CELTIC didn't look a gift horse in the mouth last night, they punched it in the face.
Maribor stole away from Glasgow with a result which reduced Parkhead to a paralysed primal scream. In the current format of the Champions League Celtic will never have an easier route to the honeyed land of the group stage, and boy they blew it.
Some might feel that they were handed a winning lottery ticket and ripped it up. That interpretation flatters them because it would apply only if they were clearly better than Maribor. They were not. Being gifted a return to the tournament after the incredible reprieve against Legia Warsaw had too many around the club counting their chickens before they had hatched. The reality is that this was no case of Celtic enjoying clear superiority over Maribor but failing to deliver on it. Having been outclassed by the champions of Poland they were narrowly beaten over two legs by the best team in Slovenia. Maribor were neat at times, no more than that.
It was a truly awful night for Celtic, as bleak as anything Parkhead has witnessed in years. They crumbled under the pressure of finishing off the job which began with that fine 1-1 away draw last week. They gave the ball away too easily, were too often caught at the back and missed three great chances to score. Only at the start of the second half did they apply some decent pressure but it petered out. With 15 minutes left Maribor broke upfield and Tavares scored a goal which could not have chilled Parkhead more if 60,000 ice buckets had been tipped over the seats.
Now everyone will look anew at Ronny Deila, the young manger who has lost four times in his first nine games. This was a night when Deila would live or die by his selection, his tactics and ability to motivate his men. There was plenty to question and criticise. Kris Commons was on the bench again and Celtic only began to threaten and take control when he came on at half-time. The defence and midfield gave the ball away too often and Efe Ambrose, surprisingly picked ahead of Jason Denayer, had a dreadful game. In the second half, Commons gave them greater threat but they did not do enough to protect a jittery back four. Above all, they looked a team without confidence or self-belief.
Ambrose went in at right-back, with Mikael Lustig partnering Virgil van Dijk in the centre. It was not long before Maribor identified Ambrose as a weak link and went for him. They tried to move the ball to their left wing where either full-back Mitja Viler or midfielder Agim Ibraimi found wide open spaces which Ambrose had vacated as he drifted too close to his central defenders.
The Commons of last season would have linked Celtic's central midfield with Anthony Stokes. The idea was that Callum McGregor and Jo Inge Berget would support Stokes from wide. McGregor was eager and showed flashes of quality on the right and Berget was tenacious on the left, digging out one low cutback which came close to an own goal when Marko Suler stuck out a leg. That was one Celtic chance and a poor van Dijk header, somehow missing in the goalmouth from Stokes's corner, was another. That was as close as Celtic came in a fraught, sobering first half.
So much for Maribor melting in the cauldron of Parkhead. So much for Celtic having to simply tie up a routine second-leg victory. Before the game was old the Slovenian champions were playing the crisper football, more confident in possession than Celtic. Ibraimi was excellent and pulled Biram Kayal around so much the Israeli lasted only until half-time. Maribor's passing and movement was tidy and worried Celtic. What they lacked, until the dying minutes, was real threat in the penalty area.
At half-time Deila made a big change as Commons came on. His introduction energised Celtic and introduced their first spell of sustained pressure and energy. Stokes came into the game and a nice piece of play led him to cut the ball back for McGregor to snap a close-range shot on to the crossbar.
Adam Matthews came on for Berget and went to right-midfield, then withdrew to right-back when Derk Boerrigter replaced Lustig. Parkhead sensed that Maribor had been quelled. The stands were louder than they had been all night.
The rise in volume was premature. Suddenly, chillingly, there was a reminder of how tense things were. Maribor had an incredible chance when Dare Vrsic was clear behind their defence and fired a shot a Craig Gordon with a couple of team-mates in the middle.
And then the goal which sent Celtic into a tailspin. They could not deal with a cross from the left, Emilio Izaguirre seemed to slip as he knocked the ball back towards the penalty spot and Tavares connected with a shot which looped horribly over Gordon into the net. Celtic panicked and almost fell apart. Gordon saved brilliantly from Mendy and then Tavares blazed over.
Ambrose fluffed a close-range header then van Dijk missed a sitter. Those failures typified the entire performance: they had simple jobs to do and were not good enough.