Leading 1-0 from the first leg at Parkhead, it took just seven minutes to shatter Celtic hopes of a famous European night. Having equalised, Zenit St Petersburg added two further goals to underline their superiority and end the Bhoys’ European hopes for the season.
From the offset it was clear that Brendan Rodgers had got his starting XI wrong and that the squad’s limitation were beginning to show. The Celtic manager opted for the tried and tested route of an identical 4-5-1-1 formation from the previous leg on the night.
But within a few minutes it became apparent that not only were the Scottish champions facing a different Zenit side, but individuals within their own team simply weren’t up to the task of matching the performance they had put on back in Glasgow.
The most obvious example of this was Dorus de Vries. Tasked with keeping things composed at the back, the Dutch goalkeeper defined his momentary cover for injured first-choice Craig Gordon with a horrendous mistake in the 27th minute; Daler Kuzyaev’s relatively straightforward shot down the middle of the Celtic goal somehow dumbfounding the back-up goalkeeper.
As the gifted goal – and it was entirely that – fizzled past De Vries, the jubilant celebrations from Zenit’s home support was most likely met by colourful language from the travelling Celtic fans that had feared as much on their long trip to Russia. How the club had come to rely upon such an untested stopper despite the proneness to injury that had dogged Gordon’s career is anyone’s guess. But it certainly doesn’t excuse some notable oversight on the club’s behalf.
Another example of individuals struggling on the night came in the form of central midfielder Eboue Kouassi. Although the 20-year old thrived under pressure in the first leg, the Ivorian looked troubled and out of place in the St Petersburg Arena. After offering very little in terms of impetus going forward or being able to keep a hold of possession, the Celtic manager opted to swap him for Tom Rogic at half time.
However, the Australian international hadn’t yet returned to full fitness after a long-term injury and alongside the continued absence of Stuart Armstrong there was a notable gulf in Celtic’s central attacking intent.
Despite the best efforts of Rogic, Callum McGregor and Olivier Ntcham there was no doubt the Scottish champions missed their fair-haired No.10 and the back-up options simply weren’t working. Yet Kouassi wasn’t the only player to show up Celtic’s lack of depth at this stage in the competition.
Although he may have stayed on the pitch for the duration of the game, Mikael Lustig spent much of Thursday night chasing shadows. Either from a makeshift central defensive position or his more routine right back role, the Swedish international looked slow, clumsy and out of his depth. And if any evidence was needed to showcase such a poor performance, we need only watch the tardy manner in which Lustig failed to mark Aleksandr Kokorin when he tapped home a cross from Branislav Ivanović in the 61st minute to all but confirm the tie was done and dusted.
Indeed, if any moment underlined Celtic’s lack of pragmatic action in the previous transfer window, it was when the ageing, out-of-form full-back struggled allowed Zenit’s top-class striker to leap on a goalscoring opportunity. Despite calls for such a player for the best part of 12 months, if the Scottish champions had ever needed a competent, senior central defender it was in that fleeting moment.
Paltry efforts to save Celtic’s European campaign were on show in the manner in which Moussa Dembélé once again attempted to huff and puff across the pitch with little success over the course of the match. As Celtic fans had already seen in the first leg and on countless occasions in the Champions League this season, the once-heralded striker often looked more like a passenger in Rodgers’ front line rather than the forward that had routinely turned games on their head last season.
Where the Frenchman had once been the diamond in Celtic’s crown, Dembélé now looked like a tired and worn-out embodiment of the club’s attempts to flog their latest talent to the highest bidder. Rodgers may not be willing to admit it, but most fans would have perhaps rather seen the quicker, sharper Odsonne Edouard at some point in the night and would undoubtedly have preferred Leigh Griffiths leading the line from the first minute of the match had he not been injured.
Yet perhaps the most potent example of Celtic’s struggling depth came in the form of Charly Musonda’s introduction in the 71st minute. Although the Chelsea loanee had proved vital in creating the only goal of the first leg, asking the 21-year old to make up a two-goal advantage with around 20 minutes left to play not only showcased Rodgers’ lack of options on the bench but some pretty abundant desperation.
For a club that regularly defines itself by its participation in European football and recently boasted of having bank reserves of just under £31 million, each and every one of these examples simply highlights a lack of action from Celtic’s hierarchy and a reluctance to put the club’s money where its mouth is.
In the end, Celtic were well beaten by a club that had spent far in amassing their impressive side, yet it was a match that proved quite pivotal in underlining where the faults like in Rodgers’ team.
The Scottish champions may go onto another domestic treble. Yet when the summer off season comes they’d do well to remember this night and take note. These shortcomings are the difference between stagnation and reaching the next level in European football and must be fixed if they intend to improve under Rodgers.