Lennon puts on brave face as Bhoys crash out

CELTIC manager Neil Lennon put up a brave face despite his side crashing out of the Champions League last night following a 4-2 aggregate defeat by Sporting Braga.

First Celtic goals for debutant Gary Hooper and Efrain Juarez earned Lennon’s men a 2-1 win but Paulo Cesar’s first-half away goal had left them needing five to progress. While the Portuguese side now look forward to the Champions League play-offs, Celtic will have to negotiate their way through the same stages of the Europa League.

Lennon said: “Overall I’m delighted with the performance and intensity and all the things you ask for — commitment and passion. At half-time we just asked them to win the game and I thought we deserved to win.’’

First Celtic goals for Gary Hooper and Efrain Juarez proved to be the only highlights of the club’s Champions League campaign after Paulo Cesar’s first-half away goal killed off any slim hopes of a comeback against Sporting Braga last night.

Celtic twice threatened from inswinging corners by Charlie Mulgrew in the opening stages.

However Georgios Samaras glanced his header wide from the first and the second broke to Joe Ledley, who sliced over from 16 yards.

But the early pressure soon dissipated and Celtic’s task, already tough, grew even more difficult when Braga snatched an away goal in the 21st minute.

Alan was allowed room to cross from the right and Cesar ran across Cha before glancing a header beyond the outstretched arm of Lukasz Zaluska and inside the post.

The away goal left Celtic needing five to progress but even one was looking unlikely as they struggled to break their visitors down as the Bhoys slumped toward half-time.

Mulgrew was taken off at the break with Ledley moving to left-back and Marc-Antoine Fortune coming on.

The equaliser followed on 51 minutes. Fortune’s power and skill won him space on the right side of the box and his excellent low cross was bundled home by Hooper.

The goal lifted the crowd and the team but they soon needed a saving tackle by Cha to prevent Leandro Salina converting after a back-post cross.

Celtic went ahead in the 79th minute when Juarez’s deft header flashed in following an inswinging cross by Samaras.

They pushed Braga back for the remainder of the tie but could not threaten again as their Champions League campaign ended at the qualifying stage for the second season running.

CELTIC: Zaluska, Cha, Hooiveld, Loovens, Mulgrew (Fortune 46), Juarez, Brown (McCourt 87), Ledley, Maloney (Murphy 63), Samaras, Hooper.

BRAGA: Felgudiraf, Alberto Rodriguez, Moises, Echiejile, Miguel Garcia, Paulo Cesar, Madrid (Paulao 84), Leandro Salino (Meyong 90), Alan, Matheus (Lima 66), Vandinho.

Referee: Ivan Bebek (Croatia).

Last night’s UEFA Champions League Third Qualifying Round Second Leg results: AA Gent 1 Dynamo Kiev 3 Agg (1-6), Basle 3 Debrecen 1 Agg (5-1), Celtic 2 Braga 1 Agg (2-4), Dinamo Zagreb 1 FC Sheriff 1 Agg (2-2), FC Sheriff win 6-5 on penalties; FC Copenhagen 3 BATE 2 Agg (3-2), Fenerbahce 0 Young Boys 1 Agg (2-3); HJK Helsinki 1 Partizan Belgrade 2 Agg (1-5); Lech Poznan 0 Sparta Prague 1 Agg (0-2); MSK Zilina 3 Litex Lovech 1 Agg (4-2), PAOK Salonika 3 Ajax 3 Agg (4-4), Ajax win on away goals rule; Rosenborg 3 AIK 0 Agg (4-0); SV Red Bull Salzburg 4 Omonia Nicosia 1 Agg (5-2), Zenit St Petersburg 1 Unirea Urziceni 0 Agg (1-0).

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