ON A night which confirmed that the threat posed to Celtic’s Champions League hopes by Qarabag had certainly not been overstated in the build-up, Dedryck Boyata provided Ronny Deila’s team with a slender but precious first-leg lead to take to Azerbaijan next week.
Eight minutes from the end of a gruelling contest, Boyata headed home a corner from substitute Kris Commons to break the intelligent and stubborn resistance of the visitors.
The Scottish champions will now be under no illusions as to the size of the task facing them in the heat of Baku next Wednesday.
The clean sheet kept by Celtic may prove as crucial as any factor in a third qualifying round tie which is currently balanced on the proverbial knife edge.
It did not take long for Qarabag to illustrate why they had proved to be such obdurate opposition for notionally higher standard sides such as Inter Milan and St Etienne in the Europa League last season.
Neat and exceptionally composed in possession, they quickly settled into what is clearly a well-drilled pattern of play. They seldom resorted to the long ball, seeking to pass their way out from the back at every opportunity.
Celtic were simply unable to dictate the kind of high tempo they would have wished for in what became an increasingly frustrating first half for the home players and supporters.
The presence of the club’s major shareholder Dermot Desmond in the directors’ box underlined the significance of the tie to Celtic’s season, not that it really required one of the Irish billionaire’s relatively rare visits to remind anyone that Champions League success or failure will define the campaign for Deila.
The manager had called on his squad to re-establish Celtic Park’s reputation as one of the most forbidding venues in European football for visiting teams but there was little sign of Qarabag being intimidated.
They were the first to threaten, Brazilian striker Reynaldo seeing a shot deflected wide for a corner following a bout of uncertain defending by Celtic who had recalled Emilio Izaguirre at left-back in place of the injured Charlie Mulgrew.
There was then a heart-in-the-mouth moment for Boyata when the central defender horribly sliced his attempt to clear a cross from Qarabag’s pacy right winger Alharbi El Jadeyaoui. Fortunately for Boyata, the ball flew kindly into the arms of Craig Gordon.
Celtic were finding it difficult to find gaps in the attacking third of the pitch. Stuart Armstrong finally found one with a smart pass to Gary Mackay-Steven but he was crowded out by Qarabag ’keeper Ibrahim Sehic who was quickly off his line.
Nadir Ciftci, again preferred to Leigh Griffiths in the central striking role, appeared isolated and off the pace. His first sniff of goal came when Stefan Johansen picked him out in the box with his back to goal but he was easily dispossessed by Qarabag skipper Rashad Sadigov.
It took Celtic until the 24th minute to post the game’s first attempt on target and Sehic looked less than convincing as he gathered Mackay-Steven’s shot at the second attempt.
But the home side could not build any sustained attacking momentum and also appeared vulnerable to the rapid counter-raiding of Qarabag.
With fleet-footed Spanish midfielder Dani Quintana becoming a greater influence on proceedings as the minutes ticked by, the Azerbaijani side grew in confidence. Richard Almeida, another of their Brazilian recruits, flashed a shot wide of Gordon’s right-hand post at the end of a sharp move initiated by Quintana.
A lightning break by Reynaldo had Celtic completely stretched at the back as he sprayed the ball wide to El Jadeyaoui but the Moroccan international’s overhit cross from the right let the home side off the hook.
It was a fraught end to the first half for Celtic as Gordon had to react instinctively at his near post to keep out Almeida’s wickedly swerving free-kick from a tight angle on the right.
Driven on by captain Scott Brown, who was doing his level best to unsettle Qarabag in his own inimitable fashion, Celtic managed to inject greater urgency into their play at the start of the second half.
But Ciftci’s struggles continued as opportunities to make the breakthrough began to come in his direction. In the 52nd minute, he wastefully guided a free header wide of Sehic’s right-hand post after being picked out by Izaguirre’s excellent cross from the left.
Ciftci was then presented with a gift of a chance when Qarabag were caught playing just one pass too many in and around their own penalty area. From around eight yards out, however, Ciftci struck a tame shot straight at Sehic.
Celtic were at least now building up a head of steam towards the Qarabag goal and it took a stunning save by Sehic to deny them in the 68th minute.
Johansen’s free-kick from the left found Virgil van Dijk on the edge of the six-yard box and the big Dutch defender’s header looked certain to find the net until Sehic managed to stretch out his left hand and claw the ball to safety.
As Deila looked to end the stalemate, he sent on James Forrest, Griffiths and finally Commons. The latter, replacing Ciftci, proved the trump card as his perfectly delivered corner from the right was nodded home from close range at the near post by Boyata to give Celtic a winning position to defend in Baku.
The goal prompted celebrations infused as much by relief as joy but Celtic have much work still to do if their hopes of Champions League group stage football are to remain intact.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton (Griffiths 69); Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Armstrong (Forrest 62); Ciftci (Commons 81). Subs not used: Bailly, Ambrose, Rogic, Janko.
Qarabag: Sehic, Gurbanov, Huseynov, Sadygov, Agolli; Garayev; El Jadayaoui (Poepon 87), Almeida, Quintana (Diniyev 82), Taghiyev (Mammadov 73); Reynaldo. Subs not used: Veliyev, Salahli, Yunuszada, Mustafayev.
Referee: R Schorgenhofer (Aut)