It would be wrong to claim that their passage to this stage was smoothly negotiated.
However, the goalless draw was a creditable result on an evening when they survived several scares. Many of them were supplied by Mo Bangura, who was cast in the role of potential wrecker of Celtic’s Champions League ambitions while on loan at Elfsborg from the Parkhead club. His presence on the pitch made for an intriguing evening in Boras, a dormitory town of Gothenburg. Celtic manager Neil Lennon had admitted he had been haunted by the thought that Bangura might cost his parent club a Champions League windfall by scoring the decisive goal in the tie, but while he was a lively presence, the striker failed to find the net – as did any of his current teammates.
In the end, a defence that will unlikely play together again for Celtic held firm to maintain the Scottish side’s hopes of qualifying for the group stage of the competition once again.
Lennon remained true to his word by keeping his preferred central defensive partnership of Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose together, despite the former’s imminent move to join Nottingham Forest. It was a brave and some might say surprising decision given that the player was operating under even greater scrutiny. An unchanged defence from Saturday’s victory over Ross County had to withstand a trying opening spell, as Elfsborg looked for a quick goal to restore parity to the tie.
Celtic took time to find their feet on the heavily watered artificial surface but they could not complain about the warmth of welcome. Even the Tannoy man apologised to the away fans for speaking in Swedish. Surprisingly, only around 300 had made the trip. Perhaps a degree of trepidation had convinced supporters to stay away. In what were very cagey opening minutes, as Elfsborg probed and Celtic concentrated on containment, few could blame those who had opted to remain at home.
It promised to be a tense evening on the banks of the river Viskan. It threatened also to be an embarrassing one. An impending sense of dread accompanied everything Bangura did and he could easily have scored twice in the opening 45 minutes. Bangura’s inclusion felt fateful since he had to pass a late fitness test to play against his parent club – even Lennon admitted on the eve of the match that it was a worry that the player may yet have a say in the tie, after ignoring Celtic’s request not to play. Almost inevitably, everything seemed to happen around the striker, who was playing with heavy strapping around his right thigh.
In what would have proved a sensational start to the second leg, Bangura very nearly levelled the tie on aggregate with an overhead kick after he flipped himself into the air to meet a cross from Stefan Ishizaki. Fraser Forster, the Celtic goalkeeper, was at full stretch but fortunately for Celtic the ball bounced just wide. Only six minutes had elapsed, and yet the spectre of Bangura’s influencing the tie’s outcome to Celtic’s cost had already loomed large.
The visitors had only themselves to blame for not taking a huge stride towards the play-off stage when Samaras got underneath a header from Mikael Lustig’s cross from the right. The ball sailed harmlessly over the crossbar. Although Celtic looked below par and were guilty of too easily surrendering possession they had opportunities to score the opening goal that they knew would change the complexion of the tie completely.
A Kris Commons free-kick on the edge of the box was one such moment and when his powerful shot hit the wall, Joe Ledley seized n the rebound. Although Kevin Stuhr-Ellegaard pulled off a fine save the Welshman was favourite to score and he might have done had his jersey not been tugged, something that was missed by the referee.
Bangura then headed over after another cross from Ishizaki, the rather weak finish showing why Celtic had been open to him going on loan in the first place. They just hadn’t expected someone exiled in the Swedish league to then become such an irritant. Elfsborg had suffered a setback when Daniel Moebaeck was forced to withdraw through injury ten minutes before the interval, to be replaced by Tom Soderberg. The visitors, heartened by having reached the half-way point without the loss of a goal, took to the task of scoring one themselves with an even greater relish, since it would have left Elfsborg with a nigh on impossible task of scoring three times in the limited amount of time that remained.
It would have helped Celtic’s cause if James Forrest had been able to have a greater impact. The winger ran into danger too often. The visitors were unable to stamp their authority in midfield and as the game became more stretched both sides sensed the potential of making a breakthrough. Celtic were interested in killing the tie. Elfsborg, meanwhile, wanted to ignite it, and they felt they should have been given the chance to do so when Wilson took a risk by sliding into James Keene just inside the box after an hour. The Russian referee Vladislav Bezborodov’s assessment of the situation was that Wilson had managed to make contact with the ball.
Play was becoming more ragged. Commons rifled well wide when composure had been called for. At the other end, Bangura very nearly played Ishizaki in, but his pass just eluded his teammate. The striker then did well to hold off Ambrose’s challenge and passed the ball into the path of Henning Hauger, who blasted hopelessly over.
Anthony Stokes replaced Samaras after 69 minutes and then Mulgrew was carried off injured. He had to endure the further indignity of being carted around the perimeter of the pitch on a wheelbarrow-type implement. Shrill whistles accompanied Mulgrew on his journey as the home fans became ever more conscious of the minutes that were ebbing away.