Sunday 20 May 2018

Lost Bhoys crash out after hollow victory

Celtic 2
Sporting Braga 1
(Sporting Braga win 4-2 on aggregate)

Celtic's Gary Hooper (R) scores but Neil Lennon's side come up short
against Braga. Photo: Reuters
Celtic's Gary Hooper (R) scores but Neil Lennon's side come up short against Braga. Photo: Reuters

Gavin McCafferty

Celtic's faint Champions League hopes fizzled out at Parkhead last night as a first-half Rocha Paulo Cesar strike effectively destroyed the Bhoys' slight hopes.

Paulo Cesar's 20th-minute header put his side 4-0 ahead on aggregate and had even the most optimistic Hoops fans resigned to defeat.

Neil Lennon's men did show some fight in the second half and goals from Gary Hooper, in the 51st minute, and Efrain Juarez, in the 78th, salvaged a modicum of pride for Celtic after last week's 3-0 humbling in Portugal.

The Celtic boss put a brave face on it despite another night of defensive errors.

"Overall I'm delighted with the performance and intensity and all the things you ask for -- commitment and passion," Lennon said. "The pace we played at and the passing was very pleasing.At half-time we just asked them to win the game and I thought we deserved to win.

"But we keep conceding soft goals. I'm learning from it and hopefully the players are learning."

But over the two legs the SPL side were outclassed by an accomplished Braga outfit and, after their first-leg collapse at AXA Stadium, they never looked likely to progress in Europe's premier competition, failing to build up the attacking momentum needed to prevent them dropping into the Europa League play-off round.

Lennon handed striker Hooper a competitive debut as his side attempted to pull off what would have been a famous comeback.

The introduction of the recent signing from Scunthorpe was the only change to the team that lost in the first leg of the third qualifying round.

Midfielder Ki Sung-Yueng made way for Hooper, whose goalscoring appearance against Lyon on Saturday was his first pre-season match action.

With Aiden McGeady still considering a move to Spartak Moscow, Celtic started with Shaun Maloney and Juarez out wide.

They twice threatened from inswinging corners by Charlie Mulgrew in the opening stages.

However, Georgios Samaras glanced his header wide from the first and the second broke to Joe Ledley, who sliced over from 16 yards.

But the early pressure soon dissipated and Celtic's task, already tough, grew even more difficult when Braga snatched an away goal in the 20th minute.


Osorio Alan was allowed room to cross from the right and Paulo Cesar ran across Cha Du-ri before glancing a header beyond the outstretched arm of Lukasz Zaluska and inside the post.

The away goal left Celtic needing five to progress, but one was looking unlikely as they struggled to break their visitors down.

Samaras stretched his leg towards a Juarez cross but could not turn it on target and Celtic almost fell further behind when they were exposed down their left side.

Mulgrew was taken off after struggling in the first period with Ledley moving to left-back and Marc-Antoine Fortune coming on.

Cesar played a poor ball across goal as Celtic were outnumbered on the counter-attack and the reprieve was soon followed by a 51st-minute leveller. Fortune's power and skill won him space on the right side of the box and his excellent low cross was bundled home by Hooper. The goal lifted the crowd and the team but they soon needed a saving tackle by Du-Ri Cha to prevent Leandro Salina converting after a back-post cross.

Maloney limped off in the 65th minute with former Sunderland forward Daryl Murphy coming on in his place.

The home side desperately tried to show some fight and almost took the lead on the night in the 68th minute.

Murphy was hauled down just outside the area by Valdelomar Alberto Rodriguez, who was booked, and Samaras' strike from the free-kick whistled just inches wide.

Cha screwed a shot wide of the top-left corner after Braga only half-cleared a scramble in the box and the lively Samaras floated a header just wide with 17 minutes left.

With the tie effectively long over, Braga were in cruise control, and seemed content to soak up Celtic's energetic, if a little one-dimesional, attacks.

The Hoops faithful were given a tiny glimmer of hope though in the 77th minute when Juarez expertly nodded in a Samaras cross.

Fortune then spurned a great chance to bag a third goal for the Bhoys when he delayed his strike from six yards out a fraction too long and the Braga defence threw bodies on the line to clear the danger.

Paddy McCourt came on for Scott Brown with four minutes remaining, but Celtic's Champions League dreams were over and they must be content with Europa League football.

Irish Independent

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