Just 96 days after his appointment as Celtic manager, Brendan Rodgers has achieved the primary objective set for him by the Scottish champions. But however long his tenure at the club proves to be, he may never endure a more tortuous or nerve-wracking evening than the one which saw him guide Celtic into the group stage of the Champions League.
Hapoel Beer-Sheva threatened to pull off one of the most remarkable comebacks the tournament has seen as they came close to wiping out their 5-2 first leg deficit in this play-off round tie.
Goals from Ben Sahar and Ovidiu Hoban, after Craig Gordon had saved a Maharan Radi penalty, left a disjointed Celtic side reeling. They rallied sufficiently to limp over the line and claim their place among Europe’s elite clubs for the first time in three years.
There can be no unsatisfactory way to qualify but this was a performance which served as a reminder of how much work still faces Rodgers if Celtic are to reclaim any sustained credibility on the continental stage. From the opening exchanges, Hapoel set a frenzied tempo which underlined the strength of their conviction this tie was far from over.
It was torrid stuff from Celtic’s perspective, with Gordon’s penalty save offering brief respite before Sahar’s opener provided the hosts with even greater reserves of urgency and self-belief.
Rodgers had urged his side to show no fear but some of his players, most notably full-back Saidy Janko, appeared spooked by the occasion which took place in a raucously intense atmosphere which belied the compact Turner Stadium’s capacity of just 16,000.
Barely a minute had elapsed before Gordon was provided with an indication of how busy he would be. His save from Ovidiu Hoban’s curling shot was comfortable enough – more concerning for the visitors was the ease with which full-back Ofir Davidzada had surged down the left flank to create the opening.
Aside from a Leigh Griffiths corner which saw Mikael Lustig slice a shot over after his initial header was blocked, Celtic struggled to get on the front foot in the early stages.
Another charge up the left from Davidzada had the visitors back-pedalling desperately again in the 15th minute, leading to the concession of a penalty by Janko’s clumsy challenge. The Swiss defender was booked, although his foul may have taken place just outside the area.
Dutch referee Bas Nijhuis certainly appeared to contemplate his decision for a few seconds before pointing to the spot. If it was an error from the official, Gordon ensured justice was done when he got down to keep out Radi’s penalty which was unconvincingly struck.
If that provided a sense of relief for Celtic, it lasted only another six minutes before Hapoel got the goal their play certainly merited. The Israeli champions had been forced into an early substitution when striker Lucio Maranhao was injured in a clash with Kolo Toure.
He was replaced by Sahar whose impact was almost immediate. Radi swirled over a corner from the right and when Scott Brown seemed to misjudge the flight of the ball, Sahar rose to direct a firm header towards goal.
Neither Gordon or Kieran Tierney, who was policing the keeper’s left-hand post, were able to keep it out.
It took Celtic all of 33 minutes to finally register an attempt on target, when Griffiths’ shot was soundly held by David Goresh, as they struggled to draw the sting from the momentum being enjoyed by Hapoel.
The hosts suffered another injury blow before half-time, their impressive playmaker and captain Maor Melikson limping off to be replaced by Maor Buzaglo.
It disrupted their flow briefly and Scott Sinclair might have done better than stab a shot straight at Goresh when he was picked out by Janko’s cutback.
But it was Celtic who were happier to hear the half-time whistle after Anthony Nwakaeme twice threatened with efforts from the edge of the penalty area.
Rodgers made his first change at the start of the second half, replacing the ineffective James Forrest with Tom Rogic whose exclusion from the starting line-up had been something of a surprise.
But before the in-form Australian midfielder could settle to the task of trying to help steady the ship for Celtic, they found themselves 2-0 down just three minutes after the restart.
It was a calamitous goal to concede for the visiting defence which should have dealt comfortably with Radi’s cross from the right. Gordon, after initial hesitation on his part, did gather the ball before team-mate Janko clumsily barged into him. Gordon lost his grip on the ball which dropped to provide Hoban with a simple close range tap-in.
Celtic were on the ropes and in desperate need of resuscitation. Rodgers tried to provide some with another substitution, withdrawing Griffiths and sending on Moussa Dembele to provide a fresh outlet up front.
The switch almost paid a swift dividend when Rogic picked out Dembele on the edge of the penalty area and the French striker curled a shot agonisingly wide of Goresh’s left-hand post.
As Hapoel committed fully to their pursuit of a third goal, opportunities started to present themselves to Celtic on the counter attack. Sinclair should have capitalised on one of them, after more clever play from Rogic, but directed a shot from 12 yards too close to Goresh who saved.
Rodgers’ final change of the night saw him replace midfielder Callum McGregor with central defender Erik Sviatchenko as he switched to a back five for the closing stages. The substitute arrived on the pitch with a note from the manager to pass to captain Brown.
Celtic duly saw the job through to a successful conclusion, sparking celebrations among Rodgers and his players in front of the small travelling support.