Champions League: Celtic weakness cruelly exposed in defeat

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Celtic were dumped out of the Champions League in Sweden
Celtic were dumped out of the Champions League in Sweden

In the minutes after Celtic's lame exit from the Champions League, the mixed zone at the Swedbank Stadium was like a hospital ward for damaged footballers.

The visiting team trooped in with their pride hurting not just because of what their driven opponents from Malmo had just done to them but by what their own manager had said about them.

When Ronny Deila accused his team of being "scared" and "frightened" on the night, it was as firm a kick to their collective solar plexus as anything the Swedes visited upon them.

By levelling an accusation of timidity at his players, Deila was calling into question all sorts of things - principally their character.

It was a searing comment, the most serious accusation he could have made. And he was correct.

Celtic failed dismally to front-up. Their go-to players were routed. Virgil van Dijk, Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen were all badly beaten in their head-to-heads. Celtic's leaders were cowed.

True, they were the victims of a miscarriage of justice when Nir Bitton's goal was disallowed just before the break, but later on, nobody from the Celtic camp sought refuge in a hard luck story.

Fair play to them for that. Refusing to cling to that life raft was the best part of their night. Goal or no goal, they knew they weren't good enough. Not even close.

Brown, the captain, called it best when he said he was ashamed of the performance. Brown's honesty was commendable in a way that his football was not.

Malmo players celebrate their 2-0 win over Celtic
Malmo players celebrate their 2-0 win over Celtic for a 4-3 aggregate success

The poverty of Celtic's play was shocking. No sensible person would ever make grand claims about Deila's team, but even if by modest standards this was dreadful.

Their passing was abject to the point of embarrassing. Too often they had a death-wish when in possession. Misplaced pass followed misplaced pass and all the while Malmo's confidence grew as the noise level of their supporters spurred them on.

From early in the evening, Celtic had the appearance of men who were caving in under the pressure. In the end, they went down, not like the lions Deila believed them to be or the pigs they were allegedly accused of being, but mice.

Two goals conceded from corner kicks told its own story. They had their warning that corners could hurt them when Jo Inge Berget smashed in the goal that made it 3-2 in Glasgow, but this is a Celtic team that won't - or can't - learn its lesson.

The verve of their first 20 minutes at Celtic Park was like a snapshot from another era. It was as if the characters who had tormented Malmo in that opening spell in Glasgow had been replaced by a gang of imposters.

Deila slammed his players but he hardly exonerated himself. How could he when he hopelessly misjudged the merits of his team, talking them up like they had made vast progress in the past year.

If they have made any, it's limited and painfully short of disposing of a team like Malmo, a moderate side put together for small money, but one in possession of the kind of mettle that Celtic do not possess.

There was a moment in the lead-up to Malmo's second goal that was, in some ways, illustrative of the difference between the teams. It involved the local talisman, Markus Rosenberg, and Brown, the guy who is supposed to be Celtic's galvanising presence.

Celtic manager Ronny Deila
Ronny Deila has fallen short at this stage of the competition for two years running with Celtic

A lobbed ball was played into the Celtic half and Rosenberg and Brown competed for it. We say competed but, in truth, it wasn't a contest. Rosenberg got there first, back-headed it and then, as Brown was gathering his thoughts, Rosenberg left him for dead and set off in a beeline for the Celtic penalty box.

The ball went to Berget, who forced a fine save from Craig Gordon. When the ball broke loose, it was Rosenberg who was on to it. As he was forcing a second wonderful save from the Celtic goalkeeper, Brown still hadn't recovered his ground.

Interview - Kris Commons

Rosenberg's thinking was quicker and his hunger greater. He was just sharper. They all were.

Malmo won a corner in that moment and promptly scored from it, Dedryck Boyata deflecting a shot into his own net. We remember the hapless endgame from the Celtic defender, but the desire that preceded it from the Malmo striker was indicative of the home team's attitude.

The infuriating thing for Celtic is that they had the winning of this tie and let it slip. At 2-0 and again at 3-1 they had Malmo where they wanted them in the first leg but they couldn't finish them off. What is it they say about giving a sucker an even break?

This was an avoidable failure. Every time Celtic miss out on the Champions League group stage they make it harder on themselves to return. You really have to wonder when Celtic will be back on the big stage.

It is said that their natural habitat now is the Europa League but you wouldn't be too confident in Celtic holding their own in that competition either.

When Van Dijk departs, Celtic's central defensive options will be Efe Ambrose. Boyata - who has something of the Ambrose about him - and young Eoghan O'Connell.

Virgil van Dijk is being heavily linked with a move away from Celtic
Virgil van Dijk is being heavily linked with a move away from Celtic

At a push, you could play Mulgrew and Mikael Lustig in there, but that's only creating problems elsewhere.

Up front, Leigh Griffiths is their only realistic option. Nadir Ciftci looks leaden-footed and out of his depth at that level. Stefan Scepovic, a Deila signing, was a waste of £2.2m and Anthony Stokes is miles out of the European picture these days.

The squad has pockets of talent, but it's thin on the ground in a European context and too much of it is given to bouts of flakiness, the kind of thing that Brown said he was ashamed of.

For 20 minutes in the first leg, it was easy to see what Deila was talking about when he spoke of the huge progress made in the last year. For so much that followed those 20 minutes it was hard to see any improvement.

Malmo have done brilliantly to make it through. Their budget is a fraction of Celtic's and their team is a brand new one, still gelling. They're not a formidable side but they have a formidable spirit.

They showed mental strength where Celtic showed weakness. They looked like players who loved the occasion. Celtic, in comparison, were spooked by it.

Malmo got what they deserved on Tuesday - and so did Celtic. They had their chance - and they blew it.