Europe continues to punish Neil Lennon and Celtic. The Scottish champions threatened a comeback from 2-0 down against Milan but it is deflation, not rousing rescue acts, that characterises their season in the Europa League and Champions League so far.
When the Milan substitute Jens Petter Hauge broke through in the 92nd minute all hope of a Celtic recovery went with him. The young Norwegian, who scored against the Rossoneri in the qualifying rounds for Bodø/Glimt, beat Vasilis Barkas with a convincing finish that added a touch of flattery to the final scoreline. But there was no disputing that superior quality ultimately told.
Milan were comfortably in the ascendency at half time thanks to goals from Rade Krunic and the on-loan Real Madrid forward Brahim Díaz. It need a change of shape and personnel from Lennon to ignite a determined second-half recovery that found reward in the substitute Mohamed Elyounoussi’s header. The comeback, however, remained out of reach.
“I thought we deserved better,” the Celtic manager said. “We conceded two soft goals in the first half but we were terrific in the second and deserved more. The response and reaction to a disappointing defeat on Saturday [against Rangers] was much better and, with players coming back and up to speed, there is a lot to be encouraged about. It’s slowly but surely coming back.”
Lennon’s current preference for 3-5-2 was the subject of intense debate after the Old Firm defeat and will not abate now. He persisted with the same players and formation as Saturday and achieved similar results. Only with the introduction of Ryan Christie and Elyounoussi at half-time, plus the switch to a four-man defence, did Celtic look comfortable at the back and potent in attack.
In fairness to the Celtic manager his options were again limited by a lengthy injury list with Christie only just back from quarantine, Odsonne Édouard, Nir Bitton and Hatem Elhamed out for reasons related to Covid-19, and James Forrest plus the influential defender Christopher Jullien absent through injury. “We couldn’t start with 4-3-3 because we haven’t got the players,” Lennon insisted. “Ryan wasn’t fit to start.”
Celtic’s immediate response to Saturday was encouraging. The hosts were sharp and assertive with Diego Laxalt, clearly keen to prove a point to his parent club, prominent down the left. They stretched Milan frequently down the flanks but poor deliveries, mainly from Jérémie Frimpong, ensured Gianluigi Donnarumma was not tested as often as he should have been in the visiting goal.
Milan struck from their first meaningful attack of the contest. Samu Castillejo took possession on the right and cut across Laxalt before crossing into the heart of the penalty area. Shane Duffy and Stephen Welsh both dropped off and Krunic, arriving in between the pair, arched an inch-perfect header beyond Barkas.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who decided the Milan derby on Saturday with two goals at the age of 39, led by example not only in attack. Defensively he was tireless too, winning headers at set pieces and tracking back to regain possession whenever necessary. The veteran’s teammates responded to his leadership and, aided and abetted by an increasingly careless Celtic performance, Stefano Pioli’s side dominated the remainder of the first half.
Milan doubled their advantage when Ibrahimovic released the lively and lightning quick Theo Hernández down the left. Celtic were so open, so ragged, that they resembled a team throwing men forward in search of a stoppage-time equaliser. Hernández revelled in the space and squared for Díaz, who rounded Duffy and Callum McGregor with ease before driving low beyond Barkas.
Lennon’s half-time changes and the later introduction of Tom Rogic sparked the necessary recovery. Elyounoussi was dangerous from the moment he set foot on the pitch and it was his fine header from Christie’s corner that hauled Celtic back into the game. In injury time, however, Celtic were caught out as they committed men forward. Alexis Saelemaekers sent his fellow substitute Hauge racing clear of Duffy with a penetrating pass and Milan’s victory was sealed.