Scottish champions Celtic welcomed Romanian side CFR Cluj to the Celtic Park for the second leg of their clash in the third round of this year’s Champions League qualifications.
The first leg result (1-1) slightly favored Celtic, who had the comfort of an away goal. It meant that the visitors would have to go in search of one themselves, and potentially leave some space for them to exploit.
Celtic boss Neil Lennon rested several players at the weekend, and he was able count on them all for this game.
Scott Bain was in goal. Kristoffer Vassbakk Ajer and Jozo Simunovic were in the heart of defence, flanked by Callum McGregor on the left and Hatem Abd Elhamed on the right. Scott Brown anchored the midfield with James Forrest and Olivier Ntcham slightly more advanced. Michael Johnston and Ryan Christie supported striker Odsonne Edouard from the wings.
Dan Petrescu in the away dugout was without veteran midfielder Emiliano Culio, but the rest of the squad was at his disposal.
Giedrius Arlauskis stood between the posts. Paulo Vinicius and Andrei Burca formed the centre-back partnership, with Mateo Susic on the right and Camora on the left. Damjan Djokovic and Luis Aurelio were to hold the middle of the park, with Ciprian Ioan Deac and Mihai Bordeinau in wider roles. Mario Rondon amd Billel Omrani were upfront.
The First Half
Needing to strike in order to stand a chance of progressing, the visitors started ambitiously. They pushed Celtic back in the opening period, mostly attacking down the right flank, but having weathered the initial shock, Lennon’s team were defending more comfortably by the minute and started shifting the balance of the game.
They finally started threatening with around a quarter of an hour gone, mostly through Ryan Christie on the right. The winger created a chance for Edouard before having one himself, but neither of them managed to hit the target. Johnston came close with a solo effort in the 25th minute, but then a clod shower hit the stadium.
Cluj suddenly charged forward down the left, and Camora’s quick throw-in found Omrani who whipped a good cross into the box, finding the head of Deac who neatly directed it into the opposite corner.
The Romanians tried to take advantage of the shock and they continued attacking ruthlessly for a while, making the Celtic defence and goalkeeper work hard. Djokovic made Bain particularly stay on his toes as he whipped a free-kick from very long range low and on target.
Around the half-hour mark the home side seemed to have snapped out of it and Christie and Johnston started looking lively again at the other end. The game picked up pace as time went on, but though both sides pften charged forward, they were still tactically disciplined and there were no holes in either formation to exploit.
With three minutes to go in the first half, the visitors were very lucky to continue playing with 11 men as Rondon, who had already been booked, committed a needless foul on Simunovic. On the other hand, Celtic defender Elhamed was also lucky after Rondon and Omrani failed to punish his lack of focus in the last seconds of injury time.
The Second Half
Obviously showing too much nerves, Rondon stayed in the dressing room and Petrescu sent out George Tucudean in his place. Aware that they had nothing to lose, Celtic charged forward from the start of the second period. They came very close twice from successive corners within two minutes, but Arlauskis did extremely well to deny them on both occasions.
Cluj had a chance to hit them on the counterattack soon afterwards, but Deac failed to engage Rondon properly; and then they were punished.
Minute 50 was passing when Johnston found Forrest inside the box with a low cross from the left. Forrest displayed superb composure as he sold a dummy to an opponent before slamming past the helpless Arlauskis and into the net.
The game exploded into life again and it was Bain’s turn to be the hero for his team at the other end as soon as the visitors restarted the game, right before Edouard failed to divert another good cross by Johnston from close range on target. McGregor came close too, but his shot from the edge of the box also went wide.
However, right on the hour-mark an incredible defensive mistake undid all the good work Cluj had done up to that point. Vinicius and Burca got in the way of each other and the ball fell nearly to Edouard, less than 10 yards from the goal. The Celtic striker wasn’t going to waste this gift.
Christie almost made it three in less than sixty seconds, but as he latched onto a lucky rebound, his low effort from a yard outside the box trickled an inch wide of the post.
It was now the visitors’ turn to go searching for a goal again, and while their attacks seemed to lack a bit of imagination at that point, they were leaving a lot of space for Celtic to try and exploit through counterattacks. Tucudean, however, had a decent chance when he received the ball deep inside the box in the 68th minute, but Simunovic did enough to throw him off.
Frustration was starting to show in the actions of Petrescu’s men, and not only did they start committing needless fouls again, but they were leaving more and more space open in their half. Forrest took advantage of one such occasion, entered the box by cutting inside from the right and hitting a low shot, but Arlauskis was alert.
And then, just as it started looking like Celtic would be able to bring the game to a close, a truly inexplicable move by Simunovic changed everything. Cluj took a corner from the left side, and as Omrani was preparing to try and hit a volley from around 12 yards, Simunovic diverted it from its path using his hand in a rather obvious way. Referee Andris Treimanis had no doubts whatsoever as he pointed to the spot, and Omrani stepped up.
However, Christie and Edouard immediately played a fantastic combination down the left which ended with the winger slotting home from the edge of six yards. As you were.
But the excitements did not stop there. Cluj burst forward in the 80th minute, and as Bain denied Constantin Paun-Alexandru, who had replaced Aurelio two minutes before, from long range, Omrani pounced on the rebound and slammed the ball into the top corner.
It was now all or nothing for Celtic and their attacks became relentless. The visitors defended with their lives and still looked to hit on the counterattack, combining it all with a fir amount of time-wasting. But they weren’t going to let Celtic have everything their way. As soon as the ball went far from their goal, the Romanian team pressed high and fought with great determination to prevent the home side from getting organized.
Nonetheless as the minutes of injury time started running, Celtic pushed their opponents all the way back and Brown had a go from 20 yards, just missing the post. His team tried to continue attacking, but at their luck failed them utterly, literally in the last seconds of the game.
Cluj pushed them far back through relentless pressing and won the ball deep in their half, and eventually Tucudean broke free, one on one with Bain, and made no mistake.
It’s never easy to add up all the impressions a game like this leaves so close after the final whistle, but the general feeling is that it was a bit cruel for Celtic to drop out this way. It cannot be said that they didn’t try. They worked hard and relentlessly, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be. They will have to find some comfort in the Europa League. That is, if they can find a way past the play-off round where they will face either Sheriff Tiraspol or AIK.
On the other hand, it also cannot be said that Cluj didn’t deserve this triumph. They worked just as hard and showed some real attitude in the face of the fact that most of the football public considered them outsiders in this clash. They will now fight Slavia Prague for a place in the Champions League group stages.
CELTIC: Bain 7.5, Ajer 6, Simunovic 7, Elhamed 6, McGregor 6.5, Brown 7 (88′ Bayo N/A), Forrest 8, Ntcham 5.5 (83′ Griffiths N/A), Christie 8, Johnston 7.5 (75′ Morgan 5), Edouard 7.
CFR CLUJ: Arlauskis 8, Vinicius 6, Burca 6, Camora 6.5, Susic 7, Djokovic 7.5, Aurelio 5 (78′ Paun-Alexandru 7), Deac 8, Bordeianu 6, Omrani 7.5 (84′ Muresan N/A), Rondon 6 (46′ Tucudean 7.5).
GOALS: Deac 27′, Forrest 51′, Edouard 61′, Omrani 74′ (P), 80′, Christie 76′, Tucudean 90’+5.
YELLOW CARDS: Rondon 40′, Elhamed 41′, Deac 63′, Arlauskis 87′.
REFEREE: Andris Treimanis, Latvia.
DATE & VENUE: August 13, 2019, Celtic Park, Glasgow, Scotland.
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