CELTIC began their landmark 50th season of European football with a slender but thoroughly merited victory in Reykjavik which heralded the beginning of Ronny Deila’s managerial tenure in a satisfying, if unspectacular manner.
Scorer: Celtic - McGregor (83)
Midfield prospect Callum McGregor marked his first-team debut with the only goal of the night in the Icelandic capital, setting the stage for what should be a comfortable passage to the third qualifying round of the Champions League for Deila’s men when they face KR in the second leg of this tie at Murrayfield next Tuesday.
McGregor’s strike, seven minutes from time, finally earned the Scottish champions a reward for their general superiority over spirited but limited opposition. Tougher tests lie in wait if Deila is to guide Celtic to the group stage of Europe’s elite competition but this was a steady first step along that road.
In an otherwise familiar-looking Celtic line-up, the first significant selection call of Deila’s reign was the inclusion of 21-year-old McGregor in a positive 4-2-3-1 formation.
McGregor’s only previous European involvement was as an unused substitute against Cliftonville at the same stage of the Champions League a year ago before he joined Notts County on loan and enjoyed a free-scoring campaign in the third tier of English football.
Celtic enjoyed as much possession and territorial dominance as Deila could have wished for in the opening stages but they found penetration difficult to achieve in the face of a well-drilled and compact KR defensive set-up.
Efforts from distance appeared the likeliest source of an early breakthrough and Kris Commons was extremely unfortunate not to open his account in the ninth minute.
Griffiths, operating on the right of the advanced midfield trio, collected a pass from Johansen and neatly worked the ball inside to Commons. From around 22 yards, he struck a sweet volley which struck the crossbar with KR goalkeeper Stefan Magnusson grasping at thin air.
Two minutes later, Commons tried his luck again from even further out but his shot was straight at Magnusson who was less than convincing as he bundled the ball wide at the expense of a corner.
The Icelandic champions had offered little apart from dogged resistance in the first 20 minutes, but they suddenly posted a warning on the counter attack. Gary Martin, the English striker who has thrived in Iceland after failing to make the grade at Middlesbrough, was allowed all the time he needed to seize upon a weak header out by Emilio Izaguirre. Happily for Celtic, Martin’s right-foot shot from 20 yards was straight at Fraser Forster, who saved it comfortably.
Not surprisingly at this stage of the season, Celtic appeared short of sharpness in certain situations. That was typified by Stokes who wasted a good opportunity when he badly miscued a shot from just inside the penalty area after he had done well to engineer the position from a smart exchange of passes with Commons.
Following Deila’s first half-time team-talk as Celtic manager, there was a greater sense of urgency about the work of his players after the break. Commons continued to wage a one-man assault on the KR goal from the fringes of the penalty area but remained out of luck.
He drove a 22-yard shot just off target in the 48th minute, then perhaps should have done better than guide his next attempt just wide of Magnusson’s left-hand post after Stokes had touched the ball invitingly into his path. The KR goalkeeper was then forced into action in the 55th minute, doing well to drop to his left and clutch the ball after Commons had latched on to Stokes’ cutback from the left.
It remained one-way traffic and Celtic struck the frame of Magnusson’s goal for the second time on the hour mark. It was a tremendous effort by Griffiths who was making the first European appearance of his career. Cutting inside from the right, he smashed a left-foot shot from a challenging angle against the underside of the crossbar and watched in frustration as it bounced down to safety.
Deila made a double substitution in the 74th minute, replacing Griffiths and Stokes with Derk Boerrigter and Teemu Pukki. Finnish international Pukki should have put Celtic in front just three minutes later when he passed up a premium chance, finding Magnusson’s left-hand post from little more than six yards.
But the victory Deila’s team unquestionably deserved was finally earned two minutes later when McGregor cut in from the right and drilled in a low left foot shot which wrong-footed Magnusson with the aid of a slight deflection and found its way into the net.
KR Reykjavik: Magnusson, Hauksson, Josepsson, G Sigurdsson, Gudmundur Gunnarsson, Atlason (Ormarsson 88), Saevarsson, B Sigurdsson, Lorenzo (Zato 58), Finnbogason, Martin (Ragnarsson 81). Subs not used: Jensson, Jonsson, Gunnar Thor Gunnarsson, H Sigurdsson.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Van Dijk, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Griffiths (Boerrigter 74), Johansen, Mulgrew, McGregor, Commons, Stokes (Pukki 74). Subs not used: Zaluska, Matthews, Kayal, O’Connell, Henderson.