THE QUALIFICATION equation for Celtic in Group A of the Europa League is no easier to solve after they had to settle for their second successive 2-2 draw in a hugely enjoyable joust with Fenerbahce.
As they did against Ajax in Amsterdam two weeks ago, the Scottish champions let a winning position slip from their grasp. Leading 2-0 through goals from Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons, Ronny Deila’s side were pegged back by a double from Fenerbahce substitute Fernandao.
With surprise package Molde drawing 1-1 with Ajax to remain two points clear at the top of the group, Celtic’s trip to face the Norwegians in three weeks’ time now takes on added significance.
There may be no substitute for Champions League football but this was an occasion which managed to retain the feel of a big European night at Celtic Park, not something which is always the case in this tournament.Unlike last season’s Europa League group stage campaign, the top tier of the stadium was open and a healthy attendance created a vibrant atmosphere which Deila’s players managed to reflect in their aggressively determined performance, particularly in the first half.
It was not always easy for them to adhere to their manager’s demand to be on the front foot as much as possible. While the action was always absorbing, it was also scrappily punctuated by a succession of fouls from both teams in the opening exchanges.
Fenerbahce, however, initially looked like a team short on confidence after their recent setbacks both domestically and in Europe.
They did manage to produce the first genuinely threatening move of the night, Mikael Lustig providing a fine defensive header for Celtic to prevent Robin van Persie getting on the end of Volkan Sen’s excellent cross.
But it was Celtic who gradually looked the more cohesive and effective attacking unit, leading to their burst of two goals in four first-half minutes to put themselves in a hugely promising position.
The 28th minute opener came from a sweetly delivered Commons corner from the right which exposed real uncertainty in the heart of the visitors’ defence. Fenerbahce had angrily disputed the award of the set-piece, claiming Griffiths was offside when he forced Simon Kjaer to concede it.
They were hopelessly unable to deal with it when Commons directed it towards the edge of the six yard area. Lustig headed it on and after Griffiths saw his initial shot brilliantly saved by Fenerbahce goalkeeper Fabiano, the Celtic striker reacted sharply to ram the rebound high into the net from close range.
Celtic now had the bit firmly between their teeth and looked to be in total command when they doubled their lead four minutes later.
Nir Bitton began the move as he shuttled the ball to James Forrest on the left. The winger seemed to be outnumbered but showed great technique and tenacity to wriggle beyond two Fenerbahce players and cut the ball back into the path of Commons. The Celtic playmaker met it with a firm left-foot shot from eight yards which left Fabiano helpless.
Fenerbahce were showing little as an attacking force and coach Vitor Pereira decided a change was in order, replacing Sen with his top scorer Fernandao. The introduction of the Brazilian paid an almost immediate dividend.
The Celtic back four, with 18-year-old Kieran Tierney settling to his task impressively as he replaced the suspended Emilio Izaguirre at left-back, had generally looked comfortable.
But a shocking error from Efe Ambrose undid his previous solid work. The Nigerian was woefully short with a header back to Craig Gordon, leaving the Celtic goalkeeper at the mercy of Fernandao who nipped in to accept the gift and slot home.
Fenerbahce sensed their route back into the match had opened up and made another attacking change at the start of the second half, Diego replacing Ozan Tufan. The tide was turning against Celtic and three minutes after the restart it was 2-2.
It was another concession from a set-piece, so costly for Deila’s team this season, as Nani whipped over a corner from the left which Fernandao, getting in front of Ambrose, met with a flashing near-post header to beat Gordon.
Fenerbahce were suddenly very much in the ascendancy and Gordon made a smart save to keep out Hasan Ali Kildirim’s rasping shot during a spell of sustained pressure.
To Celtic’s great credit, they refused to wilt and gradually dug themselves back into a compelling contest which was now very much up for grabs. Commons came closest to snatching a winner for the hosts, his fiercely struck snapshot from 20 yards forcing a terrific save from Fabiano.
Neither side were able to forage a winner and on the balance of play, a share of the spoils was the right outcome from the kind of match which could give the Europa League a good name.
SCORERS: Celtic - Griffiths (28′) Commons (32′); Fenerbahce - Viana de Santana (43′, 48′)
Referee: Kenn Hansen (Den)