Celtic have big questions to answer amid eternal Champions League pain as limp Lazio highlight lack of quality
Eternal Champions League pain for Celtic. On a high-stakes night in Rome, they ultimately came up short. A 2-0 defeat by Lazio eliminates them from this competition and also the Europa League. Celtic are once again miles off the pace among Europe’s elite.
Brendan Rodgers’ men needed to win at the Stadio Olimpico to maintain any chance of staying in Europe beyond Christmas. At times they looked the better team against an outfit struggling in Serie A but saving their best results for the Champions League. Yet Lazio manager Maurizio Sarri had the ultimate trump card in wily 33-year-old striker Ciro Immobile. The veteran Italian was hoiked off the bench not long into the second half and had the nous and lucidity to net twice, on 82 and 85 minutes, to put Celtic to the sword.
Celtic’s six-year wait for a victory at this level therefore goes on. When drawn against Atletico Madrid, Lazio and Feyenoord in Group E back in the summer, there was genuine optimism that Celtic could make an impact. The pool, on paper, looked easier than last season’s version when they were up against Real Madrid, RB Leipzig and Shakhtar Donetsk. Two points were gleaned then. A dead rubber against the Dutch in a fortnight will give them an opportunity to improve upon that.
That, and prize money, will be the only things on offer. Celtic were not helped here by injuries to some key forward players in Daizen Maeda and Luis Palma. Veteran James Forrest and Yang Hjun-jun deputised out wide and lacked the final moment of quality. Forward Kyogo Furuhashi had two half-chances that weren’t taken and Celtic were denied what looked a fairly decent penalty award in stoppage time when Oh Hyeon-gyu appeared to be pushed by Patric, only for VAR to intervene and overturn the award. It summed up their campaign.
Lazio are not world beaters and looked passive for much of the match. Therefore there will be regrets in the Celtic camp, for sure. The effort and endeavour of Rodgers’ team cannot be questioned but ultimately there is a glaring lack of quality that is required for this level of football. The 2-2 draw against Atletico Madrid on matchday three went against the grain. Celtic have not won in the Champions League group stages now for 15 matches, a horrific statistic for a club of such stature.
Rodgers spoke before the start of this group stage about wanting to at least have the Europa League to fall back upon. Ultimately finishing bottom of the pile is a failure. One suspects Celtic could be competitive in the second tier of European football but we will never know now.
Immobile, on for the completely ineffective Taty Castellanos, was the major difference, showing his predatory instinct to react quickly to a deflected Gustav Isaksen shot inside the box and finish astutely high past a sprawling Joe Hart on 82 minutes when the game had become ragged. The same player, three minutes later, finished clinically after more good work from the young Dane. Sarri, under pressure due to Lazio’s poor domestic form, breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The inquest will now begin on another miserable Champions League campaign for Celtic. Their hierarchy will now need to decide whether to dip into reserves of profit to give Rodgers a chance of competing because, at best, they have stagnated at this level. Arrivederci to Europe – now it’s about fending off Rangers domestically to make sure they return next season.