A pretty terrible night came to a close as the Romanian champions scored their fourth goal of night thanks to a delicate chip from Tucudean. Yeah, there was drama and excitement, but when reality bites Celtic are now two years without the bright lights of Champions League football.
A positive result in Transylvania last week was wiped out after conceding a headed goal from Deac after just half-an-hour. In truth, it could have been worse; Cluj had already missed a glaring chance earlier in the match and, when Bain later saved a free kick with his feet, the tension in the stands was at fever pitch.
Kristoffer Ayer was the only defender to keep his place from the weekend win over Motherwell, but the same static performance was on display from kick-off. Memories of a failed experiment at Ibrox last Christmas came flooding back as our midfield dynamo Callum McGregor found himself inserted at left-back instead of summer signing Bolingoli. Add big-money purchase Jullien to the names only making the subs’ bench and fans were left scrambling for a suitable reason for so many changes in such an important match.
A first-half devoid of ideas or any continuity in our play was pushed to the back of our minds as a more attacking display was rewarded early in the secomd half thanks to a goal from Forrest, who was ably assisted by McGregor and Edouard. More chances came and, after a defensive mix-up, star man Edouard calmly slotted home to put Celtic back in control (well, in theory anyway). Celtic were searching for another goal that would have maybe killed the tie.
Failing to learn from the mistake in the final moments of the match at Motherwell, Celtic were again punished at a set piece. A Cluj corner was swung into the box where captain Scott Brown inexplicably raised his hand to meet it. No complaints – just the realisation the hard work was undone as the penalty was smashed into the net to put our visitors in control.
Celtic once again rolled up their sleeves and marched down the pitch where the impeccably quick feet of Edouard set up team-mate Ryan Christie to tap home. Cue the expensive disco lights and party anthems, as the tie was in our hands again. Now, if we could have held on to that lead, we could have put the previous indiscretions down to experience and thank our lucky stars, but no. Not tonight.
Huge gaps in midfield were exploited by Cluj and, finding himself in acres of room, Paun fizzed a shot at goal which Bain could only palm into the path of Omrani who did the rest from close range – three apiece with time running out.
Chasing a winner, we were always likely to be left open at the back, but, in truth, we were wide open all night. The goal deep in injury time was the final nail and probably a stake to the heart of any hope of further money being spent to strengthen a very shaky and inexperienced defence.
A win would have guaranteed European football until December, we now have to negotiate another nervy couple of nights in Europe to hopefully qualify for the far less-glamorous and lucrative Europa league.
Martin DonaldsonListen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast