CELTIC completed an often unconvincing but ultimately comfortable first step towards Champions League qualification as they recovered from the shock of conceding an early goal to dispatch Icelandic part-timers Stjarnan from the tournament.
Olafur Finsen’s seventh-minute strike set alarm bells ringing for Ronny Deila and his Scottish champions who simply could not contemplate elimination from Europe at this stage.
Celtic’s 2-0 first leg advantage suddenly appeared under threat but Nir Bitton equalised before half-time to restore Celtic to an even keel before Charlie Mulgrew’s goal early in the second half erased any doubts they would be moving on to a third qualifying round tie against Azerbaijani side Qarabag.
That promises to be a far sterner test for Celtic and they will certainly have to show a significant degree of improvement on the standard of performance they delivered over the 180 minutes against Stjarnan.
Deila will also seek a sharper cutting edge in attack after another tame display by Nadir Ciftci whose early Celtic career will be restricted to European action. He was unable to get off the mark last night and it was left to substitute Leigh Griffiths to wrap up victory with a goal two minutes from time before Stefan Johansen iced the cake with a fourth in stoppage time.
The tiny Samsungvöllur ground felt like a wholly incongruous setting for a game of such high stakes for Celtic. More like a leisure centre than a football stadium, there were even some hardy locals passing up the attraction of Champions League action to take a dip in the adjacent outdoor swimming pool instead.
For Deila and his players, the serious business of trying to take their club towards the group stage and the financial bounty in excess of £20 million which that brings involved adapting to the four-year old artificial playing surface where Stjarnan had taken the scalps of both Motherwell and Lech Poznan last year.
In a mildly surprising team selection, Deila opted for Ciftci as his lone striker in preference to Leigh Griffiths who must have felt his weekend hat-trick in the friendly win over Eibar in Spain had given him a strong claim for the job.
The decision to drop Emilio Izaguirre, so shaky in the first leg against Stjarnan last week, was more widely anticipated as Charlie Mulgrew replaced him at left-back in a defence which also welcomed Virgil van Dijk back after suspension.
It was anything but an untroubled return to action for the big Dutchman whose longer term future at Celtic may well be dependent on Champions League progress.
Van Dijk was partly culpable for Stjarnan’s seventh minute goal which provided such an unwelcome and unnerving start to the evening for the visitors.
In the home team’s first advance of any note, Jeppe Hansen comfortably avoided van Dijk’s challenge and fed the ball inside the penalty area to Finsen. The Stjarnan striker turned sharply away from Bitton and drove a firm low shot beyond the helpless Craig Gordon from around 12 yards. It was a severe shock to the system for both Deila’s players and the travelling support of around 160 who were not slow to make their displeasure known.
Celtic took time to recover their composure, although Ciftci did miss the chance to level matters on the night fairly rapidly when he blazed a shot over from close range after being picked out by Gary Mackay-Steven’s lofted pass.
Much of Celtic’s passing was laboured and wayward, not all of which could be attributed to the unfamiliar playing surface.
They did manage to gradually build up greater momentum towards the Stjarnan goal, however, and saw celebrations cut short in the 22nd minute when Dedryck Boyata forced the ball home from close range after Stjarnan keeper Gunnar Nielsen had spilled Johansen’s shot from a well-worked Mulgrew free-kick. First leg scorer Boyata was correctly flagged offside but Celtic were at least starting to exert a greater degree of control over proceedings.
The fraying nerves of their fans were finally calmed by Bitton’s 33rd-minute goal. It was a simply worked corner kick from Celtic and poorly defended by Stjarnan as the Israeli midfielder was left unmarked to head home Johansen’s kick from the right from a couple of yards out.
The crucial away goal left Stjarnan faced with the unlikely prospect of scoring another three times without reply to pull off the shock turnaround. Celtic almost put the outcome of the tie further beyond any reasonable doubt when Armstrong latched onto Mackay-Steven’s reverse pass and drilled a right foot shot narrowly wide of Nielsen’s right hand post.
A decent long-range effort from Bitton was gathered smartly by Nielsen as Celtic looked to emphasise their superiority. There was a palpable sense of relief among their players as they trooped off at half-time having put the early setback behind them.
Celtic resumed after the interval with a far greater sense of urgency and purpose about their play, doubtless having been appraised by Deila during the interval that their overall performance level in the first half had been unacceptable.
Moving the ball far quicker and with improved precision, they took just four minutes to score their second goal of the evening and effectively kill the tie stone dead.
Mikael Lustig began the move as he advanced deep into Stjarnan territory down the right before cutting the ball inside to Mackay-Steven. He held off a marker and fed captain Scott Brown who, until then, had been less influential than normal.
Brown showed good awareness to play a disguised pass across the face of the penalty area to Mulgrew who took a touch before directing a fine left foot shot from around 20 yards beyond Nielsen’s left hand into the corner of the net.
A tiring Stjarnan side knew the game was up and Celtic set about trying to add gloss to the scoreline. Griffiths replaced Armstrong and almost scored with his first touch, stabbing a shot narrowly wide after stealing in behind a static defence.
It was Griffiths who ensured the evening ended on a positive not for Celtic, latching onto Mackay-Steven’s pass in the 88th minute to roll home his first ever European goal for the club.
Johansen then added the fourth in stoppage time, sliding home a left-foot shot from 16 yards.