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Celtic claim pole position in race for £15m bounty

CELTIC don't do things the easy way.

Virgil van Dijk's header is destined for the head of Johansen, left, instead of the net as Celtic missed the chance to score a second goal. Picture: SNS
Virgil van Dijk's header is destined for the head of Johansen, left, instead of the net as Celtic missed the chance to score a second goal. Picture: SNS

They do things the Celtic way.

In the quest for a place in the Champions League group stage, that means putting their supporters - and manager, Ronny Deila - through the gamut of emotions.

The 1-1 draw in the first leg of their play-off against Maribor was the perfect illustration. Given a platform by an early goal from Callum McGregor, then quickly conceding an equaliser, scored by Damjan Bohar, they made enough chances to make the second leg in Glasgow on Tuesday a comfortable cruise into the group draw two days later.

However, they also afforded enough opportunities to Maribor to have lost this game, and had the acrobatic form of 31-year-old Craig Gordon to thank for emerging with the tie level.

You could tell it was an important night when Celtic's major shareholder, Dermot Desmond, joined the VIPs. The Champions League theme tune booming out as the teams lined up - something Uefa do not permit until this round - was further proof Celtic are tantalisingly close to the big-money phase of the competition.

Of course, they have been here before. It was a year to the day since Celtic were rocked by a 2-0 defeat at the hands of Shakhter Karagandy in the first leg of their Champions League play-off.

Neil Lennon's side did manage to pull that tie around in the most dramatic fashion with a 3-0 victory at Celtic Park. It was, however, crucial they did not leave themselves with a similar mountain to climb this time.

After all, Celtic have already used up a considerable amount of luck by dint of the way they got to this stage via an administrative transgression by Legia Warsaw.

The Europa League group stage awaits to provide a soft landing should Celtic fail to capitalise on this good fortune. However, while an exit at this stage would still guarantee European football until December, it would not deliver the £15m cheque that gracing the last 32 of Uefa's blue-riband tournament brings.

That is a sum Celtic have been grateful to bank for the past two seasons. They had written it off after losing to Legia, until Uefa checked their rule book and provided the get-out-of-jail card Celtic have used to make it through to face Maribor.

After the first leg of their play-off ended all square, and with a vital away goal, the chances of them making a ninth group-stage appearance look bright.

Deila considered Maribor to be on a par with Legia, a warning, if any was needed, the promised land may be in sight, but access can still be denied.

The Slovenian champions must be respected, and Deila did just that, acknowledging the formation he has favoured up to this point required tweaking towards caution, shoring up a midfield which had been badly exposed in the ties against Legia.

Kris Commons' attacking zeal was sacrificed, Biram Kayal preferred for his defensive attributes.

The administrative kerfuffle surrounding Efe Ambrose's eligibility after suspension, and his late arrival in Slovenia as a consequence, was dismissed by Deila, though he decided to start with the Nigerian on the bench.

The chances are the manager was always going to start with Jason Denayer alongside Virgil van Dijk, and Mikael Lustig at right back.

The Ljudski vrt Stadium was an early test of the temperament of teenager Denayer, one half of their 'Jug' stand empty bar a Uefa banner proclaiming No To Racism, part of the punishment for unacceptable chanting by a section of their volatile fans at a previous qualifying tie against Bosnia side, Zrinjski.

The kid showed no fear, standing up bravely to the challenge of helping Van Dijk contain the wily and mobile Marcos Tavares and Agim Ibraimi.

There was a breakdown in communication between the centre-backs, however, to allow Bohar to latch on to a through ball from Zeljko Filipovic to beat Gordon with a low shot.

That 14th-minute strike brought the scores level, McGregor having scored his third away goal in Europe this season after just six minutes.

Stefan Johansen's intelligent pass had sent Jo Inge Berget in for a close-range shot, which was blocked, but McGregor's predatory instincts had led him to follow up and the teenager calmly shot home from close range.

It continued a wonderful run of important goals for the midfielder, who scored in Reykjavik and Warsaw.

As in Poland, however, Celtic could not hold on to this lead long enough to take control of the game.

From corner kicks, they did have two efforts cleared off the line, Charlie Mulgrew seeing his header nodded clear by Filipovic then, bizarrely, Van Dijk watching in disbelief as his header smacked off Johansen's face to safety after the defender had risen highest from an Anthony Stokes corner to beat the goalkeeper.

Stokes believed he had a legitimate claim for a penalty early in the second half when his header form a McGregor cross was blocked by Aleksander Rajcevic, and the striker was even more vexed when a low shot crept just past a post.

Kayal joined the aggrieved club when he was brought down in the area under the nose of the fifth official, but, again his appeals were rebuffed.

It was clear both teams wanted to head to Celtic Park next week with a lead. Johansen will still be wondering how he did not provide it for Celtic, having burst clear of the defence, but miscontrolling the ball and allowing Jasmin Handanovic to snatch the ball off his foot.

Despite the belts-and-braces midfield approach favoured by the Scottish champions, which saw Ambrose finally enter the fray in place of Berget - but only after the obligatory confusion with the number board - Gordon was forced to make decent saves from Petar Stojanovic, Ibraimi and, most spectacularly, from Ales Mertelj to maintain parity while Kayal might consider himself fortunate the referee did not award a spot kick when Mitja Viler tumbled under his challenge in the area.

The omnipotent Filipovic was at the heart of most of what Maribor did well, and Deila will undoubtedly demand he is given less freedom at Celtic Park.

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