Celtic suffered a third successive home defeat for the first time in 30 years with a humiliating Europa League Group H collapse against Sparta Prague.
The Czech side arrived decimated by injuries and illness while also lacking match practice given their domestic league has been suspended.
But Lukas Julis’ hat-trick and a goal from Ladislav Krejci secured a deserved win, with Leigh Griffiths replying.
It leaves Neil Lennon’s side bottom with one point from three games.
Celtic last lost three consecutive home games at the turn of the year during the 1989-90 season, and they have now lost three Europa League home games on the bounce for the first time.
Three is also a significant number for Sparta – the Czech side making it a trio of wins in Europe on their visits to Scottish sides having previously beaten Airdrieonians and Heart of Midlothian.
Celtic began the game as you would expect from a side who had looked untroubled as they marched into the delayed 2019-20 Scottish Cup final by swotting aside the challenge of Aberdeen.
Sparta’s early nervousness, meanwhile, epitomised a team arriving on the back of heavy defeats by Lille and AC Milan – their only match in a month with a Covid-19 lockdown disrupting their domestic fixtures – and with only four players retained from last week’s loss in Italy.
However, after Odsonne Edouard and Mohamed Elyounoussi passed up early shooting chances for the hosts, the Czech side burst into life, largely inspired by a player who Kilmarnock fans might remember in a short loan spell from Sunderland in 2014.
David Moberg Karlsson’s speed of leg and thought forced a block by goalkeeper Scott Bain and the Sweden winger then sent a thunderous drive off the junction of bar and post.
When Bain touched a Julis shot over the crossbar, it was a warning that Celtic failed to heed as Karlsson’s corner was headed against the post by David Hancko, the on-loan Fiorentina centre-half making his first appearance of the season following injury, and Julis fired the rebound into the roof of the net.
An Elyounoussi toe-poke clipped the top of the Sparta crossbar, but Karlsson was soon dashing to the opposite by-line and his cross was finished by a neat Julis side-foot after 17-year-old Adam Karabec pounced on a poor Scott Brown clearing header.
When a Michal Sacek drive came off the inside of a Celtic post after the break and substitute Griffiths got a goal back moments later after goalkeeper Florin Nita parried from Tom Rogic, it looked like a comeback was on.
However, Karlsson turned Shane Duffy inside out before setting up Julis in front of goal and substitute Ladislav Krejci’s header rubbed late salt into Celtic’s wounds.
Man of the match – David Moberg Karlsson
What did we learn?
Having gone into Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final on the back of four games without a win, the ease of that defeat of Aberdeen appears to have been an aberration rather than a turning of the tide.
Manager Lennon had described the criticism he and his side had received before the Hampden game as hysterical, but he should be bracing himself for more of the same after such an abject performance.
Sparta looked to be the weakest link in Group H, but this victory for the under-strength Czech league leaders suggests Celtic might struggle to lift themselves off the foot of the table never mind qualify for the knock-out stage.
What the stats say
- After a winless run of five Europa League games (D1 L4), Sparta Prague registered their first win in the competition since a 1-0 win over Southampton in November 2016.
- Excluding qualifiers, this was only the third time Celtic have shipped four goals in a home European match, also doing so in September 1989 (5-4 win over FK Partizan, Cup Winners’ Cup) and September 2017 (0-5 defeat to PSG, Champions League).
- Sparta Prague’s Lukas Julis ended a run of 12 Europa League matches without a goal, netting his first goals since March 2016 in a last-16 match v Lazio.
- Leigh Griffiths’ three Europa League goals for Celtic have all come at Celtic Park in the group stages – also versus Fenerbahce (October 2015) and Rosenborg (September 2018).
- Sparta Prague forward Julis became the first player to score an away European hat-trick against Celtic.