Celtic performance not matched by result in Milan

Charlie Mulgrew goes for the spectacular while sandwiched between Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes. Picture: Getty
Charlie Mulgrew goes for the spectacular while sandwiched between Cristian Zapata and Philippe Mexes. Picture: Getty
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IN A unique Champions League group of four clubs with a shared sense of history, Celtic have already discovered in the harshest possible manner how difficult it will be to add another glorious chapter to their own tales of yore this season.

For the first time, a group in the elite tournament is comprised entirely of former European champions.

Yet Celtic manager Neil Lennon welcomed the Group H draw by insisting his team are not the “runts of the litter”.

Last night in the San Siro, however, they were left feeling like puppy dogs on the receiving end of cruel treatment.

For more than 80 minutes, Lennon’s players scampered brightly and intelligently around an AC Milan side short on ideas and invention, only to be undone by the late strikes from Cristian Zapata and Sulley Muntari.

Defeats don’t get much tougher to take than this. On a night when Lennon’s team selection and gameplan were vindicated for so long, delivering one of the most assured European displays under his guidance, the Scottish champions deserved so much better.

For all that the Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, to give it its Sunday name, is rightly regarded as one of European football’s fortresses, it has not been completely impregnable in recent times.

Celtic’s willingness to try to engage their hosts on the front foot as often as possible was refreshing and heartening as they looked to emulate the success enjoyed by those who visited in the group stage of the tournament last season.

Milan lost to Zenit St Petersburg and had to settle for draws with both Anderlecht and Malaga in that campaign, relying on away form to take them into the last 16.

With Celtic able to command a share of possession that Lennon could scarcely have imagined beforehand, there was no shortage of encouragement that they could become the latest side to leave the great venue with something tangible to show for their efforts.

Despite an early scare, when cheap concession of the ball by Efe Ambrose led to a first sight of goal for Mario Balotelli, whose thunderous shot went straight at Fraser Forster, Celtic were generally composed in possession and as progressive with it as their manager would have wished.

There was an onus on Anthony Stokes, preferred to Teemu Pukki up front, to make the most of anything which came his way and he passed his first test with a clever lay-off to Kris Commons whose shot was deflected behind for one of six Celtic corners in the first half.

Lennon’s team selection charged Georgios Samaras, Commons and Adam Matthews with the task of providing as much support as possible to central striker Stokes. It was Matthews who had the most opportunities to do so, but the young Welsh international was unable to fully capitalise on the space he found down the right.

It was Milan who found themselves in the role of the counter-attacking side at this stage and they almost made one raid count when Alessandro Matri’s firm header was smartly saved by the alert Forster.

Stokes showed patience and diligence as he sought his long-awaited first Champions League goal for Celtic and was so nearly rewarded five minutes before half-time.

The Irishman pounced on slack work at the back by Milan, then showed lovely footwork before drilling in a low shot which was deflected just wide off Philippe Mexes.

Parity was the least Celtic deserved at the interval and it would have been exceptionally harsh had Balotelli plundered the opener for Milan in stoppage time when his shot took a deflection off Ambrose and forced another decent save from Forster.

If anything, Celtic were even more emboldened after the break. The sight of Samaras, so often their key man on the road in Europe, hitting his stride at last with a powerful run and shot narrowly wide provided further encouragement that a bright start to their group campaign was firmly within their grasp.

With Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew bolstering the midfield as effectively for their club as they had for Scotland in Macedonia eight days earlier, Milan were frustrated in their attempts to build up any sustained spells of pressure. When they did carve out a rare sight of goal, Celtic were grateful to see Muntari head the best chance of the night over.

Still the visitors looked the likelier side, still they looked to get forward as often as they could. Had Stokes’ 80th minute free-kick gone in instead of striking the bar, few could have denied Celtic were worthy of the lead. As it was, their evening imploded in those closing moments when Zapata’s off-target shot was deflected beyond the helpless Forster off Emilio Izaguirre, then Muntari doubled Milan’s lead when first to the loose ball after a Balotelli free-kick was brilliantly saved by the Celtic keeper.

Lennon’s men cannot afford to lick their wounds for too long as they await matchday two and the visit of Barcelona to Celtic Park. This is a group which promises to be as unforgiving as it is illustrious.