THE razzmatazz and riches of the Champions League group stage are in danger of slipping through Celtic’s fingers after the balance of their play-off round tie was dramatically altered in the 95th minute of a pulsating first leg.
Jo Inge Berget, the Norwegian midfielder who flopped during his brief loan spell with the Scottish champions last season, returned to haunt his compatriot Ronny Deila with two potentially significant away goals for Malmö.
It took the shine off what had for long spells been a positive evening for Deila’s men which saw Leigh Griffiths make the most of his first European start of the season. He scored twice, either side of a Nir Bitton goal, to apparently put Celtic in the driving seat.
But Berget’s second goal of the night, with almost the last kick of the game in the fifth minute of stoppage time, makes next Tuesday’s second leg at the Swedbank Stadium in Malmö an altogether more daunting prospect for Celtic.
Deila’s pre-match signals had indicated he was set to keep faith with Nadir Ciftci up front but his decision to instead hand the responsibility to Griffiths was vindicated as he put his side ahead after just two minutes and 35 seconds.
Malmö appeared like the proverbial rabbits in the headlights as Celtic made a turbo-charged start to seize control of the tie.
Even before Griffiths’ opener, the visitors’ defence appeared uncertain and vulnerable. James Forrest, preferred to Gary Mackay-Steven on the right of Celtic’s advanced midfield trio, forced a corner inside the first minute. Stefan Johansen curled it towards the far post where Virgil van Dijk had a shot blocked before Malmö finally managed to scramble the ball to safety.
But Age Hareide’s men had no answer to the incisive move which gave Celtic the lead. Stuart Armstrong glided infield with purpose from the left and fed Johansen on the edge of the penalty area. The Norwegian midfielder played a first-time pass into the feet of Griffiths who controlled the ball with his first touch and drove it low beyond Malmö keeper Johan Wiland with his second.
There was little respite for the Swedish champions as Celtic built on that initiative and doubled their lead just seven minutes later. Armstrong, whose intelligent movement was proving a serious problem for Malmö, whipped over a terrific cross from the left which Yoshimar Yotun managed to nod over his own crossbar at the expense of a corner.
Johansen produced another fine delivery from the set piece, dropping the ball right into the heart of the six-yard box where Bitton climbed highest amid shambolic defending to power a header beyond the helpless Wiland.
Celtic looked in the mood to put this tie beyond Malmö in rapid order and they should have added a third in the 12th minute.
Emilio Izaguirre and Griffiths combined superbly to set up the opportunity for Johansen who found himself clear inside the penalty area. But his shot lacked conviction and was too close to Wiland who made a comfortable save.
Griffiths then took matters into his own hands again, cutting in from the right to drill a low left-foot shot narrowly wide of Wiland’s left-hand post as Celtic sought to maintain a ferocious tempo.
They were gradually becalmed, however, as Malmö probed their way gingerly into the contest in the knowledge just one away goal could alter the balance of the tie. Vladimir Rodic provided the first indicator that Malmö were capable of recovering from such a torrid start, the winger seizing on a loose clearance from Van Dijk and testing Craig Gordon with a firm shot which the Celtic keeper did well to divert wide for a corner.
While Celtic continued to dominate possession, Malmö were making more of an impression whenever they did manage to force their way into their attacking third of the pitch.
Berget threatened with a shot from distance, Mikael Lustig getting in a block for Celtic which took enough sting out of the effort to allow Gordon to make a simple save.
There was now a feeling that the next goal in this game would be pivotal and Armstrong came close to grabbing it for Celtic before half-time, again stepping in from the left and curling a shot agonisingly wide of Wiland’s left-hand post.
It was a highly satisfying first half from Celtic’s perspective but Malmö could take some consolation from at least preventing the hosts disappearing out of sight at that stage.
The value of that resilience to the Swedes was underlined when they halved the deficit seven minutes after the restart.
Celtic were caught flat-footed as Malmö broke away following an Armstrong corner. Scott Brown’s attempt to stem the threat saw him merely give the ball away with a miscued header. Magnus Eikrem swept in a cross from the right, finding Berget at the other side of the penalty area, from where he curled a fine shot beyond Gordon.
The Celtic keeper had to make a smart save to keep out Nikola Djurdic’s snapshot four minutes later as Malmö sensed the opportunity to turn the tie firmly in their favour.
But that kind of momentum shift was halted in its tracks as Griffiths capped his outstanding night’s work by restoring Celtic’s two-goal cushion in the 61st minute.
Continuing his recent trend of smart headed finishes, Griffiths pounced on a weak attempted clearance by Anton Tinnerholm to loop the ball over the scrambling Wiland from around eight yards.
Griffiths left the field to a standing ovation when he was replaced by Ciftci in the closing stages which also saw Celtic withdraw Lustig with what appeared a potentially serious injury. But an even bigger blow was still to come in the final seconds of stoppage time. Tobias Sana’s corner from the left fell to Berget who concluded his remarkable return to Celtic Park by smashing the ball home from close range.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig (Ambrose 80), Van Dijk, Boyata, Izaguirre, Forrest, Brown, Bitton, Johansen, Armstrong (Mackay-Steven 63), Griffiths (Ciftci 73). Subs Not Used: Bailly, Commons, Rogic, Mulgrew.
Malmo: Wiland, Tinnerholm, Arnason, Bengtsson, Yotun, Rodic, Lewicki, Rakip (Sana 81), Berget, Eikrem (Carvalho 72), Djurdjic. Subs Not Used: Fredrik Andersson, Konate, Molins, Mehmeti, Vindheim.