STILL being in European football is good news for Celtic, it’s just that the Champions League or Europa League often seems to be utterly exasperating for them.
Just when they were beginning to sense the warmth of a victory last night it was snatched away from them by a cruel twist.
Ki Sung-Yueng’s penalty meant the Parkhead side led for 85 minutes against Udinese but they just couldn’t get over the line without conceding.
It wasn’t their much-maligned defence’s fault this time; Bulent Yildirim, the Turkish referee, ruled that Gary Hooper had blocked Neuton Piccoli’s run in the box. He hadn’t, but Almen Abdi grabbed his chance and scored the penalty.
It was in 1969 that an Italian team last won in the east end of Glasgow but this was a disappointing result for Celtic. Udinese picked only four of what is recognised as their strongest team and their young replacements were unremarkable.
When the sense of injustice clears, Celtic may reflect that they should have been more than one goal ahead by the end, which would have made the late penalty irrelevant. For now, they continue to simmer about the referee.
Here was a Celtic team and formation never used before and, in all probability, never to be seen again. It was horses for courses and a bold approach by manager Neil Lennon. Udinese play three at the back but rarely do they come up against three forwards closing them down as soon as they get possession. They did last night, though, with Hooper, Mohamed Bangura and James Forrest always trying to work and pressure them.
The Italians’ five across the middle ought to have given them a telling numerical advantage but Celtic countered that by pushing either of their full-backs, Joe Ledley or Adam Matthews, up to support Victor Wanyama, Ki and Biram Kayal.
The formation demanded a high tempo and relentless work-rate and for the most part Celtic delivered. Forrest even spent part of the first half vomiting on the pitch, but it didn’t stop him grafting.
Wanyama was a significant influence as a deep-lying midfielder protecting a back four which has needed plenty of that recently. They made a better job of keeping a leading Serie A side quiet than they had of subduing Inverness Caledonian Thistle on the same pitch five days earlier.
There were a couple of high-profile victims of the weekend performance, which delivered a clean sheet but reassured no-one. Fraser Forster was sacrificed and will now have to re-establish himself as the first-choice goalkeeper ahead of Lukasz Zaluska.
The Pole had played no part in Celtic’s previous nine matches but Forster had conceded 10 goals in that spell and he looks no more confident now than he did when first arriving at Parkhead a year ago. Zaluska worked himself into the game by making a couple of saves from a Christian Battocchio free-kick then an Emmanuel Badu shot.
Glenn Loovens was also dropped to the bench, which was not a surprise in itself even if there may have been a more pressing case for Daniel Majstorovic being the one who was pulled from the starting side. Instead the big Swede was joined by Charlie Mulgrew at the back.
That was fine and well, but it was to Celtic’s benefit that they were up against unusually modest Italian opposition. Udinese picked several younger players and clearly the team does not function nearly as well without the likes of veteran forward Antonio Di Natale.
Even when they had some success at weathering Celtic’s strong and aggressive start to the match they did very little with the ball when they had it.
Abdi did force a save and, in the 63rd minute, they worked the ball into the net when Battocchio flicked a free-kick over the defence and Abdi got it to Medhi El Mouttaqui Benattia, who tapped it into the goal only for the Turkish referee to decide there had been a tug on Hooper during the move. Up to the closing minutes it did not look like they had a goal in them.
The immediate opener played a big part in Celtic’s confidence and tempo. Just 100 seconds had elapsed when Lars Ekstrand brought down Hooper in the penalty area.
The assistant referee behind the bye-line alerted Yildirim to it and, having had their share of misses from 12 yards, no-one took it for granted that Ki would score, but his finish was confident, firm and high past Samir Handanovic.
Chances weren’t plentiful for Celtic either. Hooper turned and fired a shot which stung the goalkeeper’s hands in the first half and a more eye-catching stop was required when Mulgrew bent a free-kick towards the top corner early in the second half.
Ki almost scored at the end as well as the beginning, but his thunderous shot was pushed over the bar before Zaluska saved from Mauricio Isla.
They were daring to believe they had their win, their first in Europe for 13 months. Should they have done better at closing the game down right at the end? Perhaps, but the penalty decision showed them no mercy.