NEIL Lennon may have left his error-prone new signing Boli Bolingoli on the bench in order to avoid the sort of costly defensive mistakes which had gifted CFR Cluj their goal in the first leg of this Champions League third qualifying tie in Romania last week.

Yet, the carelessness of those players who got the nod to play ahead of him still proved Celtic’s undoing in a dramatic match they should have won and what is more won comfortably. They failed to progress to the play-off round for the second consecutive season as a result. This painful and hugely costly reverse was entirely self-inflicted.

The Scottish champions netted three times through James Forrest, Odsonne Edouard and Ryan Christie and had chances aplenty to bag more against ordinary and cynical adversaries. But the ease with which Ciprian Deac, Billel Omrani twice and George Tucudean cut them open at the back undid all of their good work. They could have no complaints about being beaten 4-3 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate.

This was the first reverse that Celtic have suffered this season and only the second since Lennon returned as manager last season. But that was no consolation. Nor will the chance to make it through to the Europa League group stages against either Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova or AIK Stockholm of Sweden.

Celtic have suffered a few wretched results in European qualifying in recent years against Malmo, Maribor and AEK Athens. This felt as bad, if not worse, as any of them for their despairing supporters. The manner in which they crashed out exacerbated the agony.

Lennon sprang a surprise before kick-off when he dropped Bolingoli and moved Callum McGregor to left back. McGregor was arguably a more reliable option. But would he be missed in midfield? The early exchanges suggested he would be. And so it proved.

Cluj left back Camora tested Scott Bain from long-range early on and the visitors also had a strong penalty claim ignored by referee Andris Treimanis shortly after that when their winger Deac went down in the Celtic area following a challenge by McGregor.

The Celtic players looked uncomfortable with their new set-up and lacked the spark they had shown in their first seven games. It was no great surprise when they fell behind in the 27th minute when Deac rose and met a Omrani cross with a glancing header which spun in off the inside of the right post.

Falling behind did little to rouse Scott Brown and his team mates to life. Yes, Edouard got on the end of square balls from Christie on the left and Hatem Elhamed on the right before half-time. But he failed to get his subsequent efforts on target on both occasions.

And Cluj could easily have forged further in front when Damjan Dokovic rifled a wicked low free-kick at Bain. The keeper kicked it to safety. The gasps around the stadium highlighted the uneasiness among the supporters at what they were witnessing.

Treimanis booked Mario Rondon for a foul on Elhamed in the first-half and the forward was lucky to last the opening 45 minutes. He clipped the heels of Kristoffer Ajer off the ball soon afterwards. How he escaped a second yellow card and an ordering off was mystifying. The forward failed to reappear and was replaced by Tucudean.

Celtic, no doubt after a few choice words from Lennon in the dressing room, started the second-half with purpose. Ajer had a header cleared off the Cluj goal line by Paulo Vinicius after a Christie corner and Jozo Simunovic saw keeper Giedrius Arlauskis deny him following a delivery by the same player. They deserved the equaliser in the 51st minute.

McGregor got forward down the left flank and whipped the ball into the box. Edouard left it to Forrest and the winger displayed great composure to control it, step inside Camora and dink beyond Arlauskis with the outside of his right foot. Cue utter bedlam in the stands. But the tie was far from over as Omrani showed when he tested Bain almost immediately.

Celtic were gifted their second in the 62nd minute when Burca failed to clear an innocuous Elhamed pass. The ball fell unexpectedly to the feet of their French striker who made no mistake.

His charges had opportunities aplenty to kill the tie off. They were left to rue those missed opportunities when Brown inexplicably handled a Camora corner and Treimanis correctly and immediately pointed to the spot. Omrani buried the penalty confidently into the bottom left corner.

But the away side’s joy was short-lived. Their hosts edged in front just two minutes later when Edouard supplied Christie and the Scot bagged his eighth goal of the season from just a few goals out. They only held the advantage for four minutes. Omrani levelled just four minutes later after Bain had palmed into his path. The crowd could barely believe what they were seeing.

There was, however, still time for another twist in an incredible encounter and Leigh Griffiths received a loud ovation when he replaced the ineffectual Ntcham. He striker headed just wide soon after arriving on the park. Then Vakoun Issouf Bayo went on for Brown in the final minutes of regulation time. But when substitute George Tucudean scored on the counter attack with the final kick of the night in the seventh minute of added on time it was all over.