Celtic are nerve-shredding and spine-tingling in equal measure - and with a bit of fortune, they lead AZ Alkmaar after pulsating Parkhead night

Celtic supporters must have felt they were chomping on their major organ for an early supper, so often would hearts have been in mouths across their team’s exhilarating 2-0 victory over AZ Alkmaar in the clubs’ Europa League play-off first leg.

Celtic forward Kyogo Furuhashi continued his blistering start to his Celtic career by opening the scoring against AZ Alkmaar.
Celtic forward Kyogo Furuhashi continued his blistering start to his Celtic career by opening the scoring against AZ Alkmaar.

Ultimately, though, it was heart and soul which Ange Postecoglou’s men put into a chance-fest of a tie that earned them the lead to take to Holland. Fortune favoured them, but that was because the goals netted by Kyogo Furuhashi and James Forrest either side of the interval were the least they deserved for their exuberance, intent and menace. How the same facets shown by Alkmaar left them with nothing to show for their endeavours, the visitors won’t know, but the pumping chest and pumping desire of Celtic' s Anthony Ralston as a defensive leader from right-back had more than a little to do with that.

The pre-match press involving Postecoglou had the Australian unrepentantly accepting he was a football purist whose teams would be adherents to an open, expansive, expressive brand of attacking football – irrespective of the circumstances, irrespective of the opposition.

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Such a bold mission statement posed many questions. Chiefly, of course, what would happen if they were faced with a team as willing - and capable - of going at them with the intensity and lick with which they had put teams to the sword in recent renaissance. AK Alkmaar proved exactly such a team. And what it meant we were treated to was pure alright: pure thrill-and-spill variety-style entertainment of old. Celtic’s approach, to produce great feats of derring do while so often seeming to teeter on the edge of everything falling apart, reminded of those plate spinning acts. The ones were you would marvel at what took the breath away as you waited for bits of crockery to smash into tiny pieces.

Furuhashi celebrates his goal in front of the Celtic fans.

Inside the first five minutes, Alkmaar had sliced their hosts ruthlessly apart twice. Then, Zakaria Aboukhlal was wasteful with the first of what would prove four glorious openings before Joe Hart got the slightest touch to turn a goalbound effort from Evangelos Pavildis on to the post.

It was nerve-shredding stuff for the home support but it quickly gave way to spine tingling football from their team. A swirl, a back-and-forth, that framed the entire evening.

Breathless stuff, as Celtic found their groove, Tom Rogic proved the man who could take it away. Postecolgou’s puppeteer as the Parkhead club began to pull the strings in proceedings, and pull the Dutch side apart, the 29-year-old was the player from his pomp.

The featherlight touch and balletic movement were all in situ. If the encounter seemed bagatelle at times, the Australian always seemed to have the surest handle on the levers. So it proved when Celtic did what it seems a given for them to do: leave a team spinning with the alacrity they switch the play to set up Furuhashi to score. The 17th-minute deadlock breaker, ensued from Rogic becoming creator with a flick, trap and pirouette that sent him down the left flank before delivering a chipped cross that the Japanese striker produced an acrobatic slide-jump to jab it into the net. A sixth goal in six games hardly does justice to the astonishing impact of the £4.6million attacker.

James Forrest turns the ball past Hobie Verhulst in the AZ goal to make it 2-0 to Celtic.

Alkmaar then found themselves on the rack with keeper Hobie Verhulst forced to produce saves from Liel Abada, Rogic and Forrest before Hart was equal to another drive from Aboukhlal as the Celtic defence was exposed again.

It was carelessly believable that the first 45 produced one one goal. And the second half was a sequel where the storyline was something of a rehash. The Celtic goal led a charmed life with two chances that the visitors should have buried before Celtic roared back again.

It just had to be the redoubtable Forrest, scoring his third European goal of this campaign alone, and a 15th in his career, to leave only Henrik Larsson, Jimmy Johnstone and Chris Sutton with higher totals. Turnbull and Furuhashi combined to see the forward push the ball through to the Scotland winger. He peeled off his marker before hitting a shot on the half-turn that went in off Timo Letschert.

It was a slice of the good fortune that Celtic enjoyed over the evening... even as they were unlucky not to net a third in an almighty scramble near the end which resulted in two saves from the keeper before substitute Adam Montgomery having a header blocked on the line.

AZ Alkmaar's Thijs Oosting misses a good second-half chance to let Celtic off the hook.

Yet, it should be said that, however harem-scarem it was at times for Celtic, they did have valiant performers in their backline, with bodies put on the line and desperate last-ditch tackles fashioned when required. Ralston, again immense with his application and determination, showed the desire that made sure of the most unlikely clean sheet to take into the second leg when he came from nowhere to cut out a cross destined for a posse of Alkmaar attackers. It was that sort of night for Celtic, a footballing sleight of hand... and feet.

Celtic: Hart; Ralston, Starfelt, Welsh, Taylor; McGregor; Abada (Edouard 58), Rogic (McCarthy 75), Turnbull (Soro 88), Forrest; Furuhashi (Montgmoery 74). Subs not used: Barkas, Bitton, Ajeti, Urhoghide, Bain, Shaw, Robertson.

AZ Alkmaar: Verhulst; Sugawara, Letschert, Martins Indi, Oosting; Midtsjø (Clasie 72), De Wit, T Koopmeiners; Gudmundsson (Evjen 72), Pavlidis (Poku 80), Aboukhlal. Subs not used: Vindahl-Jensen, Chatzidiakos, Witry, Reus, Taabouni, Reijnders, Gullit, P Koopmeiners, Beukema.

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