Ange's Celtic under fire after crashing from UCL

1 month ago 13
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The first hurdle, and it was a sizeable hurdle, has proved too much for Australian coach Ange Postecoglou at Celtic. The Scottish champions have crashed out of the UEFA Champions League second round qualifying stage after a 2-1 extra-time loss to FC Midtjylland.

Devastatingly for the former Socceroos boss, it was a familiar Aussie face that turned the match around and broke Celtic fans' hearts: Awer Mabil. 

The equation for the Scottish giants before the match was clear, but the task was far from simple. 

In just his second competitive game in charge, Postecoglou had to take his side to Denmark and get a victory against a well-respected team that has won three of the last seven Danish championships. 

The prize on offer was a spot in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. It would put Celtic just four games away from the coveted group stage and the €15,250,000 ($A24.5 million) in prize money the 32 teams receive just for qualifying. 

Money that is desperately needed to overhaul an under-strengthened squad.

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Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou. (SNS Group via Getty Images)

Postecoglou's side had impressed in the 1-1 draw first leg last week. However, the Australian made two changes to his starting XI. Mistake-prone goalkeeper Vasilios Barkas was dropped for Scott Bain and the suspended Nir Bitton was replaced by 18-year-old Dane Murray. 

It says as much about Celtic's mismanagement in recent years as it does about Postecoglou's faith in his younger players that the 51-time Scottish champions' average age for their starting line-up in this match was 23.6 years-old. 

"No surprise Celtic going out," Celtic legend Chris Sutton tweeted at full-time. "Ange Postecoglou has been dealt the worst hand of any Celtic manager in the last 20 years. The powers that be should be ashamed of dealing him this hand. Years of acting too slow and bringing in players too late but this season is something else."

It was a sentiment shared by many in Glasgow. 

"I feel for Ange Postecoglou," Tom English, BBC Scotland's chief sports writer said. "He must be wondering what he's got himself into. Celtic's signing policy is a joke. It's an utter shambles."

Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou. (SNS Group via Getty Images)

Postecoglou opted to leave Socceroos midfielder Tom Rogic on the bench, like he did for the first match, but there was a start for Midtjylland's Aussie Mabil who had been subbed on in the first leg. 

The former Adelaide United winger came in for the suspended Anders Dreyer. In a tense first half, it was the mobile Mabil who looked most dangerous for the Danish side. 

As is often the case with Postecoglou's team, Celtic had the majority of possession in the first half, however they were unable to create any clear cut chances. The focus on possession is not only an offensive tactic, though; it also meant that Midtjylland couldn't get the ball and attack what is a questionable Celtic defence. The Hoops conceded six in a friendly on Saturday against English Premier League side West Ham prior to this match. 

The first half was uneventful, but the second was pulsating. 

Just two minutes in, Celtic captain Callum McGregor gave his side a lead with an incredible goal. Midtjylland had managed to head away Celtic's corner but only as far as McGregor who was waiting at the edge of the box. The 28-year-old controlled the ball with his chest before launching an incredible first-time volley into the far corner past former Premier League goalkeeper Jonas Lossl. 

Celtic captain Callum McGregor. (SNS Group via Getty Images)

Celtic deserved the lead, both on the night and across the tie, and in typical Postecoglou style they pushed for a second. Substitute James Forrest came off the bench in the 60th minute and almost immediately had a chance to make it 2-0 after some good work from David Turnbull and Odsonne Edouard. Forrest fluffed his lines, and Celtic were made to pay. 

One minute later, former La Liga winger Pione Sisto curled a dangerous cross into the box right onto the head of Mabil who nodded the ball past Bain to make it 1-1. 

The goal showcased Mabil's intelligent movement coming inside, and this match was a great example of how far his game has come from when he left the A-League in 2015.

Mabil, who had fallen out of favour at Midtjylland and saw his game time reduced last season, slapped his chest and roared in celebration, firing up the socially distanced crowd who were up on their feet chanting his name.

It proved to be the turning point of the match. Up until that point, Midtjylland hadn't been able to create one clear opportunity, 16 minutes after scoring Mabil nearly made it 2-1 but his powerful volley at the back post was charged down by a Celtic defender. 

"We controlled the game until they scored," Postecoglou said after the match. "Then the momentum changed. If it was 2-0 to us, then the game would have been different."

With just seven minutes remaining, Forrest was again presented with a wonderful chance to score Celtic's second after a brilliant first-time ball from Ryan Christie, but Forrest failed to get his shot away in time. 

Postecoglou would have been relieved to see Mabil subbed off in the 88th minute as the game looked destined for extra-time. The manager from Melbourne would have been even more relieved to see Mabil's replacement, Victor Lind, squander a golden opportunity to win the match for the Danish side in the 92nd minute. 

With the score locked at 1-1 on the night and 2-2 on aggregate the match went to extra-time. Midtjylland had the momentum and capitalised almost immediately after the restart. 

In the third minute of extra-time, Brazilian attacking midfielder Evander produced a wonderful, chipped curling pass into the path of winger Mads Hansen who slid the ball first time into the feet of Nigerian defender Raphael Onyedika who managed to fire an off-balanced shot into the top corner to make it 2-1. 

It was a bitter blow for Celtic, but in truth the Danish side had deserved the lead after dominating the game following Mabil's equaliser. 

Postecoglou finally brought on Rogic in the 97th minute in the hope that the 'Wizard of Oz', as he is often referred to in Glasgow, could find an equaliser. There would be no magic tonight. 

The match finished 2-1 much to the delight of the home crowd. For all the criticism of the playing squad assembled by the board, Postecoglou was keen to defend his players. 

"We just got tired in the end," Postecoglou said at full-time. "They scored and got through it. I thought my players gave their maximum. It's the beginning of what we're trying to embark on.

"Catastrophic means the end. It's far from the end. It's been suggested that the club is falling apart. That's not the case. I can't ask more of the players.

"I take responsibility, I don't blame people."

The Aussie coach has already won some Celtic fans over with his style of play and characteristic bluntness in press conferences. However, Postecoglou knows that he'll have to start delivering results quickly if he is to be a long-term success at Celtic Park. 

The club's next game will be in the opening round of the Scottish Premiership against Hearts on Sunday, August 1. The pressure is already building as Postecoglou plots a plan to dethrone arch-rivals and defending champions Rangers. 

While Australian fans will be disappointed to see Postecoglou exit the prestigious competition, they can undoubtedly take pride in the performance of Mabil. 

Born in a refugee camp in Kenya to South Sudanese parents, Mabil arrived in Australia with his family at the age of 10. After bursting on the scene in the A-League, the fearless winger was on his way to Europe at the age of 20.

Last season, Mabil took on European giants Liverpool, Ajax and Atalanta in the Champions League group stage with Midtjylland. The Socceroo has once again played a vital role in putting his team one step closer to the biggest stage in club football. 

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