THE high point of the Ronny Deila era arrived last night in a baking Baku. Do not be fooled by what might seem a prosaic progression to the play-offs of the Champions League for the Norwegian’s Celtic team. Rarely in continental competition can a Scottish side have been so comfortable registering the scoreless draw they sought in foreign surrounds.
Ultimately, a slick if blunt Qarabag could not breach a well-drilled and determined Deila side across 180 minutes. When he was appointed, there was a concern that the Norwegian could sacrifice himself on the altar of his principles in Europe. He declared he was an advocate of expansive football, whatever the circumstances. Yet, in the manner Celtic were willing to sit deep and pass their way through awkward situations across the middle third, it was demonstrated Deila has developed as much as his side in this arena across the past 12 months. The reward for Celtic’s effort last night will be at the least participation in the Europa League group stages, with that competition the consolation prize to the sides defeated in the Champions League play-off.
In general, although it may not sound an awful lot, it was awfully good. Celtic did the simple things well and simplified the difficult things in a performance of maturity and industry. The Parkhead men led from the first leg of the third qualifier through a Dedryck Boyata goal, but did not arrive at the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium with only defence on their mind. In an open first half, the visitors gave as good as they got and amid a dearth of clear-cut chances at either end, Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon make a fine save from Brazilian midfielder Richard Almeida.
The home side enjoyed plenty of possession again after the break but most of it in front of a resolute Celtic defence with the Scotland ’keeper seeing little action as Deila’s side worked all the way to keep their lead intact and indeed, they might have snatched a goal in the closing minutes. The draw for the play-off takes place tomorrow and Norwegian boss Deila, in his second season in charge, should feel that he can get his side into the lucrative group stage this year.
An enthusiastic home crowd of close to 30,000, amid a heavy security presence, waved white Qarabag flags and drowned out the small band of Celtic supporters as the Azerbaijan champions looked to strike the first blow. Despite the 9:30pm kick-off local time, there was enough heat and humidity to test the visitors, and the poor surface, scorched by high temperatures, made it difficult for both teams to get the ball down and play.
Qarabag bossed the early stages but the Celtic defence, marshalled by reported Southampton target Virgil van Dijk, looked compact and protective of ’keeper Gordon. Gradually the Scottish champions began to edge forward and, in fact, play sped from end to end, helped by an often lenient Swedish referee, Martin Strömbergsson.
After earlier causing a moment of panic with a poor punch, Gordon more than made up for that when he flew to his right to parry a powerful 25-yard drive by Almeida and that was as good as it got for Qarabag.
A water break after half an hour gave both sides a chance to regroup before Van Dijk made a clearing tackle in the six-yard box to thwart Dani Quintana.
An optimistic long-range attempt by Nir Bitton just before the break was saved by home ’keeper Ibrahim Sehic and there was enough for Deila to be pleased about at the interval. Celtic did not need to force the play or fragment in the face of pressure, and they never looked like succumbing to either pitfall in that opening period.
There were some anxious moments, though, for the Glasgow side at the start of the second half.
Gordon was more than equal to the lobbed attempt by Alharbi El Jadeyaoui from outside the box. But a sense of diminishing goal threat from Qarabag grew, as did the tension as the match entered the last 30 minutes.
In the 67th minute Leigh Griffiths replaced Nadir Ciftci, who had worked hard enough without really threatening, before Gary Mackay-Steven made way for Kris Commons. In the final stages, and after the second water break, Qarabag kept pressing. But in the 83rd minute Celtic midfielder Stefan Johansen should have scored, instead firing just past the post from 12 yards after being set up by Stuart Armstrong.
Substitute James Forrest, on for Armstrong, then failed to pick out Griffiths on a Celtic break when the right pass would surely have led to a goal. Ultimately, that late profligacy meant little as the Glasgow side held out for a nervy five minutes of added time before celebrating a fine night’s work. Deila has delivered an impressive Champions League qualifier success, and that represents notable progress.
Qarabag: Sehic, Gurbanov, Guseynov, Sadygov, Agolli, Quintana (Tagiyev 84), Garayev, Almeida de Oliveira, El Jadeyaoui (Mammadov 73), Poepon (Ismayilov 64), Reynaldo. Subs Not Used: Veliyev, Vuqar Mustafayev, Yunuszada, Diniyev.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Bitton, Mackay-Steven (Commons 79), Johansen, Armstrong (Forrest 83), Ciftci (Griffiths 67). Subs Not Used: Bailly, Ambrose, Rogic, Janko.