IT SOUNDS deceptively simple. To book their place in the Champions League play-offs, all Celtic need to do tonight in Azerbaijan is keep a clean sheet against a Qarabag side that have failed to score in four of their previous five home European ties.
There is only one problem with hoping for that route to success for Ronny Deila’s men in the second leg of their third round qualifier: seven away games have come and gone since Celtic last shut-out continental opponents when on the road in cross-border competition.
Deila’s competitive debut, away to KR Reykjavik in the Champions League qualifiers 13 months ago, produced that rarity of a duck-egg in the scoring column for a team hosting Celtic in Europe. It would be brave to pin hopes on repelling all advances from the Azerbaijani title holders, even if, as Deila has acknowledged, they lacked any degree of penetration when ranged against a compact Celtic in Glasgow last Wednesday.
There is a good reason why anyone from Celtic answers firmly in the affirmative when posed the question as to whether they believe that their team requires to bag a goal in Baku. There was almost a yes, yes and thrice yes response from Stefan Johansen at the weekend to such an enquiry. And his manager and club No 2 John Collins were equally emphatic when petitioned about the importance of scoring in this evening’s deciding leg.
Encouragingly for those of a Celtic disposition, Deila’s team have been pretty adept at conjuring up scoring moments against the level of opponent that awaits them in the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium. The failure to score at the San Siro during their last-32 Europa League tie there in February can be forgiven owing to the fact that Celtic were down to ten men after 27 minutes after Virgil van Dijk was red-carded for two bookable offences.
That 1-0 defeat ended a scoring run in away European encounters under Deila that then stretched to seven games. It is more than a decade since Celtic enjoyed a longer such scoring sequence
With 11 men against Inter Milan in Italy, Celtic carved out good opportunities. Deila draws confidence his team can quash Qarabag tonight from the fact this has been true every time he has sent a Celtic side on to some foreign field. There is no reason to suspect the situation will be any different against a home side that must open up in search of a goal required to pull them back into the tie.
With both sides favouring a 4-2-3-1, Christmas-tree style formation, there was a shadowing of Celtic’s attackers by their Azerbaijani visitors in that first leg that meant there wasn’t much in the way of sparkle across that 90 minutes. The rutted nature of the pitch might not be conducive to a glittering spectacle tonight, but former Celtic goalkeeper Pat Bonner has ruminated on the fact that the attackers in Deila’s side might have more opportunity to put their name in lights in the Baku leg of the tie.
Bonner doesn’t see Qarabag taking one of their own players effectively out of the game through man-marking Johansen, as they did in Glasgow. Their reasons for resorting to such seemingly drastic measures reveal themselves without too much delving. The Norwegian midfielder, with five goals in 16 European games for the club, is by some distance the team’s top scorer in the continental arena.
With Nadir Ciftci still to look truly at one with his Celtic surrounds, Leigh Griffiths could be asked to perform as the one-man central strikeforce. Deila’s handling of the 24-year-old Scot for cross border assignments – which amounts to him handing him a tracksuit to begin with – is becoming a vexing issue for a number of the club’s followers. Yet, defences so often dictate outcomes in Europe. The diligence and doggedness that Celtic demonstrated in posting a precious clean sheet a week ago suggests small improvements under Deila could eventually enhance the hitherto slim prospects of exporting a shut-out. How Celtic would love for Qarabag to take delivery of one tonight.