RONNY Deila may do things differently from Neil Lennon as Celtic manager but so far he shares at least one thing in common with his predecessor. In Kris Commons, he has his most reliable match winner.
Scorer: Commons (6)
The playmaker, on his return from injury, plundered the only goal after just six minutes of what proved to be a fraught Europa League tie for the Scottish champions.
They had to survive a series of nervy moments, mostly in the second half, and were again indebted to the rejuvenated figure of goalkeeper Craig Gordon as they preserved all three points and claimed the initiative at the top of Group D.
This was still some way short of the performance level which will earn Deila the faith of the Celtic fans, but it displayed a capacity to dig in for victory.
Celtic Park was intentionally half-empty, with the top tier of the stadium not being used in anticipation of the less than thunderous stampede for tickets. But while the Europa League may be an anti-climax for supporters who have become accustomed to big Champions League nights in Glasgow, those who did turn up managed to create a good atmosphere.
The mood was certainly enhanced by the flying start to proceedings for Deila’s men. It was a sweetly constructed and superbly finished goal, so typical of the creativity and imagination which Commons so often delivers for Celtic.
The 31-year-old dummied a pass from Emilio Izaguirre, allowing the ball to run into the path of Anthony Stokes. As Commons peeled off and stole in behind the wrong-footed Dinamo central defenders, Stokes picked him out with a perfectly weighted pass. Striding on to the ball, Commons drilled it low beyond goalkeeper Eduardo’s left hand into the corner of the net.
With John Guidetti ineligible and Stefan Scepovic injured, it was Stokes who led the line for the home side, while Commons was flanked by Alexandar Tonev and Mubarak Wakaso in the advanced midfield trio.
It was another opportunity for Tonev to try to make a positive impression, the on-loan Aston Villa winger having been singularly unimpressive in his previous appearances. He at least looked eager to get involved on this occasion and came close to doubling Celtic’s lead when he cut inside from the right and drove a 22-yard shot narrowly wide of Eduardo’s left-hand post.
Dinamo took time to settle but gradually found some composure and ambition in response to their early setback. Their first opening of the night came in the 18th minute, when Portuguese right-back Ivo Pinto surged forward and delivered a fine cross which his compatriot, Wilson Eduardo, headed over from around eight yards.
As the game became increasingly open and flowed from end to end, more than the home fans would have liked, Wilson came even closer to an equaliser ten minutes later. He dispossessed Stefan Johansen with a robust challenge and let fly with a dipping shot from 22 yards which smacked off Gordon’s crossbar.
There was a clear sense that Celtic might need more than one goal to win this contest and they should have made it 2-0 in the 32nd minute. Commons showed great energy and persistence to close down Eduardo inside the penalty area, forcing a mistake from the ’keeper who mishit the ball directly to him. It left Commons with the apparently simple task of squaring the ball to the unmarked Stokes for a tap-in on the edge of the six yard box. But, inexplicably and uncharacteristically, he overhit the pass behind his team-mate, leaving both of them holding their heads in disbelief.
Dinamo seemed further encouraged by that reprieve and both Pinto and Wilson came close with efforts from distance.
Tonev tried to get Celtic back on the front foot when he drifted infield again and drove in a low shot which was clutched by Eduardo. Dinamo were soon threatening again, Wilson seizing on a poor attempted clearance from Efe Ambrose and striking a fierce shot which forced Gordon into a fine save.
The fluid nature of the match was underlined just before half-time when Virgil van Dijk meandered forward to join the Celtic attack and tried his luck from 25 yards, his cleanly struck effort well dealt with by Eduardo.
Dinamo were almost caught cold right at the start of the second half when a lofted through ball from Commons allowed Johansen to race into the penalty area. Unfortunately for Celtic, the Norwegian midfielder could not get the ball under control properly, allowing Josip Pivaric time to make a crucial covering tackle.
The home side were struggling to sustain that kind of attacking momentum, while Dinamo looked increasingly dangerous. They should have taken advantage of poor communication in the Celtic ranks in the 54th minute, no-one tracking a move in which El Arabi Soudani set up Wilson with a free shot at goal which he wastefully hit too close to Gordon.
Celtic looked vulnerable and ever more anxious. They required Gordon to be at his most alert when he plunged low to his right to touch Marcelo Brozovic’s 20-yard shot behind for a corner. In a bid to shore up his team in midfield, Deila responded by withdrawing Commons and bringing on Beram Kayal.
He was followed into the fray by Leigh Griffiths. In a rare appearance for the striker, his most notable contribution was to hold the ball up in the corner in the closing seconds as Celtic survived a late Dinamo onslaught.
Celtic: Gordon, Denayer, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Tonev (Berget 88), Johansen, Brown, Wakaso (Griffiths 78), Commons (Kayal 69), Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, O’Connell, Fisher, Henderson.
Dinamo Zagreb: Eduardo, Ivo Pinto, Sigali, Simunic, Pivaric, Ademi, Brozovic, Antolic (Coric 75), Soudani, Cop (Henriquez 60), Wilson Eduardo (Pjaca 84). Subs: Jezina, Paulo Machado, Goncalo Santos, Vukojevic.