Celtic’s defensive difficulties were exposed again as they battled to a 1-1 Europa League play-off draw with Lithuanian champions Suduva.
Olivier Ntcham’s header gave the Scottish champions a perfect start, but Celtic’s familiar frailties were to the fore again as the unmarked Ovidijus Verbickas headed Suduva level.
Brendan Rodgers’ side have now won two of their past seven matches – conceding in six of those games – and were also knocked out of the Champions League third qualifying round by AEK Athens.
Celtic could have taken a lead back to Glasgow for next Thursday’s return had James Forrest, Mikey Johnston or Moussa Dembele taken their chances.
But this was hardly a performance to dispel the impression of a club struggling to rediscover the best of themselves.
They dominated possession but created little of note in the final half-hour, and picked up another injury concern when Jozo Simunovic was forced off after landing heavily on his ankle.
‘Struggling to live up to expectations’ – analysis
BBC Scotland’s Chris McLaughlin at Suduva Stadium
Most who watched this game will expect Celtic to complete the job in Glasgow, but it was still a fairly frustrating night for Rodgers’ side at the end of another frustrating week.
The manager said beforehand that the disappointment of losing out on the Champions League was out of the system but the defensive slip-ups that led them here are clearly not.
This was a night for Celtic to show some flair, but more importantly, solidity against a side who should have been no match. There were certainly positives. Johnston shone down the left and McGregor was at the centre of most of the visitors’ creativity but the frustration and focus will once again fall on a shaky defence.
Leaving the Boyata debacle aside, Rodgers knows he has to strengthen. Ajer looked mostly fine but Simunovic once again looked shaky in the face of a forward line that appeared fairly toothless. He’s a man clearly lacking confidence but the central area shouldn’t be the only concern.
Gamboa is desperate to be given the nod at right back as Lustig continues to struggle but on this showing, few fans will think he is the answer. But if not him, then who? And can that area be the priority when the problems continue to surface centrally?
Much to ponder then for Rodgers as the clock ticks down on the summer transfer window. Progression to the group stages looks probable. If changes aren’t made after that, who knows, but Celtic have created an expectation that, for now, they are struggling to live up to.
Another horrendous concession for Celtic
Celtic started confidently, but there was more compelling evidence of the defensive vulnerability that proved so costly as they were knocked out of the Champions League by AEK last week.
When Vaidas Slavickas curled in a deep free-kick, it should have carried little threat. But Cristian Gamboa – preferred over Mikael Lustig at right-back – lost his marker, the rest of the Celtic defence froze, and goalkeeper Gordon was late coming off his line to stop Verbickas nodding in the simplest of goals.
It was a horrendous goal to concede, and a reminder of why Celtic lodged a bid for Aberdeen centre-back Scott McKenna this week, amid continued uncertainty over Dedryck Boyata’s future.
Suduva threatened only sporadically, but grew in confidence as Celtic stuttered, and Gordon was forced to field efforts from Rigino Cicilia and Julius Kasparavicius.
Rodgers had earlier raised eyebrows by giving 19-year-old Johnston just his fourth senior start, and first in Europe, ahead of the likes of Scott Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths.
But the teenager showed his quality after barely two minutes, turning his marker on the left before curling a right-footed cross perfectly for Ntcham to head home from close range,
Johnston might have scored himself, but could only direct his header straight at Ivan Kardum, while Forrest and Kieran Tierney also brought saves from the Suduva keeper.
The impressive Callum McGregor was at the heart of much of Celtic’s best work.
The Scotland midfielder weaved his way into the box and combined with Kristoffer Ajer, before the Norwegian defender stabbed a final shot at Kardum, and McGregor then combined beautifully with Dembele, whose sumptuous dinked pass over the defence led to the midfielder’s volley being touched wide for a corner by Kardum.
Dembele might have scored himself in the 54th minute, but could only lash the ball into the side netting after moving on to Ntcham’s sweet pass.