Celtic 2-1 Sarajevo (agg. 5-2): Hoops see off spirited Sarajevo to set up Nomme Kalju clash

It was perhaps a little less straightforward or quite as convincing as Neil Lennon would have liked but Celtic’s passage into the second qualifying round of the Champions League was ultimately comfortable enough as goals from Ryan Christie and Callum McGregor saw off a spirited but outclassed Sarajevo side.

Celtic's James Forrest evades Sarajevo goalscorer Benjamin Tatar's challenge
Celtic's James Forrest evades Sarajevo goalscorer Benjamin Tatar's challenge

Benjamin Tatar’s leveller on the night for the Bosnian champions was the cause of brief consternation for Celtic but they regrouped rapidly to extend their unbeaten home run in European qualifiers to 14 matches.

With the comfort of a 3-1 lead from a potentially hazardous trip to the Bosnian capital last week, there was little prospect of Celtic being afflicted by any kind of nervous tension as they rubber-stamped their place in the next stage of the competition where they will face Estonian champions Nomme Kalju.

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Nonetheless, Christie’s brilliantly finished goal midway through the first half did have a settling effect of sorts as it finally saw Lennon’s team find a level of fluency and rhythm which eluded them in the early stages of the match.

Sarajevo had little option but to try and adopt an aggressively ambitious approach if they held out any hopes of turning the tie around. It took them just 62 seconds to indicate they had certainly not turned up at Celtic Park resigned to their fate.

That’s how long it took Husref Musemic’s side to force the ball beyond Celtic goalkeeper Scott Bain but Mersudin Ahmetovic marginally mis-timed his run onto a clever pass from visiting skipper Krste Velkoski and the offside flag correctly relieved any immediate anxiety for the home support.

Belgian left-back Boli Bolingoli, the man in line to step into Kieran Tierney’s shoes should Celtic’s prize asset make his way to Arsenal this summer, made a less than assured start which was typified by a clumsy and needless foul on Amar Rahmanovic. Celtic couldn’t fully clear the resulting free-kick but Bain was untroubled as Anel Hebibovic slashed a shot wide from around 25 yards.

The hosts gradually started to move the ball quicker and hold onto it more effectively. There were more promising signs from the attack-minded Bolingoli when he latched onto Christie’s cute lay-off and saw his shot held by Vladan Kovacevic.

The Sarajevo goalkeeper was called into action again in the 25th minute as he did well to keep out a powerful McGregor shot after Jozo Simunovic’s surge from the back unsettled the visitors’ defence.

Before Sarajevo could regain their composure, Celtic made the breakthrough and stretched their aggregate lead just a minute later.

Odsonne Edouard, who had been the victim of a couple of hefty challenges earlier, found retribution in the best way possible as he cut in from the left and surged past two defenders, feeding the ball to Christie. The attacking midfielder controlled a difficult ball with a neat first touch before spearing a shot high beyond Kovacevic with his second.

Celtic sought to further increase the tempo and hammer home their superiority with Lewis Morgan, switching wings with James Forrest after starting the evening on the left, prominent in their pursuit of more goals.

Making only his second starting appearance for Celtic since joining them 18 months ago, Morgan looked threatening in attack while also diligent in attending to his defensive duties. He whipped a delicious ball across the face of the Sarajevo six-yard box which Edouard was narrowly unable to force home.

With Sarajevo becoming increasingly stretched at the back, Edouard should have made it 2-0 in the 39th minute after an incisive move involving McGregor and Christie but the striker’s shot was tame and easily held by Kovacevic.

Sarajevo were losing their shape and discipline in equal measure, collecting a couple of bookings in quick succession just before the interval for Mirko Oremus and Benjamin Tatar, the latter’s challenge on McGregor sparking a brief scuffle among players from both sides as Celtic, not unreasonably, felt it should have been a straight red card.

Tatar went on to make his continued presence on the pitch felt when, completely out of context with a pattern of play in which Celtic seemed to be in cruise control, he equalised on the night for Sarajevo 18 minutes into the second half.

Celtic had passed up decent chances to put the tie completely out of the visitors’ reach, most notably when Bolingoli fluffed a shot wide from just six yards out. The full-back was then at fault for Sarajevo’s goal, getting caught out by Ahmetovic whose cross was flicked on by Rahmanovic to Tatar who had all the time he needed to take a touch and slide a left foot shot beyond Scott Bain.

Sarajevo still needed two more goals to take the tie into extra-time but there was suddenly a hint of apprehension in the air around Celtic Park. It evaporated fairly quickly as Celtic reasserted their dominance when McGregor gathered a pass from Christie and beat the wrong-footed Kovacevic with a powerful left foot shot from 20 yards.

The loudest cheer of the evening was reserved for the return to competitive action of Leigh Griffiths when the striker, sidelined since last December, replaced Edouard with 10 minutes remaining and received a standing ovation from all four sides of the stadium.

CELTIC: Bain, Ajer, Bitton, Simunovic, Bolingoli; Brown, McGregor; Forrest, Christie (Henderson 90), Morgan (Sinclair 87); Edouard (Griffiths 80). Subs not used: Gordon, Jullien, Hayes, Ralston.

SARAJEVO: Kovacevic, Hebibovic, Serbecic, Lazic, Hodzic; Rahmanovic (Guzina 83), Oremus, Velkoski; Tatar (Dokanovic 72), Ahmetovic, Milanovic (Sisic 60). Subs not used: Dizdarevic, Sabanovic, Kurdic, Handzic.