Celtic suffer Champions League setback in Kazakhstan

The Scottish champions face a tough task to reach the Champions League group stages after a 2-0 defeat to Shakhter Karagandy.

Celtic pre-match huddle (v Rangers - 17th April 2016)
Record: Celtic had won four and drawn one of their previous five away Champions League qualifiers (Picture from Sky Sports)

Celtic’s hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages are hanging by a thread after an embarrassing 2-0 defeat against minnows Shakhter Karagandy in Kazakhstan.

The Scottish champions made a positive start, with Virgil van Dijk’s header denied by goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin, but were undone by a long throw-in which allowed Karagandy captain Andrei Finonchenko to tap home from close range after 12 minutes.

The Hoops probed for a response as Kris Commons crashed a 30-yard effort against the underside of the crossbar and Georgios Samaras glanced Charlie Mulgrew’s delivery wide.

But the Kazakh side doubled their lead 13 minutes from time when Sergei Khizhnichenko nodded home from Gediminas Vicius’s deflected shot, amid shoddy Celtic defending.

Having failed to score a crucial away goal, Neil Lennon’s men succumbed to a potentially damaging defeat and will need to overcome the deficit in the return leg in Glasgow next Wednesday – in order to reach the lucrative group stages of Europe’s elite competition for the second successive season, worth £20 million.

It was the first time a team from Scotland had faced a side from Kazakhstan. 

Celtic were wandering into unknown territory with a six-and-a-half-hour flight to a country with a five-hour time difference, and were met by an inhospitable environment with just 30 fans of their own making the 3,000 mile trip due to logistics and visa issues.

The disappointing loss ended a seven-game unbeaten streak in all competitions and a run of seven consecutive clean sheets in Europe for the Scottish Premiership side – who knocked out Northern Irish Premiership side Cliftonville and Swedish champions Elfsborg to reach the final hurdle of qualification.

In contrast, the monumental victory for the reigning Kazakhstan league winners can be regarded as the best result in Karagandy’s 55-year history as they seek to become the first team from the former Soviet Republic to reach the last 32 of a Uefa tournament.

Karagandy, the lowest co-efficient ranked side the Hoops could have drawn, are already guaranteed a place in the Europa League group stages while the win triggers boss Viktor Kumykov’s promise to give up smoking should they come out on top against the Glasgow outfit.

Shakhter, who disposed of Belarusian outfit BATE Borisov and Skenderbeu of Albania in the second and third qualifying rounds, moved the tie 114 miles away from their own ground to the Kazakhstan national stadium in Astana – with the Hoops arriving late on Saturday to acclimatise to the unfamiliar surroundings.

Although, the artificial pitch has been a common denominator in Celtic’s away matches in Europe so far this term after experiencing the synthetic surface in Ireland and Sweden in previous rounds.

Celtic’s attempts to bring in reinforcements before Monday’s Uefa cut-off point failed to materialise as moves for Schalke’s Teemu Pukki and Heerenveen striker Alfred Finnbogason seemingly fell through – and the need to bolster the strikeforce will be a main priority ahead of next week’s second leg with the transfer deadline looming large.

Lennon made three changes from Saturday’s 2-0 win over Aberdeen at Pittodrie as Beram Kayal, Efe Ambrose and Adam Matthews dropped to the bench with Mikael Lustig coming back in, Virgil van Dijk making his first start for the club since his summer move from FC Groningen after overcoming a foot problem and James Forrest returning from an ankle injury having scored as a substitute against the Dons.

Following ankle ligament damage, Tom Rogic was back on the bench alongside strikers Anthony Stokes and Amido Balde after respective calf strains but Dutch winger Derk Boerrigter was absent once again with an ankle problem.

Karagandy recalled several first-team players rested for their 2-1 victory over league rivals Astana at the weekend with captain Finonchenko, who netted the winning goal off the bench on Saturday, one of seven alterations to a side containing three senior Kazakhstan internationals.

The 30,000-capacity national stadium has a futuristic nature having only been opened in 2009, with a fully retractable roof and ultra-modern design which Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbasev has pumped billions of dollars into as a project to make football in the country more renowned.

Temperatures peaked to 70 degrees as Celtic made a strong start and created a decent opening inside two minutes when Dutch Under-21 international van Dijk challenged with keeper Mokin from Commons’ corner but defender Aldin Dzidic stabbed away as the ball spilled back into the area.

The hosts were wobbly at the back, particularly from set-pieces, as the Hoops tossed numerous long balls into the box as another van Dijk header from 10 yards was tipped away by Mokin, who decided to stay back having expressed uncertainty in dealing with the first delivery by Commons.

Andrey Poryvaev scrambled the loose ball frantically into touch before Steven Mouyokolo – making his European debut for Celtic – could force it home.

Celtic, who comprehensively beat Helsingborgs 4-0 on aggregate at this stage of the competition 12 months ago, had remained relatively firm but constantly invited pressure and were duly punished for their own defensive inefficiencies from dead-ball deliveries.

Vicius’ long throw-in was launched into the penalty area and helped on by Khizhnichenko for longest-serving player and skipper Finonchenko to convert his 121st goal for his boyhood club from close range as he drifted in between the statuesque Emilio Izaguirre and Joe Ledley.

The visitors responded purposefully without fashioning clear-cut chances but Commons, who scored a penalty against Aberdeen last weekend, stunned the 30,000 capacity crowd with an opportunity of his own making as he unleashed a venomous 30-yard effort which crashed off the underside of the crossbar.

The Scottish international was at the heart of Celtic’s best moments but a resilient Shakhter sat deep to preserve their advantage.

The Kazakh side killed a sheep at the stadium as an unusual pre-match ritual hours before Celtic arrived fresh from Aberdeen airport for Monday’s training session and the sacrifice certainly brought them a huge stroke of fortune.

The Hoops largely bossed proceedings but struggled to find a way through in the final third as Samaras headed narrowly wide from Mulgrew’s left-wing delivery.

Although, the functional Miners proved a moderate threat and asked questions of a vulnerable-looking Celtic backline, with a speculative Vicius shot flying into Fraser Forster’s grasp.

Shakhter Karagandy are ranked 324th in European football – below St Johnstone – compared to Celtic in 62nd, while six of the players in their line-up also started when Irish outfit St Patrick’s Athletic knocked them out of the Europa League two years ago.

The SPL champions received a hostile reception at the start of the second half and struggled to assert superiority or impose their rhythm as play was frequently broken up with a lack of midfield movement in pushing forward.

Samaras cut a lonely and isolated figure up front at times as, despite sustained spells of patient possession, a cutting edge was distinctly missing.

Izaguirre lashed woefully over on his weaker right foot from the edge of the box and Mulgrew’s acrobatic 10-yard effort brought a routine stop from Mokin.

At the other end, Celtic were unconvincingly dealing with the hosts’ direct approach, with van Dijk and Mouyokolo uncertain at the back while Forster failed to command his penalty area in his usual assured manner.

Lustig limped off midway through the half to be replaced by Matthews – and the Welshman immediately linked up with Forrest down the right but the winger lashed wide of the post after shifting away from Poryvaev.

As Celtic pressed, Forrest was presented with the best of their few chances on 72 minutes as another Izaguirre cross picked out the 21-year-old, who ghosted in between the Shakhter centre-backs but his header was splendidly denied by Mokin.

And they were made to pay as Shakhter doubled their lead when Vicius’ deflected shot volleyed into the penalty area was headed home by Khizhnichenko after his initial shot was blocked by Mouyokolo.

It brought delight to their Russian boss Kumykov, who stated on the eve of the tie he hoped the entire country would get behind his team.

Karagandy forward Finonchenko was withdrawn in place of Igor Zenkovich to a standing ovation while Celtic’s Balde, a summer buy from Vitoria Guimaraes, replaced Izaguirre as both sides made tactical changes.

Celtic were desperate to notch a goal which could alter the complexion as van Dijk curled a 20-yard free-kick waywardly over the crossbar and Mulgrew’s looping header landed on the net’s roof as it proved not to be their night.

The Hoops turn their attentions to Saturday’s clash against Scottish Premiership leaders Inverness Caley Thistle, before embarking on a route back into the tie in eight days’ time.


  • Founded in 1958
  • Nicknamed The Miners
  • Soviet First League winners in 1962
  • Kazakhstan Premier League champions 2011 & 2012 after third place finishes in 1995 & 2007
  • Won the Kazakhstan Super Cup in 2013
  • Knocked out by Czech club FC Slovan Liberec in Champs Lge second qualifying round last term
  • Russian manager Viktor Kumykov was appointed in January 2011 


Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic) for Belgium v Wales 16th Nov 2014

Referee: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic) – 9.5/10
Attendance: 20,000


“The Hoops are staring down the barrel of being on the end of one of European football’s greatest shocks in recent years.

“The Kazakhstan minnows are 90 minutes away from the biggest achievement in the nation’s history. A huge contrast – and that is exactly what Celtic’s performance will have to be next week in Glasgow if they want to progress.

“Karagandy boss Viktor Kumykov believed his side were the pupils and Celtic the teachers at this level of football but it’s Celtic who will have to learn the lessons from the first-leg tie in the Astana city, renowned as the Dubai of the region in Kazakhstan.

“Celtic were fast out of the blocks and needed to capitalise on the good early spell to settle by getting the goal which would have put Karagandy on the back foot.

“Their goalkeeper looked increasingly uncertain and indecisive from set-pieces, unsure whether to punch or catch or even stay on his line, and they should have made more of his vulnerability by bombarding the penalty area more often.

“It was the only the opening exchanges in which the aerial route was utilised effectively by Celtic, so it was ironic they were undone by defending a set-piece themselves and it would prove costly.

“Neil Lennon will be furious with the positioning and defensive awareness for the first goal. The long throw-in is a weapon most teams employ in the modern game and a method teams should be aware of.

“Celtic appeared to mark zonally and were caught out by the near post flick-on. Mulgrew and Izaguirre were sucked towards the ball and Ledley didn’t have a clue where Finonchenko was.

“The performance throughout wasn’t as disastrous as the scoreline suggests – they couldn’t have done much more in terms of possession but needed a lucky break in the final third.

“They didn’t have too many clear-cut chances but defensively there were one or two nervous moments. Conceding the second really knocked the wind out of their sails having seen James Forrest miss a couple of openings.

“It could prove a criticial goal in the overall tie but, on balance, Shakhter couldn’t be denied for their sheer tenacity, endeavour and determination.

“You would still fancy Celtic to overturn the deficit in front of 50,000 fans in Glasgow but it won’t be a walk in the park and they’ve dug themselves a rather large hole.

“The Champions League is massively important for the Hoops – it shapes their season and keeps the fans interested in many ways.

“Kazakhstan may have been the one place Celtic wanted to avoid when the draw was made but in terms of the preparation and research ahead of the long trip, it was spot on.

“From the flight an hour or so after their win over Aberdeen on Saturday to a rest day on Sunday and intense training session on Monday, it was planned meticulously down to the final detail. And it seemed as though everything went according to plan off the field, except the result on it.”




Neil Lennon (Old Firm Rangers v Celtic - 17th April 2016)
Plenty to ponder: The former Celtic midfielder knows his side must perform better next week if they are to progress to the Champions League group stages (Picture from Sky Sports)

Celtic FC manager Neil Lennon: “It’s a disappointing result, but we should have scored and it would have put a different complexion on the tie. But we’re not down and out yet. It’s not over. We’ll go back to Celtic Park and there’s plenty there for me to chew on in terms of chances, but Shakhter didn’t surprise us with the way they played. We knew they would throw balls forward – we should have dealt with the first one a bit better. There’s a few players who will be disappointed with their performances, and they’ve got to get better very quickly.”

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