Wednesday 18 September 2019

Lennon slams 'crazy' Celtic defending in stunning exit

Celtic 3 CFR Cluj 4 (Cluj win 5-4 on aggregate)

Celtic’s Hatem Elhamed looks dejected after last night’s defeat. Photo: Reuters
Celtic’s Hatem Elhamed looks dejected after last night’s defeat. Photo: Reuters
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Celtic crashed out of the Champions League after twice letting a lead slip in a 4-3 home defeat by CFR Cluj.

The Hoops made a storming start to the second half to go 2-1 ahead through goals from James Forrest and Odsonne Edouard but Scott Brown's handball allowed Billel Omrani to net from the spot.

Ryan Christie soon put Celtic back in front but Omrani quickly levelled again on the rebound in the 80th minute to put the Romanians ahead on away goals. George Tucudean then netted with the last kick of the game to seal a 5-4 aggregate win in the third qualifying round.

Neil Lennon criticised his team's failure to display even a basic understanding of their defensive duties on a porous night for his defence.

Celtic's Ryan Christie scores their third goal. Photo: Reuters/Russell Cheyne
Celtic's Ryan Christie scores their third goal. Photo: Reuters/Russell Cheyne

"The goals we conceded are crazy. You've got to do the basics well - you've got to stop crosses, close people down, get your head on things - and it was almost as if we scored and wanted to switch off and control the game," said Lennon.

"In the first half, we were way too passive, way too slow with the tempo, so we gave them a bit of a razz at half-time and we got the right response going 2-1 up. But we needed that two-goal cushion. It's suicidal the goals we gave away tonight.

"The first goal, we got a warning before that, and we still didn't stop the cross and the guy's got across for a run. If you don't do the basics defensively well enough then at this level you get punished. We've let it go. We've only ourselves to blame."

Lennon made a big call in his team selection with summer signing Boli Bolingoli dropped and Callum McGregor moved to left-back.

McGregor had a shaky start and was beaten to a cross as Ciprian Deac headed the opener but the midfielder set up the equaliser as he and all of his team-mates improved vastly in the second half.

However, they could not manage the game when ahead and drop down to the Europa League play-offs, where they face AIK Stockholm or Moldova's Sheriff with the Swedes 2-1 up ahead of their home leg.

Celtic's James Forrest scores their first goal. Photo Reuters/Russell Cheyne
Celtic's James Forrest scores their first goal. Photo Reuters/Russell Cheyne

Cluj pressed Celtic aggressively and pinned their hosts back for much of the opening stages. McGregor had an escape as Omrani lobbed the ball to the back post. The stand-in defender lost Deac and clattered into the Cluj player after he had screwed a shot wide but the visitors' penalty appeals fell on deaf ears.

Christie began to cause problems and Mikey Johnston was not far away with a 25-yard shot at pace but Celtic fell behind in the 27th minute.

Cluj took a quick throw down the left flank and Brown could not prevent Omrani whipping in a dangerous ball to the edge of the six-yard box. Deac cut across McGregor and headed in off the far post.

Celtic showed more urgency towards the end of the half. Christie squeezed a ball along the six-yard line and Edouard got in front of his man but stabbed well over, and Forrest shot wide from a tight angle.

Celtic's Callum McGregor shoots at goal. Photo Reuters/Russell Cheyne
Celtic's Callum McGregor shoots at goal. Photo Reuters/Russell Cheyne

Responded

Lennon stuck with his starting line-up and they responded to his half-time team-talk with their first two efforts on target inside the first couple of minutes. The equaliser came in the 51st minute after a slick move down the left. Edouard left McGregor's low cross and Forrest beat a man and finished well.

Cluj looked threatening but the chances kept coming for Celtic. Edouard stabbed wide and McGregor fired over before the Frenchman swept home in the 61st minute. Johnston, Christie and Forrest all threatened as Celtic looked for a cushion but Brown gifted the visitors a penalty in the 74th minute when he handled following a corner under no real pressure. Omrani's penalty fizzed underneath Bain's dive.

Celtic went back in front two minutes later when Edouard squared for Christie to score but they did not kill the game off and Omrani finished high into the net.

Cluj survived some intense pressure. And Tucudean clipped the ball over Bain six minutes into stoppage-time to put his side into a play-off against Slavia Prague.

Irish Independent

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