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Celtic have two problems. They struggle to defend and do not have a striker who fits Deila's strategy

THE refurbished frontage of Celtic Park has a patch of green with a sign declaring it Kerrydale Clover, presumably a sort of civil partnership between two breakfast spreads.

Virgil van Dijk misses a golden opportunity for Celtic at the end of last night match's at Parkhead; the Dutchman's future is uncertain. Picture: SNS
Virgil van Dijk misses a golden opportunity for Celtic at the end of last night match's at Parkhead; the Dutchman's future is uncertain. Picture: SNS

It is supposed to be the pathway that will carry supporters towards Champions League football. It served, instead, as the road to a communal Calvary last night.

Celtic must now await their fate in the Europa League with the allure of the world's best club competition out of sight but still painfully in mind.

The importance of the Champions League stretches far beyond the financial, though that is a substantial consideration. It breathes life into the support and warms a club during the dark days of winter. It requires, though, a steady trek through the qualifying process. This stability, this composure, was beyond Celtic last night. The surprise is that anyone is surprised by it. Maribor won the war and there were loud complaints from the Celtic fans but precious few at the justice of the result.

The Slovenian champions had the better chances, scored the only goal and kept a clean sheet.

This simple statement points to the problems at the heart of Ronny Deila's new body of work.

The first is that Celtic cannot be relied upon to defend consistently and competently. The goal by Tavares last night was the result of a series of errors rather than one misjudgment.

Secondly Celtic do not have a central striker that fits in with the manager's strategy. He knows this and, one suspects, so do the players auditioning unsuccessfully for a place at the apex of his side.

Leigh Griffiths, the Scottish internationalist, is so far on the sidelines that he is barely is the same postcode as his team-mates. Amdio Balde has been judged and found guilty, and Anthony Stokes, a regular scorer in domestic football, finds European competition a step too far. He has not the strength or capability to hold the ball up and lacks the pace to run behind. He could not contribute in any meaningful way to Celtic in an attacking sense.

It is why there has been a clamour for the enlistment of a striker, not least from Deila. His priorities can be gauged by the unsuccessful bid for Cameron Jerome, a 28-year-old renowned for his build rather than his touch, and the consideration given to such as Simon Makienok Christoffersen, a 23-year-old Dane who plays for Brondby and is conspicuous by his 6ft 7in frame.

The protracted wooing process of Stefan Scepovic, the Sporting Gijon forward, meant Celtic had to employ methods that are best term as "tried and frustrated" last night.

Two days short of a year ago, Celtic scored three goals to defeat Shakhter Karagandy and progress to the group stages. The goals were scored then by Kris Commons (on the bench until half-time last night), Georgios Samaras (now earning his dosh in the English Premier League) and James Forrest (injured).

The absence of such as those places pressure on others. Some cope, others do not. The pressure of a huge crowd baying for the Champions League brings stress. Some cope, others do not.

There are no surprises to some of the candidates who fit snugly into the category "found wanting". Efe Ambrose so filled that role last night that there was hardly room for anyone else. His deployment at right-back was a disaster only mitigated by Maribor's inability to profit from it. He was then an obvious failure in the centre of defence but his team-mate, Emilio Izaguirre, was also feckless. Ambrose compounded defensive incompetence with a starling miss with a header late in the second half.

With Stefan Johansen occasionally careless and Charlie Mulgrew laboured, the best players on the night for Celtic were largely involved in helping the side avoid defeat rather than creating and taking the chances to win the match.

Mikael Lustig was solid until he departed injured, Virgil van Dijk was largely in control, though he missed an absolute sitter at the end of the match and Craig Gordon made three smart saves.

The problem in attack was that Celtic did not have strength or pace. This was illustrated brutally when Commons, who came on at half-time for Biram Kayal, found himself clear of defenders but some 45 yards from goal. He cannot run away from defenders and did not.

The only bright spot on a dismal night was the performance of Callum McGregor, the 21-year-old who has performed heroically in this qualifying campaign. He was industrious and quick on the flank last night and he produced the most promising moments for Celtic.

His jabbed shot on to the bar was a heart-stopping moment for Celtic fans who had divined early that this was an evening when scoring a goal was largely beyond the combined efforts of their side.

On a night when his seniors mostly withered and died, McGregor was the only green shoot of recovery. He, though, wilted as did Celtic's hopes of playing in the Champions League group stages.

Kerrydale Clover now leads to the Europa League for Celtic and a chastened support.

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