feeling the need to replace tiring front three Jota, Furuhashi, and James Forrest with Mikey Johnston, Albian Ajeti and Liel Abada.
However, Celtic had already ridden their luck by that point, for all that they had some confident, encouraging spells. Joe Hart seemed anointed just before his team made it 2-1 with a quite ridiculous double save that followed Leverkusen slicing them through the middle after Moussa Diaby outpaced Anthony Ralston. His fired-in low effort that Hart blocked with his legs seemed to only delay the inevitable when the ball then broke to Amine Aldi six yards out of an unguarded net. But Hart turned magician-come-acrobat to scramble across and not only pluck the ball off the midfielder’s toes but clasp it. Just ahead of the break, Celtic had also enjoyed good fortune with Leverkusen striking each post within a matter of seconds.
The flow was all towards the Celtic goal before Leverkusen twice picked them off in ruthless fashion. They were seriously creaking when Ralston slashed at a clearance and sent it to Aldi at the right channel. He was able to switch it to Nadiem Amiri deep on the left with his cut-back driven in by Robert Andrich. Five minutes after this 82nd minute equaliser, Celtic’s were delivered a fatal blow when pulled apart in a move that finished with Moussa Diaby volleying in from 14 yards. It is fair to say we have all been guilty of obsessing over the strike-out strategy that is the hill Postecoglou is willing to die on. It can obscure to one salient fact: what can be wounding to his Celtic is not the “openness” his Leverkusen counterpart Gerardo Seoane said his side would seek to exploit. It can still be simple defending from set-pieces.
There was something depressingly familiar about Andrich being able to run off Ralston and bound in to meet a Florian Witz corner with his jutting head for the home side’s 16th minute opener. Postecoglou has changed much about Celtic, but what proved to be a desperately damaging weakness defending corners and cross balls last season has yet to be effectively tackled. Indeed, the concession was all the more exasperating because Celtic had been delivered a warning minutes earlier when Andrich missed the target from a carbon-copy situation.
Postecoglou will prefer to push the positives of the evening, and these weren’t in short supply for all that Leverkusen were sharper and deadlier when it really counted. Forrest showed all of his crucial worth in a first start since mid-August, never more so than with his part in a quite brilliant build-up for on-loan Benfica winger Jota’s seventh goal in Celtic colours. Hart started it off with a pinpoint kick from his hands that allowed Forrest to produce a delightful back-flick into the path of Bitton. The Israeli’s attempted switch to Jota on left was initially blocked by a falling Jeremie Frimpong but when it ran loose Furuhashi was able to slip the ball to the winger for him to steer an inch-perfect, first time low drive into the corner of the net. The goal made for only the second time that Celtic have scored twice in a game in Germany in 13 such encounters and, remarkably, it was the eighth they have struck in their group travels this season. That the flip side is they have also given up nine in these three away games pretty much says everything about where Celtic are in the here and now.
Bayer Leverkusen: Hradecky, Frimpong, Kossounou, Tah, Hincapie (Sinkgraven 75), Palacios, Andrich, Diaby, Wirtz (Tapsoba 89), Paulinho (Amiri 72), Adli. Subs: Lomb, Lunev, Retsos, Gedikli.
Celtic: Hart, Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Welsh, Juranovic, Bitton (McCarthy 76), McGregor, Forrest (Abada 72), Turnbull, Jota (Johnston 72), Kyogo (Ajeti 76). Subs: Bain, Scales, Oluwayemi, Ajeti, Soro, Urhoghide, Shaw, Murray, Montgomery.