UCL Wrap: Celtic shocked, Ajax advance

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Celtic will miss out on the UEFA Champions League group stages – and that sweet sweet television, sponsorship and ticket revenue – for the second consecutive year.

The Bhoys in Green suffered a stunning 4-3 defeat at home to CFR Cluj, coughing up a second half 3-2 (and 4-3 on aggregate) lead in the process at Celtic Park on Tuesday evening. Coming off a 1-1 draw in Romania, Celtic trailed 1-0 at halftime in Scotland thanks to a header from veteran winger Ciprian Deac.

[READ: UEFA Super Cup Preview: Chelsea v. Liverpool]

However, in a ten minute span in the second half, Celtic appeared to turn around the tie. Neil Lennon’s side were more creative and attacked with more urgency after halftime, and it showed as James Forrest hammered home to tie the match on the night. Then, Celtic striker Odsonne Edouard, who’s dummy lead to the first Celtic goal, finished off a cross from new signing Hatem Abd Elhamed to send the Celtic fans into pure delirium.

Celtic and Cluj then traded goals, with Billel Omrani scoring a penalty kick before Ryan Christie’s 76th minute strike put Celtic ahead again. Unfortunately for Celtic, it was short lived. Omrani scored again in the 80th minute and George Țucudean scored on a breakaway to put Celtic away and help advance the Romanian side to the Play-Off Round.

Here’s a roundup of the rest of the UCL results across Europe.

Ajax outlast PAOK

Two penalty kick goals from Ajax captain Dusan Tadic helped the Champions League semifinalists from a year ago advance to the next round of qualifying.

Tadic scored on either side of halftime, including an 85th minute goal that helped put just enough distance as Ajax won, 3-2 over PAOK, winning 5-4 on aggregate. Diego Biseswar, born in Amsterdam and a one-time member of Ajax’s youth academy, scored a brace, including the opening goal for his side on the road.

After Tadic tied it two minutes before halftime, PAOK pushed for another, but defender Nicolas Tagliafico headed home in the 79th minute and Tadic again extended the lead six minutes later. Biseswar scored in stoppage time to give PAOK some hope, but they ran out of time.

With the win, Ajax advances to face APOEL in the next round.

Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League scores (aggregate scores in parenthesis): 

Qarabag 0-2 APOEL (2-3)
Rosenborg 3-1 Maribor (6-2)
Dynamo Kiev 3-3 Club Brugge (3-4)
FC Copenhagen 1-1 Red Star Belgrade (2-2, Red Star wins 7-6 on penalty kicks)
Ferencvaros 0-4 Dinamo Zagreb (1-5)
LASK 3-1 Basel (5-2)
Olympiakos 2-0 Istanbul Basaksehir (3-0)
FC Porto 2-3 Krasnodar (3-3, Krasnodar advances on away goals)

Continuing Manchester United’s easy ride – UEFA Champions League Group H preview

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Group H seems to be making up the numbers. While groups like Chelsea’s have enough depth to guarantee a marquee match every round, Manchester United’s packet is too shallow to produce games that capture the imagination. Though the United brand assures the Red Devils will garner the attention (and airwaves) of UEFA’s broadcast partners, a MUFC-Braga match doesn’t exactly capture the magic of European soccer. Unfortunately, it’s the best this group has to offer.

The silver-ish lining to the weak group: Second place is still there for the taking. While CFR Cluj has an early edge, that will disappear if Galatasaray can win at home on Tuesday.

Manchester United (England) vs. Sporting Braga (Portugal)

Old Trafford, Manchester, 2:45 p.m. Eastern

After a turbulent weekend in Red Devil land that saw defiance, threats, and (ultimately) reconciliation, all seems to be back to normal at Manchester United. Another Champions League matchday has arrived, but since it’s merely the middle of another easy group stage, the Premier League isn’t far from United’s plans. Manager Alex Ferguson has already announced defenders Rio Ferdinand and Patrice Evra will be among those rested in anticipation of this weekend’s match with Chelsea.

Of course, with the type of depth at Manchester United’s disposal, the rotation of a few veterans shouldn’t hurt their chances at home against Braga. If United’s going to stubble, it’s going to be because of poor play, not because of the likes of Danny Welbeck and Javier Hernandez lack talent. The Red Devils’ second XI could win this group.

Braga, however, should pose a bigger challenge than Galatasaray or Cluj, United’s first two group stage opponents. Though the Portuguese side stumbled in their Champions League opener, they’ve since awoken. They’re unbeaten in their last five games, including a 2-0 win in Istanbul. During that time, a previously dormant attack has found its stride, scoring 15 goals, with forward Éder claiming four.

That production’s unlikely to continue at Old Trafford, but if Braga can somehow claim a draw in England, they’ll take more points than they were expecting from the group favorites. For Manchester United, even if the worst happens on Tuesday, they’ll maintain a share of the group lead.

From Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson:

“I think the level of the game in England and Europe is so high now, that making yourself unpredictable can be a strength. When it comes to United, teams will now have to think: ‘Are they going to play with two out wide? Or with a midfield diamond?’ With players like Kagawa, Cleverley and Giggs, they can give us that flexibility.”

From Sporting Braga head coach José Peseiro:

” Of course, we don’t have the same resources as United, but I have complete faith in the players I’ve got. It doesn’t do the coach or players any good at all if you start thinking any other way.”

UEFA Preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Galatasaray (Turkey) vs. CFR Cluj (Romania)

Türk Telekom Arena, Istanbul, 2:45 pm. Eastern

Despite a four-match winless run that’s seen Gala concede eight times, head coach Fatih Terim remains relatively calm ahead of what many would see as a crucial match against Cluj. The Galatasaray coach insists Tuesday’s game will not decide his team’s destiny, even if a loss will leave them on no points through three rounds. While it may seem a long shot for the Turkish champions to lose at home to Cluj, after Gala dropped a 2-0 result to Braga on Oct. 2, nothing can be taken for granted.

For Cluj to prolong Gala’s struggles, they’ll have to reverse their own misfortune. Cluj’s three-match losing streak is their worst stretch since April 2005, with their last defeat coming at home despite being up a man for the last half hour. The downturn has Cluj sitting 10th in Romania’s 18-team Liga, already 13 points behind Steaua Bucharest.

If Cluj can defy their form and replicate their opening match win at Braga, they will take a huge step toward the knockout round. Although they’ll likely only sit three points ahead of Braga, the Romanians will have taken six points from trips to Portugal and Turkey. Merely holding serve at home against Braga and Galatasaray would then put Cluj into the next round.

From Galatasaray head coach Fatih Terim:

“We have our own playing philosophy and we never deviate from it. Maybe there will be some minor changes, but we never modify the core of the team.”

From Cluj head coach Ioan Andone:

“We see it as a two-game battle, and getting four points from these two games will be crucial.”

UEFA Preview

More previews: Group E Group F Group G Group H

Snap Judgments: Initial reactions to Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League results

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Eight games in a just over four hours leave us with a lot of catching up to do before we can really sink our teeth into Tuesday’s Champions League results, but that doesn’t mean we can’t give some immediate thoughts on a day that saw England’s giants win on the road, Barcelona be Barcelona, Bayern fall flat, and Juventus played to a standstill in Turin.

Group E

Juventus 1-1 Shakhtar Donestk – More on this match to come, but the game of the day played out that way, and in three acts. (1) Shaktar dominated early, eventually producing the first goal. (2) Juventus responded quickly and appeared to be making this into a typical Juve match before (3) an open and intense final 30 minutes left the teams drawn at one. Shakhtar showed they’re capable of playing with one of Europe’s elite, while Juventus drops points at home, giving Group E’s pole position back to Chelsea.

Nordsjaelland 0-4 Chelsea – Goals piled on late make the final score deceptive, though there was little doubt Chelsea would win this one. They were clearly better from the opening whistle, even if it took a while for Juan Mata to break through. The Spaniard would add a second after halftime as the Blues cruised back to the top of their group. Given how other giants performed away from home on Tuesday, this is a very convincing result (that will talk more about this evening).

Group F

BATE Borisov 3-1 Bayern Munich – An incredible result for the Belarussians, producing a legendary victory in the history of their club. In the preview for this game, we not only alluded to Bayern as the world’s best at-the-moment team but also declined to go into BATE’s chances, claiming “you’re smart enough to know Bayern are heavy favorites to win this match.” Give BATE credit. They pulled the upset that wasn’t even worth considering, a far more difficult task than proving PST wrong.

Valencia 2-0 Lille – Lille has now gone winless in seven and look destined for last place in this group. Thanks to two goals from Jonas, Valencia gets their first points of the competition, setting up a home-and-home with BATE (now on six points) that could determine who’s going to the knockout round and who’s going to Europa. For Lille, Mathieu Debuchy picked up a second yellow late, putting him out for matchday three’s game against Bayern.

Group G

Sporting Lisbon 0-2 Barcelona – Exactly what you’d expect from Barcelona, though surprisingly, Lionel Messi didn’t score. Barça’s goals came from Alexis and Cesc Fábregas (both assisted by Messi, of course). A straight red for Sergio Busquets in the 88th minute means the Barça holder may miss multiple matches, a big loss with Thiago Alcantera having suffered a knee injury this weekend. For Sporting, they’re scoreless through two and need to get their post-Whitsel/Garcia life figured out before their matches with Spartak.

Spartak Moscow 2-3 Celtic – What happened to Spartak? Two weeks ago, they were almost knocking off Barcelona in Catalonia. Now they’re loosing at home to Celtic? When you give up an early goal then see a man (Juan Insurralde) red carded right when you’ve taken control of the match, you set yourself up for this kind of upset. All credit to Celtic, who came out and both started and finished strong. They sit second in the group with four points.

Group H

CFR Cluj 1-2 Manchester United – This was very typical United, giving life to a team they should have played off the field. Cluj came out strong and scored first, but two goals from Robin van Persie keeps the Red Devils perfect through two rounds. Will follow up on them later, but Cluj deserves from credit. They provided their win at Braga was no fluke. They only kept 35 percent of the possession, but late in the match, they had their chances to equalize. Right now, the look like they second-best team in this group.

Galatasaray 0-2 Sporting Braga – This result was coming, with Braga having recovered from their matchday one loss to Cluj. But when you see the scoreline, it’s still a bit surprising. Certainly Gala could use their home field advantage to carry them past a team like Braga? Apparently not. The Turkish champions conceded early and late and are now the only team in Group H without a win.

Those are our snap judgements. What are yours?