CELTIC did it the hard way. They did it the dramatic way. But all that mattered to Neil Lennon and his players was that they did it as they wrote another remarkable chapter in their club’s storied European history last night.
SCORERS - Celtic: Commons (45), Samaras (48), Forrest (90+1).
BOOKINGS - Celtic: Brown, Ledley. Karagandy: Simcevic, Vicius, Canas, Zenkovich
REFEREE - S Moen (Norway)
A 92nd-minute goal by James Forrest was the final word in this Champions League Play-Off round tie against a Shakhter Karagandy side who were anything but the lambs to the slaughter which their lowly Uefa ranking had suggested.
Lennon’s extraordinary reaction when Forrest scored, sprinting the length of the pitch Jose Mourinho-style to celebrate with his players, told just how much it meant to the Celtic manager as he guided his team into the group stage of Europe’s elite competition for the second successive season.
How they got there will seem of little relevance today when he watches the draw unfold from Monaco. But this was a night which will live long in Parkhead folklore as Celtic overturned a 2-0 first-leg deficit for the fourth time in Europe.
Celtic Park was short of a full house but lacked nothing in frenzied involvement by the home support. The tone was set inside the opening minute when hugely optimistic screams for handball against Shakhter central defender Aldin Dzidic in the penalty area were ignored by the Norwegian referee.
This was a night when every decision would be contested both on the pitch and in the stands. While Lennon had spoken of the need for patience, pointing out that Celtic had no need to panic in their search for the goals needed to turn the tie around, his team began with a pace and purpose which made no secret of their desire to make inroads into Shakhter’s advantage as quickly as possible.
With Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras both fit to return to the side, they provided fluid and interchanging support up front for central striker Anthony Stokes who was also passed fit. During a hectic opening quarter of an hour, Stokes was first to stretch the visitors’ defence with a low cross from the right which was scrambled clear.
Shakhter goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin was called into action for the first time in the fifth minute, stretching out a hand to brilliantly touch over Mikael Lustig’s close range header from a Commons cross.
It wasn’t completely one-way traffic, Fraser Forster also involved at the other end when he made a fairly comfortable save from first leg goalscorer Sergei Khizhnichenko who had been afforded a generous amount of space and time to get his shot away.
But Celtic continued to monopolise possession and territorial advantage. Mokin was a busy man, touching a Forrest shot over and then making a scrambling save to keep out a header from Stokes. The Kazakh ’keeper was effective, if a little overstated at times as when he punched away a free-kick by Commons.
The first sign of the defensive vulnerability from Celtic which sustained so much damage in the first leg came in the 24th minute when Shakhter earned their first throw-in of the night in an attacking position. Gediminas Vicius, as he had done in Astana, launched the ball into the penalty area. The home side could not clear effectively, the ball dropping to Colombian midfielder Roger Canas who hooked his shot wildly off target.
Lennon, who had revamped his back four once more with Virgil van Dijk and Emilio Izaguirre both relegated to the bench, would have been less than encouraged as his team continued to struggle with high balls into their box.
Mokin made another decent save at the other end, sprawling to his left to keep out a long-range effort by Stokes, but Celtic’s attacking momentum had dissipated somewhat.
When Lustig had to make a superbly timed saving tackle to deny Khiznichenko a clear shooting chance on the edge of the Celtic penalty area, there was a growing sense of anxiety and frustration around the stadium.
But that mood was radically altered by Commons’ spectacular intervention as the first half ticked into two minutes of stoppage time. Receiving the ball from Samaras, the inventive attacking midfielder showed great poise to tee up a left foot shot from around 22 yards. He struck it magnificently, the ball arrowing beyond Mokin’s despairing dive to his right and nestling in the bottom corner of the net.
Celtic began the second half with renewed dynamism, immediately forcing the bout of sustained pressure which led to Samaras levelling the aggregate score in the 48th minute. The Greek international, so often a pivotal figure for Lennon’s team in European matches, displayed excellent reactions and awareness as he controlled a miscued shot by Lustig and steadied himself before driving a close-range shot beyond Mokin.
The momentum of the tie, it seemed safe to assume, would be firmly with Celtic now. But it remained on a knife-edge as Shakhter caused several moments of extreme uncertainty in the home defence.
Forster was unconvincing in dealing with a shot by Aleksandar Simcevic, only parrying the ball out weakly to the edge of his six yard box. Fortunately for the big goalkeeper, Khiznichenko had strayed offside and could not take advantage of the rebound.
Stokes should have given some added comfort to Celtic on the hour mark when he was picked out by James Forrest’s cross from the right but the Irish striker contrived to slam his close-range shot against the crossbar.
Shakhter threatened to punish that profligacy as they contined to wreak havoc with corners and long throw-ins.
Matthews cleared a Dzidic header off the line after Forster had flapped at a corner, then another hand-launched missile from Vicius eluded everyone before the ball struck the crossbar. To say Celtic were living dangerously was putting it mildly.
But just as it looked as though the agony for their supporters would be extended into extra time, they plundered their stunning late, late winner.
Stokes made up for his earlier miss, surging into the box on the left and delivering a low cross which Forrest slammed high beyond Mokin into the roof of the net. Cue utter bedlam at Celtic Park.
ome of Europe’s finest are heading to the east end of Glasgow again this season.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Lustig, Ambrose, Mulgrew; Forrest (Van Dijk 90), Brown, Ledley, Samaras; Commons (Boerrigter 79); Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Izaguirre, Balde, Watt, McGeouch.
Shakhter Karagandy: Mokin, Simcevic, Maliy, Vasiljevic, Dzidic, Poryvaev; Finonchenko (Zenkovich 83), Canas, Vicius, Ghazaryan; Khizhnichenko.. Subs not used: Pokatilov, Bayzhanov, Tarasov, Gabyshev, Darabayev, Murtazayev.