BRENDAN RODGERS insisted German referee Deniz Aytekin had a major say in ending Celtic’s Europa League hopes in the 1-0 loss to Valencia in the Mestalla last night.
The blundering match official stunned the Hoops boss when he sent off his fellow-countryman Jeremy Toljan in the 37th minute following two innocuous yellow cards.
The Spanish cracks, who won 2-0 at Parkhead last week, were under pressure as the Scottish champions controlled the encounter up to that point.
The whistler’s bizarre intervention turned the tie on its head and Rodgers’ men crashed out of the tournament at the last-32 stage as they did last season against Zenit St Petersburg.
The Irishman said: “Yes I thought we were much the superior team up until that point. I think our shape and everything worked really well for us.
“We started the game ever so well, nice and tight defensively, pressing at the right times. We had confidence not just to keep the ball, but we carried a threat in our penetration. It looked like we were going to get that goal we craved.
OFF…Jeremy Toljan looks bewildered as referee Deniz Aytekin flashes the red card.
“I thought the referee took the game away from us, so that was disappointing. I thought the players came together, but I didn’t think it was a second yellow card.
“I thought it was a free-kick to us because the player has come on the blindside and sort of made contact with Jeremy. That changed the dynamic of the game, but, even so, the bravery of the players was incredible, they kept going.
“I spoke to the referee just after the game. He said it was a definite sending-off. I thought it was really harsh. You just sensed we were building into the game and it was disappointing.
“That was a key moment that took the game away from us. It’s unfortunate.”
Rodgers, who will now prepare his team for the visit of Motherwell in the Premiership on Sunday, continued: “The players tired a little bit towards the end, but still we could have done better with the goal.
“The difference over the two games was that in the key moments, we haven’t defended so well. But, overall, I thought we were excellent, I was very proud of the team.”
On the European front, Rodgers added: “You are always looking to improve.
“It’s maybe difficult for us. But we can’t give up hope. You saw the team play very, very well tonight. We have to look to qualify for European competition again next season and try to progress.
“The supporters will be very proud of the team, having that courage to come and play and force the game against a very good side.
“I said last week that we started the game well, but if you make mistakes at this level you’ll get punished. Unfortunately for us, that’s what has cost us.”
WELL DONE, MY BHOY…Brendan Rodgers has a pat on the back for substitute Mikey Johnston at the end.
Unfortunately, Celtic’s best chance of the evening fell to defender Kristoffer Ajer just after the hour mark with the game still goalless.
The giant Norwegian was left unguarded smack in front of goal following a Ryan Christie right-wing free-kick delivery.
Ajer, however, got under the ball and sent the ball waywardly over the crossbar from four yards.
Eight minutes later, substitute Kevin Gamiero netted the only goal of the game – and the European dream was over for another season.