DESPITE failing to fully illustrate the gulf in class between themselves and a Stjarnan side 264 places below them in the Uefa rankings, Celtic last night laid the foundations for what should be a smooth passage into the third qualifying round of the Champions League.
Scorers: Boyata (44), Johansen (56)
It took Ronny Deila’s team 44 minutes to break down their obdurate but outclassed Icelandic opponents as Belgian defender Dedryck Boyata scored on his competitive debut for the club.
Stefan Johansen doubled the advantage early in the second half and while substitute Leigh Griffiths failed to convert a late penalty kick, a 2-0 lead should be sufficient for the Scottish champions to finish the job in Reykjavik next Wednesday.
While Boyata savoured his first outing in Celtic colours, it was a less fulfilling night for £1.5 million striker Nadir Ciftci who missed several decent chances to hit the ground running at his new club.
Boyata’s opener just a minute before half-time eased a growing sense of frustration inside Celtic Park after the hosts had struggled to convert their almost total dominance into a lead.
As expected, Deila’s men monopolised possession from the start but lacked the necessary incision to make it count.
Indeed, it was Stjarnan who caused a sharp intake of collective breath among the home support after four minutes when their first counter-attack of the evening found Arnar Bjorgvinsson free on the right of the Celtic penalty area. Fortunately for the Celtic defence, their temporary loss of concentration went unpunished as Bjorgvinsson was unable to pick out a team-mate with his cutback.
It was a blip on a graph which saw the play heading relentlessly towards the Stjarnan goalmouth and which should have seen Cifcti open his Celtic account in the ninth minute.
Johansen seized on a bad error by Gauti Gudjonsson and slipped a clever pass into Ciftci’s feet. The striker turned smartly but drove his low shot too close to Stjarnan goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen who made a decent save.
With the visitors defending in depth and as if their lives depended on it, Celtic found clear-cut openings difficult to come by. They forged one in the 21st minute when James Forrest knocked Charlie Mulgrew’s cross into the path of Johansen who dragged a right-foot shot narrowly wide.
Stuart Armstrong then came close with a dipping shot from 20 yards as Celtic continued to probe for what appeared an inevitable breakthrough.
Stjarnan were offering little in response, although a bizarre attempt to clear the ball by Emilio Izaguirre turned into a cross into his own penalty area which Jappe Hansen was unable to connect with cleanly.
Former Motherwell keeper Nielsen looked eager to impress on his return to Scotland and he made a terrific stop with his outstretched left boot to deny Armstrong after the midfielder had been sent clear by Johansen.
Ciftci summed up the sense of exasperation being felt in the Celtic ranks when he booted Nielsen’s right-hand post in response to heading an Izaguirre cross wide from close range.
But just as it appeared Stjarnan were heading into the break with a highly satisfying blank scoreline from their perspective, Celtic finally took the lead.
It came from a short-corner routine on the right crafted by Mikael Lustig and Johansen, the Norwegian midfielder whipping an excellent delivery towards the six-yard box where Boyata planted a firm header beyond the helpless Nielsen.
Celtic resumed after the interval with a clear intent to try and put the outcome of the tie beyond much reasonable doubt ahead of the second leg and Ciftci passed up another good opportunity when he headed over from a Forrest cross. But there was a reminder that the Icelandic champions were still capable of causing some anxiety for Celtic when Hansen screwed a shot wide of an empty goal after being picked out by Bjorgvinsson’s cross.
After Nielsen made a good save to keep out Ciftci’s header from a Johansen free-kick, Stjarnan missed an even better chance to snatch an away goal when unmarked Hordur Arnason wastefully blazed a shot over the crossbar.
Celtic’s response to this sudden threat to their control was swift and deadly as they made it 2-0 in the 56th minute. The Stjarnan defence were dissected by Armstrong’s deft pass which allowed Johansen to stride into the penalty area and coolly flick a close-range shot beyond Nielsen.
Stjarnan were tiring visibly and it was a jaded challenge by Hordur Arnason which gave Celtic a penalty 12 minutes from time as he sent Johansen tumbling.
The Norwegian wanted to take the spot-kick himself but was beaten to the ball by Griffiths who had entered the fray as a substitute for Forrest.
It proved a bad decision as Griffiths, looking for his first European goal for Celtic in his 10th appearance, saw his effort saved by Nielsen diving to his right.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata (Ambrose 83), Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Forrest (Griffiths 58), Johansen, Armstrong; Ciftci (Stokes 74). Subs not used: Bailly, Rogic, Fisher, Mackay-Steven.
Stjarnan: Nielsen, Aegisson, Gudjonsson, D.Laxdal, Arnason; Bjorgvinsson (Ottesen 86), Praest, Johannsson (Runarsson 74), Bjornsson (Gunnarsson 81); Finsen; Hansen. Subs not used: Johannesson, J.Laxdal, Barddal, Knutsson..