Celtic's worsening Champions League record makes grim reading after CFR Cluj win in Glasgow
Listening to Dan Petrescu in the minutes before kick-off at Celtic Park on Tuesday evening the temptation was to get out the violin and play a soft lament for the mournful CFR Cluj manager.
Having previously love-bombed Celtic for their fans, their history, their wealth and their potential - he said they could one day do what Ajax did last season in making the Champions League semi-final - the Romanian double downed on the poor mouth routine.
CFR Cluj, he said in his sombre tone, hadn't much of a chance. His club had a tiny budget, a tiny support base, a tiny everything. When it was pointed out that the crowd at last week's first leg wasn't exactly tiny, he countered by saying that by the Romanian club's lowly standards it had been a bumper attendance. "We usually get a lot less than that," he remarked.
Poor Dan, the managerial nomad with his 15 different jobs in the past 16 years. Poor Dan, who spoke of his regret at turning down the offer of the Celtic manager's job a few years back - the facts are unclear on that - and how if he was ever offered it again he wouldn't make the same mistake twice. Poor Dan, from the Romanian league with its recent history of corruption and insolvency and chaos where the combined playing budget for all 14 teams in their top flight is still less than Celtic's budget. Poor Dan, with his inability to spend a brass farthing on players while Celtic could afford to spend £10m on defenders and then sit the pair of them on the bench as unused substitutes. Poor Dan.
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Petrescu laid it on thick. This time last year CFR Cluj were knocked out of the Europa League by Dudelange of Luxembourg. What possible threat could they pose to mighty Celtic in their own backyard? Not many would have bought his narrative of CFR Cluj posing little danger to Celtic's progression - in the previous round the Romanians went to Maccabi Tel Aviv, scored twice and advanced - but not many would have predicted that they would triumph in Glasgow either. CFR Cluj were always likely to be better than their manager claimed, but Celtic's rank awfulness in defence made them look a whole lot more formidable than they actually are.
Some at Celtic like to think of themselves as a Champions League club, the weakness in their argument being that this is the fourth time in six seasons that they've not made it to the Champions League proper. They've been dumped out by Legia Warsaw (then got a reprieve), Maribor, Malmo, AEK Athens and now CFR Cluj. Five eminently winnable ties, all lost. What does that tell you about Celtic's place in Europe's big picture?
European football has been - and continues to be - bent to the will of the continent's richest clubs but Celtic can't blame the naked greed of the superpowers for their failure, not when they themselves held the financial advantage over most, if not all, of the teams who have knocked them out in qualifying. As Neil Lennon said of Tuesday's demise, they only have themselves to blame.
A Champions League team? In the two seasons out of six that they made it through, they managed to win once in 12 attempts. They lost 5-0, 7-0 and 7-1. In last season's Europa League they got beaten home and away by Salzburg and Valencia. As historic as the club is, and as impressive as the aesthetic can be at Celtic Park on a big European night, this is a club that, season by season, has become a European irrelevance. Tuesday was one of the more painful reminders of it.
McGregor position change costs Celtic
There are many strands to this Celtic calamity. The case of Christopher Jullien is one. The Frenchman arrived in Glasgow at the end of June with a £7m price tag. When Celtic splurge to that extent then the player in question has to be ready to roll from the get-go, has to be an influence in the seminal Champions League qualifiers that are of such vast financial and emotional value to the club.
Jullien stayed on the bench on Tuesday. The biggest game of the season so far and your £7m man is not good enough - or fit enough - to get into the team? Alongside him on Celtic's bench was Boli Bolingoli, brought in at a cost of £3m. Bolingoli didn't see any action on Tuesday either.
Lennon moved his best midfielder, Callum McGregor, to left-back in place of Bolingoli, who has looked a defensive concern in his early games. The last time a Celtic manager took McGregor out of his natural habitat in a high-profile game, Celtic lost to Rangers. As a piece of tactical thinking it was seen to be a turkey that day. McGregor was unimpressive in his new position and Celtic were vulnerable without his intelligence in attack and discipline in defence in his old position. It was utterly self-defeating, a gun fired directly into their own feet.
Even before the first whistle sounded on Tuesday the talk in the stadium surrounded the McGregor move. Lennon said he wanted as many "technicians" in his team as possible, hence his shoe-horning of McGregor into full-back to accommodate Olivier Ntcham in midfield. It was an explanation that sounded thin and got thinner still when you saw what impact it was having out there.
Lennon couldn't admit that the player the club spent £3m on wasn't up to the job. He had to protect Bolingoli. That's what managers do. But McGregor playing left-back? The ills of that Rangers loss returned again. McGregor didn't look comfortable and Scott Brown didn't look comfortable without him alongside. Brown needs McGregor. That was obvious before Tuesday but it was especially obvious on the night. The space that Celtic left in the middle of the park was incredible. Cluj are a decent side with a lot of mental resilience but Celtic made them look like a counter-attacking wonder.
The Celtic manager has eulogised his team's performances so far this season. He was entitled to and he was far from alone. With 25 goals in seven games - averaging a goal every 27 minutes - Celtic have been free-flowing and lethal. McGregor played in six of those, scoring in two of them.
He was in his natural position when Celtic put five on Nomme Kalju and Motherwell and when they put seven on St Johnstone. With the very occasional exception, he was in his natural position in the 46 games he played in Celtic's first treble-winning season, in the 55 games he played in their second treble-winning season and in the 59 games he played in their third treble-winning season.
On a major night he was moved out of his natural position to fill a hole that a £3m recruit wasn't trusted to fill. Jonny Hayes could have done the job, but he wasn't even on the bench. Celtic somehow got themselves into a situation where they didn't have one natural, and reliable, left-back at the club while playing in a massive Champions League qualifier.
Lennon weakened his dynamic midfield in an attempt to cover up for it. The whole system was destabilised. Even the put-upon Petrescu must have cracked a smile when he saw what was going on. Of all their failings in Europe in recent times this could go down as the worst. In a winning position at kick-off, a winning position again on 61 minutes and a winning position again on 76 minutes, they blew it. They got what they deserved in Europe. Again.