Celtic 1-0 Zenit: McGregor goal gives Hoops precious first leg lead
Callum McGregor’s goal 12 minutes gave the Scottish champions a slender but precious first leg lead in this last 32 tie which was the very least they deserved for a largely dominant and authoritative display against Zenit St Petersburg.
Brendan Rodgers may have played down Celtic’s prospects of a lengthy run in the tournament prior to the match but in securing the valuable clean sheet he had prioritised, they will be more than hopeful of successfully completing this assignment in Russia next Thursday night.
Rodgers’ team selection for the home leg, which saw him name top scorer Scott Sinclair among the substitutes, had hinted at a more circumspect approach as defensive midfielder Eboue Kouassi was handed only his seventh starting appearance for Celtic.
But that quickly proved to be an illusory perception as the home side adopted an aggressive and purposeful strategy which really should have seen them claim a lead before half-time.
With McGregor operating just behind central striker Moussa Dembele, while James Forrest and Kieran Tierney provided excellent attacking outlets down the flanks, Celtic maintained a high tempo as they looked to test Zenit’s match sharpness in what was the Russian side’s first competitive fixture since their winter break.
The foraging Tierney, already making his 48th appearance of the season for club and country, was the first to threaten as the left-back saw his shot from a tight angle blocked.
Rodgers could only have been gratified by the amount of openings his team created in the opening 45 minutes. He would have been equally frustrated at their inability to convert even one of them.
Olivier Ntcham dragged a shot wide of Andrei Lunev’s right hand post after being played in by Dembele, then McGregor ought to have done better than see a tame effort held by the Zenit ‘keeper after bright set-up play from Kouassi.
Zenit carried only an occasional menace on the counter-attack, such as the one they launched in the 14th minute when Forrest was guilty of conceding possession cheaply.
It required a smart and instinctive save from Dorus de Vries to keep out Anton Zabolotny’s close range shot from Domenico Criscito’s low cross from the left.
McGregor was at the heart of much of Celtic’s best work but he lacked the finishing touch again when, after a cross from Ntcham broke kindly into his path, he delayed his shot a fraction of a second too long and saw it deflected wide by Miha Mevlja.
The combination of Forrest and McGregor wrong-footed the Zenit defence more than once and there were howls of agony around Celtic Park when one slick move between the pair ended with the ball fizzing across the face of the six-yard box with Dembele too slow to react to the opportunity.
The French striker had started the game brightly but he betrayed a lack of sharpness again when he couldn’t sort his feet out quickly enough to accept what would have been a tap-in from a Tierney cutback.
Zenit were happy to break up play whenever they could in a bid to disrupt Celtic’s rhythm and Daler Kuzyaev was perhaps fortunate not to be sent off when, just a couple of minutes after being booked for dissent, he cynically fouled McGregor.
The visitors managed to claim an improved share of possession at the start of the second half and their highly-regarded striker Aleksandr Kokorin, who made little impact before the break, headed a decent chance from a Criscito corner just wide.
But Celtic were soon imposing themselves on Zenit again, a brilliant crossfield pass from Tierney allowing Kouassi to thread the ball into the penalty area where Lunev had to race from his line to save at McGregor’s feet.
Ntcham’s energy and ball-winning instincts were central to Celtic’s dominance in midfield but he sailed close to the wind with a late and dangerous challenge on Aleksandr Erokhin which earned him a booking.
Kouassi, who forced an unconvincing save from Lunev with a rasping long range effort, had impressed for Celtic but he made way in the closing stages for the more creative presence of on-loan Chelsea attacking midfielder Charly Musonda.
It proved to be an inspired substitution from Rodgers as, just five minutes after entering the fray, Musonda played a key role in Celtic’s excellent breakthrough goal.
The Belgian playmaker began the move on the left by cleverly finding Ntcham who shuttled the ball on to Dembele on the edge of the penalty area. The striker held it up before finding Musonda who lofted an inventive angled pass across the box to McGregor who controlled it with his chest and drove a right foot shot high beyond Lunev.
It was another valuable contribution from one of Celtic’s least heralded players as it brought an end to a sequence of three consecutive home defeats in Europe for Rodgers’ squad and allows them to travel to St Petersburg in buoyant mood.
Celtic: De Vries, Lustig, Ajer, Simunovic, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham; Forrest, McGregor, Kouassi (Musonda 73); Dembele (Edouard 84). Subs not used: Bain, Hendry, Sinclair, Rogic, Miller.
Zenit: Lunev, Mevlja, Mammana, Criscito, Smolnikov; Erokhin, Kuzyaev (Kranevitter 62), Paredes; Rigoni (Driussi 62), Kokorin, Zabolotny. Subs not used: Lodygin, Terentyev, Poloz, Zhirkov, Ivanovic.
Referee: D.Skomina (Slovenia)