With that deserting them, the worst possible beginning for new manager Ange Postecoglou’s tenure has come to pass. Even if recriminations for that will be hurled the way of the Celtic board, not their Greek-Australian manager.
As with the first leg that ended 1-1, Celtic had a lead, had the tie firmly in their grip, had their chances. And they squandered all of these advantages. A superb strike from Callum McGregor in the 48th minute should have given way to James Forrest, introduced second earlier, making it 2-0 just after the hour. A weaving run that took him past opponents as if they were cones on the training pitch left the goal utterly at his mercy. When he inexplicably knocked the ball passed from eight yards, it was as if the direction of travel for Champions League hopes veered away too – for a fourth consecutive season.
Within seconds, Awer Mabil – oh the irony of his being an Australian international known so well to former Socceroos coach Postecoglou – had produced an equaliser through escaping into space in the box to tuck away a downward header from a chipped ball into the area.
As a refreshed Midtjylland grew in stature, their visitors visibly wilted, save for Forrest twice having openings. Ultimately, the wonder was that Midtjylland required the added 30 minutes to seal their progress. They only needed the fourth minute of that, with substitute Raphael Onyedika ramming in from close in, after Celtic were sliced apart by a move that led to the ball being played out to the right then drilled across to the scorer.
The Europa League third qualifying round to Czechs Jablonec awaits next week. But the laying waste to the club from a support in permanently insurrectionist mode, following a year of disasters and missteps that have regressed them two decades inside 12 months, will make the coming days for the targets of verbal beatings on an extreme scale seem like millennium.
The goalkeeping position will be one area where the punches fly. The lines Postecoglou allowed to be read between about the possibility he could replace Vasilis Barkas with Scott Bain for the Danish denouement mean the Scotland international’s name appearing on the team sheet was far from a gasp-inducing moment.
The permanently-drooped shoulders of the luckless, and seemingly confidence-bereft Greek, must have come close to collapsing when the news that was relayed to him. It is difficult to see how Barkas can possibly now resuscitate a Celtic career that seems to have been on life support from within the early weeks of his arrival from AEK Athens in a £4.5m deal almost a year ago. There are reports of a revived interest in Joe Hart, who was linked with the club before Barkas was bought on board.
Yet, even allowing for the fact it was a Barkas error that cost the equaliser in the 1-1 first leg draw, concerns over Celtic’s defence extended way beyond who was given the gloves. Few believed that the centre-back pairing of 18-year-old Dane Murray, in his first competitive start, and 21-year-old Stephen Welsh could stand up to the examination the Champions League second leg presented. Not least because of the little regard for full-backs Anthony Ralston and Greg Taylor.
The edginess that developed across a stuffy first 45 minutes wasn’t caused by how Celtic performed in and around their own penalty area, though. The unfamiliar and unfancied young quartet handled the press of an athletic, but far from aesthetic, home side. They did so with the risky Postecoglou strategy that will be their default of the ball pinging around their own box – it was passed out from Bain, back to him again, and even across the face of their goal – to build the play. It was high wire stuff, but they never lost their footing.
It was the little surety in forward areas that prevented Celtic trumping the graft of Midtjylland with their greater graft. A couple of half chances across the opening period – Odsonne Edouard sending a flashing drive over in the early minutes, the most notable – told of the inability to engage Ryan Christie and Liel Abada in dangerous areas.
The complexion appeared to change completely when McGregor fashioned magnificence in collecting Paulinho’s headed clearance from a Celtic corner three minutes into the second period. In one seamless move, he chested the ball down and made the sweetest contact to send a dipping volley into the top corner.
The Parkhead men should have pressed home their advantage but a trio of key moments around the hour-mark put the tie firmly back in the balance. Firstly, Bain was sloppy when Onyedika slid a ball along the face of goal, the keeper let it slip beyond him as he appeared to dive over it. A minute later came Forrest’s failure in front of goal. Mabil’s score felt like the coup de grace… even before that duly administered.
What Celtic never do these days is surprise with their ability to take a situation and rinse from it any possible good, any possible outcome to allow for them to exhale deeply. Whatever public face he affects, Postecoglou should already be breathing a little heavier before his team’s league opener away to Hearts on Saturday, for what Celtic have demonstrated in the past year is that things can always get worse.