Valiant effort from Celtic but Bayern knock them out
A probable springtime Europa League campaign will have to do
Celtic will reflect on a bittersweet night. This was a rousing performance, one which endorsed improvement as heralded by Brendan Rodgers but produced no tangible reward. Bayern have progressed to the Champions League’s last 16 but Celtic cannot.
Celtic deserved at least a point. The upshot, still, is one Rodgers and his players would have taken at the outset of Group B: Celtic remain in pole position for a Europa League place with two games to go. For all their defensive aberration here, Celtic performed with a style and attitude which saw them deservedly applauded from the field even in defeat.
Jupp Heynckes had used pre-match media duties to dismiss the theory this fixture would be taken lightly by Bayern given their Bundesliga meeting at Borussia Dortmund this coming Saturday. With that in mind, eyebrows were raised as the veteran head coach – who was already without the injured Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski – opted to name Mats Hummels, Joshua Kimmich and Thiago Alcántara as substitutes.
Perhaps Celtic gained confidence from the make-up of Bayern’s team. More plausible is that Rodgers impressed on his players that the kind of ruinous start to proceedings as witnessed here against Paris Saint-Germain and in Munich had to be avoided.
The Scottish champions opened with vigour, with Stuart Armstrong wasting a glorious opportunity in the fifth minute. Kieran Tierney, fresh from signing a six-year contract, won midfield possession with typical tenacity before feeding James Forrest. The winger provided the ideal chance for Armstrong courtesy of a cross to the back post, with the midfielder sending his effort wide.
Celtic’s challenge from there was to build on a foothold in the game. For all that the continent’s leading lights have come unstuck at Celtic Park, Ajax were the last team to suffer group stage defeat at this venue, in October 2013. Celtic hoped to draw upon another parallel: Bayern’s arrival came 16 years to the day that Juventus were defeated 4-3 in a European fixture ranked among the club’s greatest.
It took 19 minutes for Bayern to launch their first attack of note. David Alaba was the architect, with a low pass which seemed to take Kingsley Coman by surprise. Coman, who excelled against Celtic a fortnight ago, could not convert from close range. The former Juventus player was soon to provide a more ruthless touch.
Celtic complained furiously for handball as Coman, who sauntered between their central defenders when meeting a clearance from the goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, controlled the ball. He rounded Craig Gordon, who had charged 20 yards out of his goal, before slotting home to hand Bayern a lead they did not merit.
Replays were inconclusive as to whether Coman was guilty of using an arm. What footage did not disguise was shoddy Celtic defending, not for the first time.
Moussa Dembélé was denied an equaliser on the half-hour by a wonderful, last-second Alaba clearance. The French striker was wasteful again with a header from Forrest’s cross. The first 45 minutes – a breathless, highly entertaining period – had witnessed Celtic’s most impressive play of this Champions League campaign, yet they found themselves once more in the position of playing catch-up to a superpower.
It was to the immense credit of Rodgers’s team – in such proximity to comprehensive defeat in Munich – that the outcome of this fixture was impossible to call with 15 minutes to play. By that time, Gordon had saved excellently from James Rodríguez but, more significantly, the scores had been levelled.
Forrest, who had been outstanding all evening, produced a wonderful through pass for Callum McGregor. The midfielder strode forward before beating Ulreich with a calm finish which belied its significance. Celtic Park erupted.
The euphoria was short-lived. Javi Martínez showed tremendous bravery in leaping to head Alaba’s flighted cross ahead of Nir Bitton, with the scorer requiring patch-up work to a nasty head wound at a time when he should have been celebrating. Bayern were to escape Glasgow unscathed.