Celtic's Champions League embarrassment at the hands of Cluj a blow for both their finances and Scottish football's standing

Roddy Forsyth
The Telegraph
Celtic's Leigh Griffiths hangs his head after his side's 4-3 defeat to Cluj at Celtic Park - PA
Celtic's Leigh Griffiths hangs his head after his side's 4-3 defeat to Cluj at Celtic Park - PA

In the same way that suspects unfailingly help the constabulary in their enquiries, it is decreed that questions must be asked of the manager whenever a team suffers a setback such as Celtic’s 4-3 home defeat by CFR Cluj – for a 5-4 aggregate loss – in the Champions League third-round qualifying tie second leg on Tuesday.

Neil Lennon, though, went through his interrogation less than an hour before kick-off when he advised BBC Scotland’s trackside reporter why Callum McGregor would play at left-back, the position vacated by Kieran Tierney after his £25million move to Arsenal.

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“I just wanted to get Olivier Ntcham into the team,” he said. “The more technicians in the team, the better.

“We’ve got good experience in the team tonight and we’re going to need that. Some players take a little bit longer.”

The disenchanted portion of the Hoops support, which we may assume to be close to its entirety for the moment, has fixed upon Lennon’s deployment of McGregor as the fatal error that has denied them the prospect of Champions League group stage football. They cite the midfielder’s appearance in that position when Celtic lost to Rangers at Ibrox last December as proof, although McGregor was arguably the only outfield player to pass muster on that occasion.

<span>Celtic fans singled out Callum McGregor for criticism</span> <span>Credit: PA </span>
Celtic fans singled out Callum McGregor for criticism Credit: PA

Yet interpretation of the manager’s pre-match answer suggests that, had he gone like for like at left-back and fielded Boli Bolingoli, the £3m summer signing from Rapid Vienna, Lennon would have been taking a greater gamble than by fielding McGregor, who is usually a paragon of consistency. Bolingoli was complicit in the loss of the opening goal of the tie in Romania and looked uneasy, both in that match and in the weekend game at Motherwell, even though Celtic emerged with a 5-1 victory.

In truth Celtic were overwhelmed in the first half by Cluj’s unexpectedly high press, when they had foreseen a dour contest against a team sitting deep and playing on the break. Then, when they had taken an overall lead after the break, the Scottish champions sabotaged their own hopes with a rare display of collective negligence in defence.

Yet to concentrate on Celtic’s deficiencies is to diminish unfairly the contribution of Dan Petrescu. The former Chelsea winger had ominous form in Glasgow, having subjected Walter Smith’s Rangers to a 4-1 thrashing at Ibrox when he was in charge of tiny Unirea Urziceni for a Champions League group stage game in 2009.

Prior to both games, Petrescu talked fantasy football – in Celtic’s case comparing them to Barcelona and talking about their indulgence by referees in Europe – in a ploy to dissipate anticipation of his strategic plan. He was entitled to his evident self-satisfaction afterwards.

Lennon, meanwhile, must ride the storm of dissent from the Hoops faithful and generate sufficient momentum to steer Celtic past a play-off against either AIK Stockholm or Sheriff Tiraspol for a place in the Europa League. If he has time to reinforce the side before then, it will be from a much smaller spending pot than might have been the case.

The Tierney fee will just about offset the loss of revenue to be absorbed, even if Celtic have European football until Christmas. Had Lennon been able to replicate his 2012 feat of qualification for and from the Champions League group stage, Celtic would have earned close to £40m from Uefa payments and match revenue.

For comparison, a re-run of last season’s Europa League campaign under Brendan Rodgers would be worth something like £10m.

As for the image of Scottish football, already scarred by Kilmarnock’s Europa League dismissal by Connah’s Quay Nomads, a degree of redemption not only depends upon a Celtic recovery but also on the progress of Rangers and Aberdeen in Thursday’s ties.

<span>Steven Gerrard's Rangers hold the advantage heading into their Europa League second leg match</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Steven Gerrard's Rangers hold the advantage heading into their Europa League second leg match Credit: Getty Images

Both are at home in the Europa League, Rangers hoping to enlarge a 4-2 lead over Midtjylland while Aberdeen have the much more formidable task of overcoming a 2-0 defeat by Rijeka in Croatia. Despite Rangers’ comfort margin, Steven Gerrard used Cluj’s performance as a warning to his players of the power of surprise.

“What last night shows is that European ties are never over, even when you get a positive result in the first leg,” said the Ibrox manager. “Some of these teams that people don’t know much about - Cluj from Romania, for example, or Midtjylland from Denmark - they carry a huge threat.

“They're so desperate for financial reasons to progress, like most of us, so my players need to take note of last night and make sure we deal with our second leg much better.”

Aberdeen, meanwhile, will be without top scorer Sam Cosgrove. “We have got enough attacking threat in the team that we shouldn't be solely reliant on Sam,” said Derek McInnes, the Dons’ manager.

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