Gunnar Nielsen: Celtic will pay for missed penalty

CELTIC have been warned they may yet have cause to regret the spot-kick spat which saw them pass up the chance of a comfortable 3-0 first-leg lead against Stjarnan in the Champions League second qualifying round.

Leigh Griffiths argues with Stefan Johansen over who should take the penalty against Stjarnan. Picture: SNS

Gunnar Nielsen, the man who saved the penalty which Leigh Griffiths took after an argument with team-mate Stefan Johansen, believes it has given the Icelandic champions hope of a shock turnaround on their own patch next Wednesday night.

The Faroese international goalkeeper also feels Celtic could be upset by the less than stellar environment they will discover at Stjarnan’s Samsungvollur ground in the Reykjavik suburb of Gardabaer.

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The venue has a capacity of just 1,400, with only 990 seated in its sole stand. But it is the low-grade synthetic playing surface which former Manchester City and Motherwell keeper Nielsen insists could seriously trouble Celtic captain Scott Brown and his team-mates.

Leigh Griffiths missed a spotkick which was saved by Gunnar Neilson. Picture: SNS

Stjarnan took the scalps of Motherwell and Lech Poznan in the Europa League on their own ground last season, before losing 3-0 to Inter Milan in a tie they moved to the 15,000-capacity national stadium in Reykjavik.

“Celtic are going to have to come to what is not the best astroturf in the world,” said Nielsen with a smile. “We have a small pitch and it could also be very windy so you never know what might happen.

“This tie could still be interesting. I couldn’t compare our stadium to any of the top-flight grounds in Scotland – we only have the one stand, after all, and barriers around the rest of the pitch.

“As for the surface, it’s not as smooth as the one at Hamilton, for example. The ball runs better at New Douglas Park. Ours can be really bumpy, especially when it’s dry – and I expect it might be dry next week. It can be quite hard to play on in those conditions.

“I know Celtic like to move the ball quickly, with lots of interchanges between their attacking players, and that might be a problem for them. Their players will probably complain about it – maybe not in public but, between themselves, there will probably be protests about the state of it.

“Motherwell and Lech Poznan were shocked there last year and we can be quite good when we sit deep and hit on the counter-attack.

“Also, if we can score first then they will become really nervous. Celtic pride themselves on playing in the Champions League – this is everything for them. Of course, the Scottish Premiership is important to them but the Champions League is what they really want so they could be a little worried, especially on our pitch.”

Nielsen was outstanding in Wednesday night’s first leg at Celtic Park, beaten only by Dedryck Boyata’s 44th-minute header and Johansen’s goal 11 minutes into the second half. He made a series of fine saves, including the 78th-minute penalty stop to deny Griffiths.

“It was a good performance from us, although I would have liked to have kept it down to just 1-0,” added the 28-year-old.

“But 2-0 isn’t so bad. Obviously, 3-0 would have been a big difference, so the penalty save could be a big moment in the tie.

“Griffiths wanted to take it but so did Johansen and Leigh had to point to the bench to prove that he should be on that duty. I felt like shouting ‘Yes!’ because our assistant manager, Brynjar Gunnarsson, had been watching DVDs of Celtic and he had told me before the game where Griffiths would shoot if he took one.

“So I was very pleased when he stepped up and he hit it where I expected him to. I’m now on a run against Celtic because the last time I played against them for Motherwell I saved one from Kris Commons.

“Hopefully, the tie will come down to a penalty shoot-out next week and then we’ll go through! If I hadn’t made that save then the tie would definitely have been over at 3-0. It’s still going to be really, really hard but if we can make it a bit awkward for them back home then you never know.

“We were really annoyed at losing that first goal when we did. They had had a lot of possession and we knew that if we switched off for just a second then they could punish us.

“Of course, that’s exactly what happened, which was a shame. But we had a couple of good chances against them at 1-0 and that will give us confidence for the second leg.

“I expect that the game will be similar to the one at Celtic Park. We will make it hard for them on our pitch and, if we can take our chances this time, then we will see what happens.”