Whatever Shakhter were trying to gain from their well publicised sacrificing of a sheep – it worked. Celtic face an uphill challenge to qualify for the group stage of European football’s premier competition, after struggling their way through an embarrassing 2-0 defeat to Kazakhstani minnows Shakhter Karagandy.
Losing to goals from Shakhter’s longest serving player Andrei Finonchenko and Sergiy Khizhnichenko (who? Exactly!), Celtic need three without reply to progress in next week’s second leg in Glasgow.
Celtic’s preparations were seemingly perfect, given they had to fly straight from Aberdeen on Saturday afternoon, they had time to settle in Astana, and were put up in a 5 star hotel. The players all declared their satisfaction with the artificial surface, and had a full strength side to pick from, only Derk Boerrigter was absent from the 18 man squad due to him lacking fitness the most.
And they started well, dominating possession, winning a few early corners and exploiting the Kazakh goalkeeper Aleksandar Mokin’s vulnerability from high balls, both Virgil Van Dijk and Steven Mouyokolo having headers cleared off the line. Not one of the back 5 of Shakhter is below 6 feet tall, and it’s clear that the defence has been organised as such to protect the goalkeeper, who’s reasonable shot stopping ability was clouded his non existent command of the area.
However Shakhter grew into the game, and their Lithuanian midfielder Gediminas Vičius’ enormous throw caused problems for Celtic’s defence. Their long criticised zonal marking strategy failed, as they continually avoided to attack the ball, eventually leading to a flick on to be bundled in by seasoned Finonchenko from 5 yards out.
If the home crowd were up for it before, the roof nearly came off the place, with the Kazakh fans right behind their club and galvanised their giant defence into dealing with every ball fired in.
The defending from Karagandy was impressive, but had it been tested by Celtic’s attack it may have withered. The simple fact of the matter is that it wasn’t – Celtic looked lazy, laboured and downright disinterested in the game. Kris Commons perhaps the exception, he cracked a ridiculous effort off the bar in the first half from around 25 yards, but when dropping into the hole between the orange banks of five and four, received no support from any of his team mates.
I genuinely believed that a good old fashioned half time hair dryer treatment would spark some kind, any kind of response from Celtic, and it looked the case when Honduran full back Emilio Izaguirre came close at the beginning of the second half. Izaguirre cut inside from the left flank, but his finish on his weaker right foot lacked composure and he blazed over. James Forrest came close, timing his run from deep expertly to meet the ball, but saw his header saved by Mokin.
At the other end of the field, Celtic’s typically organised defence were in total disarray. Sergiy Khizhnichenko was asked to lead the line, and was drawing needless fouls from Celtic’s unimpressive new signings Virgil Van Dijk and Steven Mouyokolo, and the man who has only ever played in Kazakstan, grabbed the second goal with less than 15 minutes left to play.
Mikael Lustig is generally thought of as Celtic’s best defender, but limped his way through this game. His performance typified that of the team’s – poor, unaware and arrogant. He was frequently caught out by the long ball to Khizhnichenko running his channel, and offered James Forrest no support going forward. It was painful to endure when he was finally hooked for Adam Matthews, Celtic looked a little bit stronger going forward.
Mouyokolo and Van Dijk continuously failed to deal with Shakhter’s long ball, and with the Frenchman’s header looping into the air, he was able to half vindicate his error with a block from an edge of the box effort, before the ball was pumped back into the back post where Khizhnichenko outmuscled Van Dijk and headed beyond Fraser Forster.
Cue contrasting scenes of elation and despair on the touchline, with Viktor Kumykov arms aloft and Lennon with head in hands.
Highlighted by many pundits, was Neil Lennon’s failure to introduce a striker. Anthony Stokes and Amido Balde both sat on the bench while Celtic huffed and puffed up front, and only Balde saw action, only 10 minutes, where he proved ineffective.
There’s argument that Shakhter are worse than Celtic’s previous opponents Elfsborg – but they are a powerful, organised, well-drilled unit, and a backs to the wall performance next week in Glasgow is expected. Celtic – as poor as they were tonight – are more than capable of scoring the three goals needed, but they must first address their schoolboy defending and lack of ideas that was on display tonight. But hey must prove that a week tomorrow at Celtic Park.
And after a sheepish performance, it leaves Celtic with work to do in Glasgow, and with £10m and their season hinging on one game; you get the feeling Neil Lennon will settle for nothing less than a convincing win.
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