These are ghastly and more than slightly humiliating times for a Celtic squad who yesterday returned to Glasgow and a mental state of purgatory, bereft of the sense of closure they had sought from their expedition to a bone-chilling Denmark. Celtic, winners of the European Cup in 1967, lost 2-1 to AaB Aalborg on Tuesday evening, and more than their self-esteem went with it.
The package accompanying this defeat cost the Scottish champions their place in the Champions League, and even progression to the Uefa Cup, after an ordeal on an evening in which they saw the winning post before staging a grand collapse. Their bruised spirits were bundled on to a plane in the wee small hours of the morning, some of their players obviously stricken. It was difficult for bewildered manager Gordon Strachan to explain away such happenings after Celtic's corpse was laid out on a slab by a chilly, but morose home side. "Like a bad dream," he said.
In sub-zero temperatures, Celtic submerged. It has always been the way for them in this tournament over a ruinous seven-year period at various outposts that has seen them garner only a wretched point, that astonishingly coming at Barcelona in a 1-1 draw in 2004, from 18 games. One point from a possible 54. A different cast over the years, but the same soiled storyline. Before becoming Celtic's manager, Strachan said: "If you get a chance at a club with European potential, you have to jump at it. As a coach, I learned something right away. Working in Europe helps any coach."
What such an evening does for him, goodness knows. Celtic lead the Scottish Premier League by four points, but this night will gnaw at their conscience for some time to come, probably because it was, as they had felt beforehand, an eminently winnable game. Celtic, ashen-faced and humbled, departed Denmark carried along by the ill wind that had blown through them all night. On a freezing evening, Celtic squandered several early chances to deny them a lead their play deserved. After half-time, Barry Robson thumped a header home, but failure to retain possession enabled Caca, far from his famed namesake, to equalise with the benefit of an outrageous deflection. Gary Caldwell suffered a cruel own goal in 87 minutes to consign Celtic to the dustbin, bottom of Group E.
The home results have been impressive, Barcelona being the only side to enjoy wins in the Champions League at Celtic Park, but their away run is pitiful, stretching between the management of Martin O'Neill and Strachan. Celtic, with a forward line of Henrik Larsson and Chris Sutton, lost 3-2 in the final minute of a group game against Juventus in Turin seven years ago, and have continued losing. It seems like they have lost in every country in the continent, in every type of fashion.
They went down in the last few moments to Bayern Munich, Olympique Lyon, AC Milan and Sporting Lisbon, and have been outplayed at Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and last month at Manchester United, even with the help of two offside goals for the English side. Throw in a 5-0 caning by Artmedia Bratislava in a qualifier under Strachan, and there seems to be a terminal problem. Defeats at Anderlecht, Rosenborg, FC Copenhagen and now Aalborg, a side currently in the midriff of their league, suggests Celtic are not mature enough.
Their ailments have been described as travel sickness, but one is coming to the conclusion that they have picked up some kind of incurable illness at this rarefied level. Aalborg, for all their appetite, were not at such a level, no better than anything Celtic come across in Scotland on a weekly basis. @Email:email@example.com