CELTIC will go into the final stage of their curious game of Champions League hokey-cokey believing they are more in than out after finding nothing to divide them from a lively but limited Maribor side.
Scorers: Maribor: Maribor - Bohar (14); Celtic - McGregor (6)
Ronny Deila’s men are now in prime position to make the most of their initial third qualifying round elimination from the tournament being overturned due to Legia Warsaw’s administrative incompetence.
The new Celtic manager showed he had learned the harsh lessons of that 6-1 aggregate beating, adopting a more prosaic approach against the Slovenian champions.
Callum McGregor’s sixth minute goal – his third Champions League strike of this qualifying campaign – provided the platform for a result which makes Celtic favourites to reach the group stage for a third successive season. Damjan Bohar levelled quickly for Maribor but on the balance of play, parity was the least Celtic deserved.
Pragmatism does not come easily to Deila. He has made that abundantly clear in the opening weeks of his tenure with his regular insistence that he has clear principles about a commitment to attacking football which he is reluctant to abandon. But there was clear evidence of a willingness to at least temporarily compromise those ideals last night.
Open to accusations of tactical recklessness in the 4-1 defeat away to Legia Warsaw, Deila adopted a more cautious strategy. His preferred 4-2-3-1 formation morphed into a 4-5-1 with playmaker Kris Commons, so often the key man on the big occasion, sacrificed to accommodate the more defensively minded Beram Kayal in central midfield.
McGregor and Jo Inge Berget were detailed to provide the support from wide areas to central striker Anthony Stokes whenever possible, although their roles also involved a greater degree of focus on assisting in the protection of the back four.
There was another big selection call from Deila in that department with 19-year-old Jason Denayer, who only made his senior debut against Dundee United on Saturday, partnering Virgil van Dijk in central defence. The Manchester City loanee was preferred to Efe
Ambrose, who arrived late to join the team in Slovenia after confusion over a suspension, while Mikael Lustig returned to fill the right-back slot.
Celtic’s realigned formation enjoyed considerable success in blunting Maribor’s effectiveness as an attacking force, while the visitors’ energetic pressing of the ball high up the pitch reaped its reward.
McGregor’s early strike was the perfect start for Deila, albeit his team had collapsed from a similarly promising position in Warsaw when the young midfielder had also given them the lead. But McGregor is positively thriving on the first-team opportunity handed to him this season and his fourth goal in Celtic’s first seven games of the campaign came when he capitalised on some slack Maribor defending. Stefan Johansen found Berget on the left of the penalty area with a clever pass and, after a poor first touch, he got away a shot which home keeper Jasmin Handanovic could only parry into the path of McGregor, who gleefully accepted the close range tap-in.
Celtic held onto their lead in Warsaw for just two minutes. Here, they managed only eight before Maribor levelled. Van Dijk and Denayer were carved open by Zeljko Filipovic’s through ball to Marcos Tavares, giving the Brazilian striker a run on goal. He went down under Denayer’s attempt to recover the situation, the ball breaking into the path of Bohar who drilled a low shot beyond Craig Gordon. But there was to be no sudden capitulation from Celtic on this occasion. They proceeded to play some smart and effective possession football which should have brought them further goals before half-time.
Maribor looked especially vulnerable at set pieces. with a series of corners causing them real anxiety – Charlie Mulgrew had a header cleared off the line by Filipovic from one, Lustig nodded over from close range from another and then Van Dijk’s netbound header was inadvertently blocked on the line by his team-mate Johansen.
The home side were being forced to rely on counter-attacks as their best chance of threatening at the other end. Gordon duly made a couple of decent saves before the interval, first diving to his left to turn Peter Stojanovic’s shot behind and then blocking Agim Ibraimi’s drive before Dare Vrsic blazed the rebound over the top.
Celtic would certainly have been the more satisfied side at the break but it was a re-energised Maribor who began the second half on the front foot, clearly desperate to secure a lead to take with them to Glasgow.
Tavares and Bohar both came close with shots from distance as Maribor, suddenly playing with far greater intensity, imposed themselves.
Celtic were indebted to Gordon when the keeper made a terrific diving save to his right to keep out Ibraimi’s header at the end of a move sparked by left-back Emilio Izaguirre cheaply conceding possession.
It was Celtic who were now more reliant on the counter-attack and they should have made one such raid count in the 62nd minute. McGregor did superbly well to race down the right and pick out Stokes with a perfect cross. But the Irish striker’s close-range header lacked conviction and was blocked by defender Aleksander Rajcevic.
It at least signalled a better spell for Celtic. Stokes missed another fine chance when he dragged a shot wide from 14 yards, before Johansen was even more wasteful when a poor touch inside the box allowed Handanovic to scoop the ball off his toes after a tremendous surge through the middle from the Norwegian midfielder.
Both teams had penalty claims turned down in the closing stages – Kayal going down under Mitja Viler’s challenge, then Denayer living dangerously with a challenge on substitute Jean-Phillipe Mendy. Gordon made another fine save to deny Ales Mertelj’s long-range rocket and Celtic held out for a result they would have signed for beforehand.
NK Maribor: Handanovic, Stojanovic. Rajcevic, Suler, Viler; Dervisevic (Mertelj 81), Filipovic; Vrsic (Mendy 73), Ibraimi, Bohar (Sallalich 79); Tavares. Subs not used: Cotman, Mejac, Arghus, Zahovic.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; McGregor, Mulgrew, Kayal (Bitton 87), Johansen, Berget (Ambrose 73); Stokes (Griffiths 80). Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Commons, Pukki, Henderson.