Desmond Kane

Celtic’s reluctance to roll dice comes home to roost

Desmond Kane

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It is easy to be wise after the event. Better to be wise before it.

Celtic's wretched 2-0 defeat to Shakhter Karagandy on an untrustworthy artificial surface at the Astana Arena in the first leg of their Champions League play-off tie last night was an accident waiting to happen.

With no new striker of any real pedigree recruited, they flew to Kazakhstan without the proper ammunition with which to rely upon. Dependability goes a long way at the elite level of football.

It is difficult to escape from the conclusion that the Glasgow side have shot themselves in the foot at the mid-point of a two-legged affair that is already starting to carry a sense of foreboding.

It is too early to open an inquest with the second leg on the horizon in Glasgow next Wednesday, but the reasons for the downfall of Neil Lennon's team in the first leg will loom as large as Shakhter's gigantic and lurching five-man defence if elimination is served up at Celtic Park.

Mistakes have been made at boardroom and managerial level prior to a tie that leaves the Scottish champions looking through a trapdoor into the impoverished Europa League after losing to a muscular but ultimately limited side, who will be chewed up and spat out by European's larger concerns should they somehow make the group stage.

They are ranked 324th in Europe, and despite managing to bulge the visiting net twice, quite frankly looked every inch the poor team that they are. Playing in what appeared to be Dundee United strips, they were a low-grade Stoke City of the Tony Pulis variety. Make of that what you will when you have been shred by such a side.

Rory Delap's agent should certainly look out the number of the chain-smoking Shakhter coach Viktor Kumykov if the time-honoured ball hurler fancies a twist in the death throes of his career.

The dearth of quality in the Shakhter side should at least provide Celtic with some hope for next week. Swedish champions Elfsborg were much sharper in the previous round, but suddenly there is an urgency for Celtic to validate their authenticity to thrive at this level.

An estimated £20 million is at large from UEFA for reaching the last 32. Celtic apparently basked in around £22 million from reaching the last 16 before losing to Juventus last season, downing Barcelona and all that, but they face hemorrhaging what seemed likely income unless they unearth a rousing performance at Celtic Park.

The second leg is suddenly a match of epic proportions before the housekeeping is considered. How the former European Cup winners reached this juncture is shocking, but quite predictable in hindsight.

Celtic produced enough offensively in Kazakhstan to suggest two, three or four goals are not beyond them against Shakhter in Glasgow, but they should not be in this position.

Their failure to bring in adequate replacements to replace last season's top goalscorer Gary Hooper, the Kenyan midfielder Victor Wanyama and defender Kelvin Wilson ultimately caught up with them in Astana, a city nearer Beijing than Glasgow.

Celtic are nearer exit from this tournament than progress, but they have eight days to digest these bizarre goings before what is not yet a moribund rematch.

Wanyama joined Southampton for £12.5 million, Hooper headed for Norwich in a £5,5 million transfer and Wilson is a Nottingham Forest player at a cost of around £2.5 million. Celtic have banked roughly £20 million on those sales, but the trade-off could be waving goodbye to the £20 million from the group stage.

The Europa League group stage provides a pittance in comparison, both in terms of prestige and finance. Celtic were never likely to encounter players of a similar level to Wanyama and Hooper at cost price, initially at least, but there should be enough class in the overseas market to help them beyond a side such as Shakhter.

Studying their opponents, the gamble to purchase a valued forward for this match would surely have paid off, but the risky strategy extended itself to the technical area.

Lennon was lauded for his tactical nous in helping Celtic reach the knock-out stages last season. He must accept criticism for getting his tactics wrong.

His decision to hand the Dutchman Virgil van Dijk a full competitive debut alongside Steven Mouyokolo, two men who had not played together in central defence under such strain, was an obvious error as Efe Ambrose, partner for Wilson in the previous two qualifying rounds, looked on from the substitutes bench.

It was probably a relief only 30 Celtic fans made the sojourn to ‘Eurasia’ to witness this shambles. Neither Van Dijk or Mouyokolo coped well with the occasion, or the longish throw-ins. Van Dijk, a Netherlands Under-21 centre-half, played a lamentable role in both of the home goals.

Celtic wasted several opportunities with only Kris Commons turning in anywhere near the level of performance required for such an evening.

One has to wonder what is the point of aspiring to the Champions League group stage when you are not recruiting the level of player required for that level? Deadlines have not been met to assist Lennon, who one suspects has been hung out to dry by his board's failure to furnish the side with a striker despite much talk to the contrary.

When asked if being without Wanyama and Hooper had hindered Celtic, Lennon replied: "Possibly. But I still think we've got enough in the squad to come through the tie so that's what we will try to do."

Was the attitude wrong? Who knows, but the second goal shipped by Celtic was awful with Mouyokolo making a mess of a headed clearance before Van Dijk, whose nickname could have been Dick, retreated and retreated before he allowed a cross to come in rather than close down the danger at source.

Mouyokolo blocked the initial attempt, but Van Dijk was lazy and ball-watching when Sergei Khizhnichenko headed into the empty net with 13 minutes remaining. It added to Andrei Finoncheno's preventable opening goal on 12 minutes when Celtic were outjumped from a basic long throw-in. It added insult to injury from a nightmarish journey.

In keeping with local custom, Shakhter had sacrificed a sheep before this match. Lennon will surely sacrifice Van Dijk for the second leg, but it may already be too late.

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