Celtic secured European football after Christmas for the second successive season under Brendan Rodgers.
It was less about what they did and more about what Rosenborg managed against RB Leipzig in Germany.
Class told in the end at Celtic Park but, happily for Rodgers, the result was rendered redundant by a result elsewhere. In surreal scenes, Celtic Park erupted towards the final stages of what felt like a fairly comprehensive defeat to the already qualified Salzburg. All’s well that ends well. Celtic held on to second place in Group B.
They were even able to look back and smile at one of the misses of this or any season from Kris Ajer, who deflected the ball over from three yards as the hosts tried desperately to mount a comeback. A dreadful error by Craig
Gordon that led to Salzburg’s second goal was also made to seem like a trivial matter.
Substitute Oliver Ntcham did get the ball in the net for Celtic after converting a late penalty at the second attempt after Filip Benkovic was upended in the box. Not that it mattered by then.
The details had threatened to mock Celtic. A goal in the 67th minute – the time when Celtic fans often use the lights of their mobile phones to mark the year of their European Cup win – seemed to set in motion the end of their European adventures for another season. Munas Dabbur’s header was followed ten minutes later by what many feared was the knockout blow from substitute Fredrik Gulbrandsen.
Already guaranteed top spot, it would have been understandable if Salzburg took the foot off the gas in the run up to Christmas. Some hope.
Celtic needed three leaders to try to get them through this ordeal on a night when misfortune in terms of injury hampered their efforts. Original captain Mikael Lustig left the field after suffering a head knock in the first half and passed the armband to Kieran Tierney. When Scott Brown was sent on after half-time to bring his experience to bear on the evening he naturally resumed the role of skipper.
“Cut this bullshit from football” urged a banner with reference to the fact Red Bull own two clubs in the same group. One was already safely in the knockout stage and another, RB Leipzig, was trying to get there providing Celtic slipped up. Few could argue with the sentiment. Things nearly played out exactly as the Celtic fans feared.
Whatever the motivation, Salzburg certainly seemed to be operating at their normal level. This means they were dangerous from the off. Play was restricted almost completely to Celtic’s own half but somehow the hosts clung on.
Jerome Onguene’s header from Zlatko Junuzovic’s corner came down off the crossbar onto the line and back out again before being cleared. Gordon clawed another header, this time from Stefan Lainer, away from the resultant corner kick. He had already tipped a looping header from Junuzovic over.
All the while, Lustig cut a dazed figure at right-back. Injured early on in a clash of heads with Lainer, he lasted until the 20-minute mark before being replaced by Ajer. The young defender was making his first appearance since sustaining a fractured eye socket against Livingston in September and had to do so while filling in at right-back. It was a high-octane encounter in which to be reintroduced and perhaps it was not surprising when it was Ajer who made the mistake that should have led to Salzburg taking the lead. He gifted possession to Hannes Wolff and the midfielder ran through on goal before Celtic and Ajer were bailed out by Gordon. The keeper stretched out a leg to deflect the ball past the post.
Brown came on at half-time for Scott Sinclair as Celtic sought to plug the gaps that had appeared throughout the first half. But they soon suffered another setback when Ryan Christie, their best player since breaking back into the side in October, was stretchered off after 55 minutes after coming off worse while making a vital challenge on Takumi Minamino just outside the Celtic box. Olivier Ntcham replaced Christie, who left the arena to a standing ovation.
With Ntcham and Brown now anchoring the midfield there was at least some reassurance for Celtic supporters. After all, they were first choice not so long ago. But this brief sense of well-being was shattered after 67 minutes. Lainer’s cross into the box found danger man Dabbur and he flicked a strong header towards goal. Gordon got an arm to it in a despairing attempt to block but could only deflect the ball up into the roof of the net.
He was at fault for the second goal, scored ten minutes later, and which looked to have put the seal on a deflating night for Celtic. Gordon’s attempted throw-out was intercepted by Gulbrandsen, who was left with the straightforward task of rounding the stricken keeper and slipping the ball into the net. There was still time left for Celtic Park to let out its biggest roar of the season – for a goal scored over 1000 miles away.