Celtic will need to produce one of their most notable away European results of recent years if hopes of a third successive qualification for the Champions League group stage are to survive a daunting assignment in Athens next Tuesday.
Brendan Rodgers’ seeded side are now cast in the role of outsiders in their third qualifying round tie after being held at home in the first leg. Callum McGregor’s early strike for the Scottish champions was cancelled out by AEK Athens through Victor Klonaridis on the stroke of half-time.
The Greek side survived most of the second half with 10 men after Kostas Galanopoulos was sent off for two bookable offences.
Rodgers, inset right, had expressed his concerns over the strength of his squad on the eve of the match and this was a performance which illustrated the need for more fresh faces during the current transfer window. Unfortunately for Celtic, it could prove too late to preserve a Champions League bid now hanging very much in the balance.
McGregor’s 17th-minute breakthrough was a reward for the high tempo with which Celtic started the match. This was a first competitive fixture of the season for AEK Athens, whose domestic league does not start until the end of August, and Rodgers’ men clearly hoped to catch them cold.
Before they did so, they had to survive a scare in the opening minute when Helder Lopes broke down the left beyond Celtic right-back Mikael Lustig and found Galanopoulos inside the box. Craig Gordon was alert to the danger, making a smart save at his near post. Celtic’s response, driven by captain Scott Brown as he made his landmark 100th European appearance, was forceful and effective. Kieran Tierney was also prominent as the hosts put AEK under some sustained early pressure and when the adventurous left-back saw a shot blocked, the ball broke to Odsonne Edouard who was denied a clear sight of goal by a superb tackle from Vasilis Lampropoulos.
Olivier Ntcham had the AEK defence on the back foot again in the ninth minute with a piercing through ball which Edouard neatly laid off into the path of McGregor whose rising shot was touched over by Vasilis Barkas. From the resulting corner kick, James Forrest saw his effort blocked by Tasos Bakasetas for the hard-pressed Greek champions.
The momentum was sustained as Klonaridis picked up the first booking of the evening for a foul on Tierney right on the edge of the penalty area. From a promising position, Edouard’s free-kick was a disappointment as he failed to clear the defensive wall.
But the home fans didn’t have much longer to wait for the opening goal. It was sourced in some slack play from Marko Livaja, AEK’s Croatian forward losing possession in midfield. Celtic pounced eagerly and when Tierney found space yet again on the left of their penalty area, his low cross was deflected into the path of McGregor who turned superbly to guide a left foot shot beyond Barkas’ left hand from around eight yards.
The stage appeared set for Celtic to build a dominant position in the tie but AEK provided a reminder of the threat they could carry when Livaja saw a shot blocked and the ball broke into the path of Bakasetas who passed up a glorious chance as he took an embarrassing fresh-air swipe from the edge of the penalty area.
As Celtic pursued a second goal to cement their early control, an inviting low cross from the effervescent Tierney deserved better than to slide across the six-yard box with no takers among his team-mates.
From the other flank, Forrest showed great footwork to weave his way into a shooting position but his low right foot effort skidded wide of Barkas’ right-hand post.
Celtic were made to regret their failure to double their advantage as AEK made their attacking presence felt in the closing stages of the first half. Gordon denied them an equaliser in the 40th minute when he again reacted well to turn over a dipping shot from Lopes.
But the Celtic keeper had no answer when the visitors did make it 1-1 a minute before the break. Lustig was unable to prevent an AEK break down the right through Lopes and the central defensive pairing of Kristoffer Ajer and Jack Hendry were both caught out by the midfielder’s cross which picked out Klonaridis for a powerful and accurate finish high beyond Gordon from around 14 yards.
AEK were emboldened by the timing of their goal and tried to start the second half on the front foot. Livaja’s dangerous run was halted by a foul from Ajer earning the young Norwegian his third booking of the qualifying campaign which means he will be suspended for next week’s second leg. But the initiative appeared to swing away from AEK again when Galanopoulos collected two yellow cards in the space of just seven minutes. After being booked for a calculated foul on Tom Rogic, the Greek midfielder was foolish enough to follow it up with a trip on Forrest right under the nose of the Italian referee who had no hesitation in dismissing him. Rodgers sent on Leigh Griffiths for Rogic, the striker joining Edouard up front as Celtic looked to take advantage of having the extra man. The substitution almost paid off when Forrest’s teasing cross picked out Griffiths but his header flashed just off target.
Scott Sinclair also joined the fray, replacing Lustig, and the winger passed up Celtic’s best chance of taking a lead into the second leg when he failed to connect with Ntcham’s low cross into the six-yard box.