Some teams are good at being lucky. Shakhter Karagandy appear to be the latter. The Kazakh champions used their good fortune to sneak past BATE Borisov with only a couple of shots on target in the second qualifying round of this season's Champions League. They won their opening tie in the next round, against Skenderbeu, 3-0 at home, only for the aggregate score to be levelled after just half an hour of the return in Albania before two late goals ensured their passage to the play-off round. Now they have survived a poor start against Celtic and will head to Glasgow next week 2-0 ahead and believing they have one foot in the door of the group stage.
Perhaps there is something in this sacrificial sheep ritual, after all. Certainly, Celtic appeared to have the wool pulled over their eyes in Astana last night. Shakhter are the lowest-ranked of the 10 teams vying to win through from this stage, and have been considered a one-dimensional side who rely on long balls and set pieces to make any impact. That is exactly the tactic they deployed to score twice against Neil Lennon's more experienced side.
For the opener, they watched a long throw in by Gediminus Vicius arrive in their box as though it was the first time Shakhter had tried this tactic. With Nikola Vasiljevic winning the flick on at the front post, alarm bells should have been ringing, but Fraser Forster was fixed to his line and Joe Ledley gawped helplessly as Andrei Finonchenko stole in to head past the goalkeeper.
The frustration for Celtic was not only that they had been suckered into conceding such a cheap goal - the first they have lost in qualifying since Helsinki scored at Celtic Park on August 1 last year - but that they had spurned a handful of good chances to take the lead themselves in a match that they had dominated.
Then, in their desperate pursuit of an equaliser, Celtic were caught out again 13 minutes from time. Shakhter broke and, while Steven Mouyokolo blocked Sergei Khizhnichenko's drive from the edge of the area, the ball fell to Andrei Poryvaev, whose shot struck deflected into the path of Khizhnichenko, who had no difficulty sending his effort wide of Forster and into the corner of the net.
That second goal has made the task facing Celtic in the return leg a week tonight more difficult, but the biggest disappointment was that they do not have an away goal to show for all their chances. With Aleksander Mokin, the Shakhter goalkeeper, suspect under high balls, Virgil van Dijk and Kris Commons both had opportunities in one scrimmage after three minutes. Mouyokolo was next to almost profit from the uncertainty in the heart of the defence and Georgios Samaras headed a Charlie Mulgrew free kick just wide before Commons rattled an effort against the crossbar. Indeed, despite having 63% of the possession in the first half, and even more by full-time, Celtic trailed by the one statistic that really matters.
Such profligacy gave renewed hope to Shakhter, who must have feared a drubbing during the early onslaught. The enthusiastic home supporters, many of whom had made the 135-mile journey from Karagandy to Astana for this game, were emboldened, too, while the small knot of Celtic fans who had successfully negotiated the problems regarding visas and the long journey to Kazakhstan must have wondered if they turned up at the wrong game. The sight of Van Dijk and Mouyokolo in central defence was a first in a competitive game, while even the Celtic strips were a one off as the name of their sponsors, Magners, was missing due to laws regarding the advertising of alcohol, and was instead replaced by Tipperary Natural Mineral Waters.
For all the changes, the game plan remained the same for the Scottish champions: Keep it disciplined, keep a clean sheet, try to grab an away goal and head into the second leg in control of the contest. That all went out the window, of course, with the concession of the opening goal.
Of course, there remained a long way to go in the game, and even longer to go in the tie, and it was to Celtic's credit that they continued to push for that away goal, with Emilio Izaguirre popping up to have a go early in the second half only to blaze over with his right foot, then Mulgrew failing in an attempted bicycle kick. The best chance of all, however, fell to James Forrest 17 minutes from time, and what a chance it was. The winger emerged in acres of space eight yards out to powerfully head an Izaguirre cross towards goal, only for Mokin to throw himself to his left to push the effort away.
The final chance fell to Mulgrew, who headed over from 10 yards, and, for the second consecutive away game in Europe, Celtic had failed to find the net. Of much more concern, though, is the fact their defensive record has been blown apart, by a distinctly-average opponent, and at the most inopportune moment.