By Jack the Lad
The Bhoys march on to the Champions League Playoffs after an astute defensive display against Qarabag.
A 0-0 draw against in Azerbaijan was enough to see Deila’s men through 1-0 on aggregate and put them within touching distance of the group stages.
Mikael Lustig, Emilio Izaguirre, Nir Bitton and Nadir Ciftci returned to the starting line up after missing out on the opening league game against Ross County in the hope of guiding the Hoops through to the next round.
The prospect of Emilio Izaguirre starting away from home in Europe is one which more than likely struck fear into the hearts of most fans before the game. Nothing like a dodgy team selection to settle the pre-match jitters. However, in a mesmerising turn of events, the Honduran managed to turn in a defensive performance for the ages.
After an edgy first 10 minutes with either team unwilling to commit players to attack, the first opportunity of the game fell to the team in green and white. Virgil Van Dijk, supposedly the target of every team in the Premier League, made a bursting run from the Celtic half, miraculously dribbled past four Qarabag defenders before bearing down on goal. Unfortunately, the Dutchman forgot to release the trigger, and was hounded out by the Qarabag defence.
As the second half grew, the match turned in to a struggle for possession, with neither team able to break down the opposition.
The Hoops made several attempts at penetrating the Azerbaijani defence, with GMS in particular struggling to make an impact as he continually found himself offside.
It appeared not only were the Bhoys playing 11 players but also an incompetent lunatic; the referee. Perhaps his most ludicrous act was his decision to not award Stefan Johansen a free kick after he was hacked down on the edge of the box.
After Collum’s heroic refereeing display at the weekend, you’d have been forgiven for thinking he’d turned heel and flown to Azerbaijan to derail Celtic’s Champions League campaign. A friend in the pub jokingly stated ‘we’d them to murder one of our players before that bastard gives us a free kick.’
Qarabag gradually eased into the game, but their attacks were continually thwarted by the excellent Brown and Bitton in midfield, who put out fires all over the pitch. The only threat the Azerbaijanis posed was down the right hand side with El Jadeyaoui, but the mercurial Izaguirre proved himself to be invincible. Well, almost.
The Honduran’s man finally got the beating of him. El Jadeyaoui whipped in a floating cross, to which Craig Gordon decided, ‘fuck it,’ and threw his body towards the ball in what looked like an attempted suicide attempt. The keeper missed the ball completely, but the ball could only rebound off Reynaldo back into Izaguirre who hacked it clear.
Were it not for his save five minutes later, Gordon might have faced a few questions in the changing room at half time. On the half hour mark, GMS was dispossessed of the ball on the half way line and Qarabag countered. Agolli, who was in Lustig’s back pocket for most of the night, cut inside off the left and fed the ball through to Almeida, who took a touch and unleashed a rasping shot from 25 yards. The ball looked to be bursting the back of the net until Gordon dived low to his right and pulled off an outstanding one handed save. Time for a break.
The first water break of the game couldn’t have come at a better time for the Hoops, giving them time to regroup after a sloppy 10 minutes.
The game was no sooner underway as Qarabag continued to enjoy lengthy spells of possession, but were still unable to get passed the defensive rearguard of Lustig, Boyata, Van Dijk and Izaguirre.
Indeed, the only noteworthy incident after the water break was a speculative effort from Bitton, who tried to lob the Qarabag keeper from over 40 yards out. No prizes for guessing how that went.
The second half began and continued the same way as the first. The Azerbaijanis managed to convert possession this time into a series of corners, one of which caused problems for the Celtic goalkeeper.
In the 53rd minute, Qarabag played a short corner which found its way to the edge of the box to Sadygov, whose deflected shot nearly landed at the feet of Reynaldo before Gordon’s outstretched arm tipped the ball wide for another corner. The resulting corner once again landed at the feet of Sadygov, who this time blasted the ball over bar.
Five minutes later and this time it was the Bhoys on the attack. A mazy run from GMS, the first time he managed to fully come to terms with dodgy surface, resulted in the ball ending up at the feet of Stuart Armstrong, whose shot from the edge of the box sailed narrowly wide.
Chances for Qarabag were few and far between. The Azerbaijani Champions lacked a spark in the final third of field, and particularly found it difficult to get past Scott Brown in the middle of park. The Celtic captain’s dogged pressing and ability to retain possession highlighted his growing importance in the Ronny Deila era.
As the minutes ticked down, the Hoops retreated into their own half in expectation of swathes of Qarabag attacks. The home side, however, never threw caution to wind, commendably sticking with their patient possession game. Time for another water break.
With 10 minutes to go, the Hoops created the best chance of the game. Armstrong managed to thread a pass through to Johansen, who could only manage to poke the ball into the side net from 10 yards out. A golden chance squandered.
That was to be Armstrong’s last involvement, as he was replaced by James Forrest, whose pace caused havoc in the Qarabag defence.
Five minutes later the product of the Celtic youth academy drove from deep within the Celtic half, beat 3 Qarabag players, made his way into the box and found himself one on one with the keeper.
BURY IT JAMESY.
The infamous final product of Forrest struck again as, instead of shooting, he opted to try and square the ball to Griffiths, who had earlier replaced Ciftci. The pass was anticipated and knocked clear for a throw in.
The referee signalled for five minutes of added time, but the nerves experienced by millions of supporters around the world proved unnecessary, as Qarabag failed to apply any real pressure to the Bhoys’ defence.
Overall, a fantastic defensive performance in what were extremely difficult circumstances. A clean sheet away in Europe is something to savour, and Deila will be feeling confident going into the play offs. Standout performances from the back four, in particular Izaguirre, as well as the midfield duo of Bitton and Brown, neutralised the Azerbaijanis and left them wanting the whole night.
Possible opponents for the next round include Partizan Belgrade (Serbia), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Skenderbeu Korce (Albania), Astana (Kazakhstan) and Malmo (Oldco conquerors). Malmo could prove the toughest test after disposing of Red Bull Salzburg in the last round, but the Swedish champions are finding things difficult of late domestically, sitting in 6th place in Allsvenskan. Partizan Belgrade and Tel Aviv could also pose difficult draws, having knocked out teams with previous Group Stage experience in Steaua Bucharest and Viktoria Plzen. On the other hand, a trip to Albania to face Skenderbeu Korce would appear the easiest draw.
Nonetheless, all our possible opponents should be treated with caution after last year’s debacle. We’re in the next round, that’s what counts.