Anderlecht, requiring a three-goal victory to snatch third place in Group B of the Champions League from Celtic, will struggle to come to terms with how Jozo Simunovic’s own goal was all they had to show for their superiority in this contest.
The Belgian champions were unrecognisable from the team beaten 3-0 by Celtic in Brussels back in September, especially in a remarkably one-sided first half.
Brendan Rodgers’ wait for his first home win in the Champions League group stage continues and this was not the evidence of progress at this level from his team he had hoped to see.
The consolation of a place in next Monday’s draw for the last 32 of the Europa League remains a valuable one for Celtic but even in European football’s secondary competition, they will be punished for any repeat of the performance produced last night.
Anyone who arrived at Celtic Park harbouring the sense that this would be a relatively straightforward evening for the hosts were quickly forced to think again.
Anderlecht’s task may have been a daunting one but they approached it with relish, vigour and a clear belief that it was not beyond them. They dominated possession and were by a distance the more threatening side in a first half which the Scottish champions were fortunate to survive unscathed.
But for Craig Gordon, Celtic would have fallen behind after just two minutes. Setting the tone for what was to follow, Anderlecht knocked the ball around with pace, precision and confidence to stretch the home defence.
Much it was orchestrated by their captain Sofiane Hanni, the Algerian midfielder catching the eye time and time again with his deftness of touch, intelligent movement and accurate passing. He shrugged off a challenge from his Celtic counterpart Scott Brown to create that first opening, picking out Henry Onyekuru on the left.
The Nigerian striker, previously linked with a move to Celtic, drilled in a low cross to pick out Sven Kums whose firm shot from around 12 yards out was brilliantly kept out by Gordon’s instinctive save.
From the corner which followed, a rattled Celtic defence were unable to clear their lines and were grateful to see Onyekuru miscue a shot wildly off target.
Rodgers’ side were struggling to make any attacking headway of their own with Anderlecht closing them down effectively and regaining possession all too easily.
Gordon was called into action again when Dennis Appiah and Pieter Gerkens combined cleverly down Anderlecht’s right to set up a chance for Adrien Trebel but the midfielder’s half-volley was too close to the Celtic ‘keeper who made a fairly comfortable save.
As Anderlecht continued to control the tempo and direction of the contest, much to the growing agitation and concern of the home fans, Trebel tried his luck from 22 yards but once again his shot went straight at Gordon.
Frank Boeckx had little to do in the Anderlecht goal with Celtic failing to put him under pressure even from any set pieces they managed to force in an attacking position.
The visitors finished the first half as they had started it, firmly on the front foot, and it needed a superbly timed penalty area interception from Celtic defender Jozo Simunovic to deny Leander Dendoncker a clear sight of goal as he was poised to get on the end of a Kums corner.
Rodgers had seen quite enough and made a double substitution at the start of the second half. Stuart Armstrong and Scott Sinclair, who had both been well off the pace, were replaced by Olivier Ntcham and Tom Rogic.
Ntcham certainly made the desired impact as far as his manager was concerned. The French midfielder brought energy and direction to Celtic’s play and posed a goal threat of his own, sending a 20 yard shot just wide as he helped his side finally gain some sustained attacking momentum.
Moussa Dembele, isolated in the first half, suddenly had some support and the striker latched onto Ntcham’s pass to barge his way into the penalty area and fire in a shot which was deflected kindly into the arms of Boeckx.
The Anderlecht ‘keeper had to make a far more difficult save in the 56th minute, getting down sharply to his left to keep out a James Forrest shot on the end of Celtic’s most fluent passage of play yet.
But just as it seemed they were finally taking a degree of control, Celtic found themselves behind six minutes later. A poor clearance from Kieran Tierney gave Anderlecht time and space down the right and Appiah’s cross found Gerkens whose header was diverted into his own goal by Simunovic.
There was an opportunity for Simunovic to make amends quickly but he volleyed just over from close range, then Dembele shot wide from Tierney’s cutback as Celtic tried to kill off Anderlecht’s burgeoning hopes of a remarkable turnaround.
The anxiety inside the stadium was almost palpable and Hanni came close to putting Anderlecht within reach of qualification when his shot forced a fine save from Gordon. Mercifully for Celtic, it was as close as they came to conceding a second goal which would have made the finale of the evening unbearably tense.