JAMES Forrest was the toast of Parkhead last night after striking the goal that finally saw off the challenge from Shakhter Karagandy on another night of Champions League drama in the east end of Glasgow.
Just seconds of normal time remained when the winger knocked home the decisive goal after good work from Anthony Stokes.
It means Celtic are in the draw for the Champions League group stage for the second successive season.
With so much at stake, it was never going to be easy at Parkhead. After interventions from Uefa and various animal anti-cruelty bodies, the visitors were forbidden to sacrifice a sheep in the tunnel before the game – as they had done prior to the first leg, which they won 2-0.
Goals from Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras meant the tie was level after 48 minutes.
It left Celtic with nearly a whole half to source the third goal whiles ensuring that they kept things tight in defence, something that was far from guaranteed. In the 92nd minute, and with just seconds remaining, Forrest bundled home the third goal from close range to signal a mass eruption in the stands.
In the end, the only act of cruelty performed at Parkhead last night was administered by Celtic on their own fans, but they have made it to the Champions League group stage – and with at least £12 million secured, that is the only thing that matters.
After taking only 48 minutes to level the tie, Neil Lennon’s side flirted with disaster while also teasing their fans with glimpses of glory as the contest entered awkward territory.
Celtic knew that one mistake at the back would mean they would have to start all over again. Shakhter hit the bar while Adam Matthews was well placed to clear Aldin Dzidic’s header off the line.
Stokes should have given them some room to breathe on the hour mark but he sent an effort against the bar from a good position.
Although there were some nervous moments on the way, Celtic could not have conceived that their plan to claw back Shakhter’s lead could have produced such satisfyingly swift results.
By three minutes after the interval they had cancelled out the two-goal lead established by their opponents in the first leg in Kazakhstan. It left them with plenty of time to secure the third goal that would have given them the lead in the tie.
Commons’ stunning 25 yard strike in time added on in the first-half gave Celtic what they needed – a foothold. Samaras then clipped in a second goal after controlling a shot from Mikel Lustig that would probably not have brought such a handsome reward had it been allowed to run on.
Shakhter were not the pushovers some might have expected – even with the 3,000 mile journey and pre-match sheep-slaughter restrictions. They were limited and yet sometimes cute in their approach to the game. It left Celtic manager Neil Lennon furious at times and he had one angry confrontation with Shakhter left back Gediminas Vicius as the player prepared to take a throw in.
It was from these positions that Shakhter were able to cause Celtic their most worrying moments.
The home side might have taken the lead after just five minutes, however. Lustig’s header from a Common cross was tipped over by Aleksandr Mokin, and the ‘keeper was to excel on a number of other occasions. Celtic started with the verve that had been expected and if at times the passion threatened to derail their ambitions – Scott Brown was fortunate to escape a booking, or worse, after he left his foot in on Vicius – it was hard to see how Shakhter could hold out when faced by such intensity.
A Stokes header was saved by Mokin and the goalkeeper then made an effective, if unorthodox, stop from Commons’ free-kick. The uneasy feeling that this might prove Mokin’s finest hour grew around Parkhead. However, there was little he could do about Commons’ strike just after the announcer had informed spectators that the fourth official had indicated there would be two minutes of time added on.
When Samaras scored within three minutes of the re-start, it felt like it was only a matter of time before Celtic scored the vital third. But they left it late, surviving nervous moments such as when another long throw in from Vicius hit the bar after the ball was allowed to bounce in the box. Matthews, meanwhile, also cleared a header from Dzidic off the line. But Forrest’s late, late intervention meant extra-time was avoided.