Celtic’s controversial Dubai trip came back to haunt them as the coronavirus-hit Parkhead side’s makeshift line-up allowed Kevin Nisbet to snatch a 1-1 draw for Hibernian at Parkhead.
Boss Neil Lennon, his assistant John Kennedy and 13 first-team players sat out the game after being ordered to self-isolate on their return from their controversial Dubai training camp.
That ruling came after injured defender Christopher Jullien was confirmed to have contracted the virus while in the Middle East with his team-mates.
And there was another sickener for the reigning champions – who had first-team coach Gavin Strachan in the dugout – as Nisbet smashed home in injury-time to cancel out David Turnbull’s late free-kick.
The gamble in flying 3,000 miles during a global pandemic has well and truly backfired for Lennon and his team, who now find themselves 21 points behind runaway Premiership leaders Rangers, albeit with three games in hand.
The track and trace blow came just hours before kick-off as Celtic confirmed the game would go ahead without a host of their big names.
The latest farcical developments in a sorry saga for the Glasgow giants brought another rebuke from Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s First Minister again questioned whether the trip was “really essential” before saying the football authorities should decide whether Celtic should face action.
That remains unlikely after Scottish Football Association chief executive Ian Maxwell insisted the Hoops had broken no rules in travelling to the UAE.
But the biggest backlash is likely to come from the furious Celtic support, who have seen their club slip up time and again during a campaign in which they were supposed to fulfil their 10-in-a-row destiny.
Captain Scott Brown led the list of notable absentees, with no sign of first-choice goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas, defenders Kristopher Ajer and Hatem abd Elhamed, midfield men Mohamed Elyounoussi, Ryan Christie and Olivier Ntcham and strikers Odsonne Edouard, Leigh Griffiths and Albian Ajeti either.
Yet the champions were still able to field a team containing eight established first-teamers, while back-up stopper Conor Hazard and Stephen Welsh have both played a handful of games this season.
Only American winger Cameron Harper was new to first-team action as he started up front.
Hibs reluctantly lined up after failing with a late bid to force Celtic to retest their squad, having been warned by the SPFL they would face “severe consequences” if they did not fulfil the fixture.
It was no surprise to see them take the game to their hosts early on and they created three chances inside the first 10 minutes. Celtic did better to close the gaps after that but were hardly dominant.
Yet they might have grabbed a lead had Harper not taken a shot himself – finding only the side-netting – when he had Tom Rogic and Turnbull screaming for a cutback.
Ismaila Soro and Diego Laxalt both tried their luck from distance in the minutes before the break but former Arsenal keeper Matt Macey – making his Hibs debut – got hands on both efforts. Stand-in skipper Callum McGregor then dragged wide after being played in by Turnbull’s spooned pass.
Harper had to be replaced on the hour after going down with cramp but with none of their big-hitters to turn to, Strachan was forced to bring on another youngster in Armstrong Oko-Flex.
But that only underlined Celtic’s lack of cutting edge and Hibs soon got themselves back on the front foot and would have opened the scoring had it not been for Hazard’s brave block on Melker Hallberg.
It appeared, however, that Turnbull had got the hosts out of jail with eight minutes left. Brought down by Hibs sub Stephen McGinn, he got up to whip a fabulous free-kick over the wall and past Macey.
But Celtic’s Achilles heel was exposed yet again 60 seconds into stoppage time. Stevie Mallan’s free-kick was met by Paul McGinn as he climbed over Turnbull. Shane Duffy cleared off the line but only as far as Nisbet, who rammed home another from close range.
It was a devastating blow to the Hoops and another may have followed soon after – but Mallan saw his strike creep over the bar.
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