CELTIC emerged with a more than acceptable point from their opening Europa League Group D fixture as Craig Gordon delivered the most compelling evidence yet of his rehabilitation as a top-class goalkeeper.
SCORERS - FC Red Bull: Borges de Carvalho 36, Soriano 78; Celtic: Wakaso 14, Brown 60
In an open and hugely entertaining contest between the champions of Austria and Scotland, Gordon made a string of exceptional saves to ensure Ronny Deila’s men got their campaign in the tournament off to an encouraging start.
It might have been even better for Celtic, who led twice through Ghanaian debutant Mubarak Wakaso and skipper Scott Brown, but a point was the least top seeds Red Bull Salzburg deserved as they hit back through Brazilian striker Alan and their own captain Jonatan Soriano.
Celtic will now hope to build on this platform for further progress in Europe when they welcome Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb to Glasgow in a fortnight.
Deila’s team selection lacked nothing in boldness on a warm evening when his team were determined to make a positive first impression on the competition. Stefan Scepovic was deployed as the central striker, backed up by the attack-minded midfield trio of Callum McGregor, Kris Commons and Wakaso.
Brown and Stefan Johansen were detailed to provide defensive security in midfield, in front of a familiar back four.
The steeply-tiered and compact Red Bull Arena was some way short of filled to capacity but the raucous home support behind one of the goals maintained a steady cacophony throughout, even when Wakaso drove the opener beyond Salzburg goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi at that end of the pitch.
It was a reward for a bright and progressive opening from the visitors. They comfortably contained Salzburg’s early efforts to put them under pressure, with a Marcel Sabitzer shot over the top from around 20 yards the only effort which even threatened to call Gordon into action in the first ten minutes.
If the confidence of the home side was fragile as they came into the match on the back of three successive defeats, it sustained another hefty dent when Celtic made their 14th-minute breakthrough.
It stemmed from a throw-in on the right taken by Efe Ambrose to which the Salzburg defence were ponderous in their reactions. Scepovic, Brown and Commons shuttled the ball quickly across the pitch to pick out Wakaso on the left corner of the penalty area,
The Ghanaian winger, brought into the side at the expense of Aleksandar Tonev in the only change to Deila’s starting line-up from Saturday’s league win against Aberdeen, took it in his stride and displayed excellent technique with a first time, left-foot shot which arced low beyond Gulacsi’s left hand into the corner of the net.
Salzburg’s response was a shot from Kevin Kampl which curled narrowly wide of Gordon’s right-hand post, before the Celtic keeper reacted smartly to gather a low 20-yard effort from home captain Soriano.
Celtic looked reasonably comfortable and composed at this stage, however, and should have doubled their lead in the 22nd minute. McGregor found Brown in space on the right of the penalty area with a smart pass to stretch the Salzburg defence. A simple ball across the face of the six-yard box would have left Scepovic with a tap-in but Brown opted to attempt a more difficult shot of his own which he dragged wide of Gulacsi’s right-hand post.
It was an opportunity Celtic would be left to rue missing before half-time. As Salzburg managed to place them under a sustained spell of pressure for the first time, Gordon made a stunning one-handed save to keep out Andre Ramalho’s close-range header after the Brazilian defender was left unmarked as he got on the end of a Soriano free-kick.
But Gordon was left helpless when Salzburg did equalise in the 36th minute. Jason Denayer slipped at a crucial moment, although it appeared as if the young Belgian defender had been caught on the wrong side of Kampl in any case as the Salzburg midfielder burst through the middle.
Kampl threaded a pass into the path of Alan and the striker’s right-foot shot took a sharp deflection off Ambrose, who was trying in vain to cut out the danger, to send the ball looping beyond the wrong-footed Gordon.
Salzburg ended the first half in the ascendancy and Celtic were relieved to see Sabitzer pass up a decent chance four minutes before the interval when he sent a right-foot shot wide of Gordon’s right-hand post from the edge of the penalty area.
That impetus was maintained by the home side at the start of the second half and Gordon had to distinguish himself once more to prevent them taking the lead in the 49th minute. This was proving to be the sternest examination yet of his match fitness and sharpness following his two-year injury lay-off and he proved up to the test again when he threw himself to his left to touch away a powerful shot from Alan who had turned brilliantly away from Brown to set up the chance.
Scepovic was becoming an increasingly isolated figure up front for Celtic, although he almost grabbed a goal out of nothing with an audacious shot from around 45 yards which flew just wide to the relief of Gulacsi who was off his line.
Most of the action was now taking place at the other end of the pitch, however, and Gordon somehow defied Salzburg again with a remarkable double save in the 55th minute. He got down superbly to keep out Sabitzer’s low shot, then scrambled to his feet in time to claw away Alan’s follow-up header.
Celtic took full advantage of their goalkeeper’s heroics as they regained the lead against the run of play with a swift counter attack five minutes later. McGregor surged clear on the right and swept over a cross which Ramalho could only clear as far as Brown around five yards outside the penalty area. The Celtic captain’s right-foot shot took a deflection off the luckless Ramalho to send the ball spinning beyond Gulacsi’s left hand into the net.
While the lead flattered Celtic a little, they had a chance to increase it in the 75th minute when substitute Anthony Stokes gathered a Commons pass but dallied over his shot, allowing Christian Schwegler to make a crucial block.
Salzburg seized that reprieve and drew level again three minutes later. Gordon simply had no chance on this occasion. He was beaten by a superbly struck free-kick, conceded by Emilio Izaguirre with a rash challenge on Schwegler, from Soriano which saw the ball soar into the roof of the net.