PERSISTENCE paid off for Celtic as they reached the halfway point of their Champions League qualifying campaign with their hopes of reaching the group stage for a second successive season firmly intact.
Scorer: Commons 76
Referee: Manuel de Sousa
Kris Commons struck the only goal in the closing stages of a predictably tight and tense first leg of this third qualifying round tie against a limited but obdurate Elfsborg side for whom on-loan Celtic striker Mo Bangura ruffled a few feathers among the home players and fans.
It is a narrow lead for Neil Lennon’s team to take into the return fixture in Sweden next Wednesday, but given the massive improvement in their away form in the competition over the past 12 months, they will be justifiably confident of completing the job and reaching the final play-off round.
Celtic have now won seven consecutive qualifying games in Champions League qualification, stretching back to the start of last season, and the advantage they eked out last night was the very least they deserved from a 90 minutes they largely controlled with an admirable degree of composure.
If Celtic’s team selection almost took care of itself last night, Lennon opting for the same 11 players who had started both legs of the previous round against Cliftonville, all of the intrigue before kick-off had surrounded the Elfsborg line-up.
As they had insisted throughout, the Swedish champions fielded Bangura against the wishes of his parent club. While it was Celtic who threatened first, Anthony Stokes latching onto a Georgios Samaras flick-on and flashing a left-foot shot narrowly wide from a difficult angle after just 11 seconds, it was the man from Sierra Leone who quickly became the centre of attention.
Bangura’s first and every subsequent touch was jeered unequivocally by the Celtic supporters as they made him aware in no uncertain terms of how they regarded the on-loan striker’s willingness to line up against his primary employers.
It did little to discourage him, however, during an evenly contested opening spell which saw Stefan Ishizaki post an almost immediate response to Stokes’ early effort when he fired a shot just over from 20 yards.
Bangura was clearly keen to make his presence felt, excessively so in the view of Lennon who was quick to complain to the fourth official that the forward was guilty of shoving both of his central defenders, Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson, in the back when contesting aerial balls.
A snapshot from Bangura forced Fraser Forster into action for the first time, the Celtic goalkeeper getting down to his right to make a reasonably comfortable save.
The home side looked to increase the tempo of their own work, James Forrest’s pace earning Andreas Klarstrom an early yellow card for a blatant bodycheck on the Celtic winger. Forrest continued to trouble the Elfsborg defence, avoiding their laboured attempts to catch him offside when he drilled over a low cross from the right which required Jon Jonsson to make a tremendous interception to deny Beram Kayal a simple scoring chance.
Forrest came agonisingly close to the breakthrough for Celtic in the 20th minute, again beating the offside trap with ridiculous ease to latch onto Emilio Izaguirre’s cross from the left. The Scotland international was unable to make a pure contact with his close-range shot from the corner of the six yard box, however, and the ball bounced up off the turf and against the crossbar.
But just as it seemed Celtic were gathering some positive momentum, it was Elfsborg who enjoyed a purple patch which might easily have given them a precious away goal.
Bangura was instrumental in the 31st minute move which provoked a sharp intake of breath among the home fans. He held the ball up intelligently in the penalty box, in a manner not previously witnessed when he was in a Celtic jersey, and
allowed it to be fed back into the path of Anders Svensson.
The Elfsborg captain strode onto it and lashed in a right-foot shot which had Forster comprehensively beaten, only for the ball to rattle against the crossbar.
Svensson came close again two minutes later, heading over from close range when he was left unmarked at an Ishizaki corner.
Celtic responded to finish the first half on the front foot but the opening goal continued to prove elusive. Ambrose might have done better than head over from a Commons corner, but it needed a magnificent one-handed save from Elfsborg goalkeeper Kevin Ellegaard to keep out a sweetly struck free-kick from Stokes on the stroke of half-time.
Lennon’s men remained on the front foot at the start of the second half and managed to pen Elfsborg into their own half for the most sustained spell of the evening yet. Celtic almost grabbed the lead in the first minute after the resumption, Stokes combining well with Samaras inside the penalty area, only for the Greek forward’s close-range shot to be blocked by the alert Ellegaard.
The contest was becoming increasingly fractious, leading to a flurry of yellow cards from the Portuguese referee. Commons went into his book for simulation when he tumbled on the edge of the penalty area, then Ishizaki and Johan Larsson quickly followed for crude challenges on Samaras who the visiting defence were finding it increasingly difficult to handle.
Izaguirre was the next to be cautioned, for a foul on Bangura whose unquestionable commitment to the Elfsborg cause continued to earn him vociferous disapproval from the home support.
Celtic managed to avoid becoming overly desperate in their pursuit of the opening goal, playing with a sense of conviction it would come their way. Samaras was convinced they should have had an opportunity to secure it from the penalty spot in the 65th minute, claiming his netbound shot was blocked by the arm of defender Daniel Mobaeck.
The referee was unmoved, just as he was by Elfsborg’s protests soon afterwards when Bangura went down after a clash with Wilson in which the visitors suggested the Celtic defender had lashed out with his elbow.
Celtic were rewarded for their patience when Commons struck with 14 minutes remaining. A superb right-footed cross from Izaguirre on the left completely wrong-footed the Elfsborg defence, allowing Commons to steal in at the far post and plant a close-range header firmly beyond Ellegaard.
It was enough to satisfy the Celtic support who then indulged themselves in a final bout of baiting of Bangura when he was substituted in the closing minutes.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson, Izaguirre; Forrest, Brown, Kayal (Ledley 66), Commons; Samaras (Mulgrew 86), Stokes. Subs: Zaluska, Matthews, Balde, Mouyokolo, Watt.
Elfsborg: Ellegaard, J.Larsson, Jonsson, Klarstrom, Mobaeck; Ishizaki (Jorgensen 86); Hauger, Svensson, Rohden, Keene (Hult 81), Bangura (Nilsson 81). Subs: Hassan, S.Larsson, Soderberg, Claesson.