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Surprise selection finally sets up predictable result

A NEW season, a new manager and a new name.

Callum McGregor hits a deflected shot past KR Reykjavik's Stefan Magnusson, for what proved the winner. Such was Celtic's superiority, it would seem to clinch the tie. Picture: SNS
Callum McGregor hits a deflected shot past KR Reykjavik's Stefan Magnusson, for what proved the winner. Such was Celtic's superiority, it would seem to clinch the tie. Picture: SNS

Celtic found it far from easy to put away KR Reyjkavik in the first leg of their Champions League second qualifying round last night and a narrow win was secured only by a goal in the dying minutes, but the sense that Callum McGregor's deflected shot had killed the tie was unmistakable.

Celtic have an away goal and a lead to take to Murrayfield for next Tuesday's second leg and for all KR's desperate defending the Icelandic champions do not look to have a goal in them. The same was looking true of Celtic in Ronny Deila's first competitive game as manager until the one surprise inclusion in his team rewarded him with a precious winner.

McGregor, the 21-year-old who was loaned to Notts County last season, had impressed Deila in the pre-season games to the extent he was granted his competitive debut. Just six minutes from the end of a game Celtic had dominated, he cut in from the right and hit a low shot which took a deflection and wrong-footed goalkeeper Stefan Magnusson. In tracksuit and trainers, Deila stood outside his dug-out throughout the 90 minutes. There was the potential for this to be a chilling result in Iceland, but no. There would no Artmedia Bratislava debut for him.

KR Reykjavik were ordinary, but they were organised and diligent. They could have played all night without scoring but they were attentive and committed when defending. For the most part they did so calmly although by the end, when the goal came, they were hanging on for dear life. English centre-forward Gary Martin - once managed by Gordon Strachan at Middlesbrough, who did not pick him - stayed up front and sometimes he had former Celtic youth player Kjartan Finnbogason for company. Neither of them got much change out of Virgil van Dijk and Efe Ambrose although a couple of one-on-one contests had the potential to expose Celtic. When Emilio Izaguirre was loose with a header the ball came to Martin and he smacked a powerful shot at goal, too straight at Fraser Forster to worry him.

The majority of the game flowed pretty relentlessly in the other direction. When Celtic attacked there were nine or 10 men behind the ball and none of their forwards had it in them to find a way through. They were choked. Stefan Johansen and Charlie Mulgrew, the central midfielders, shelled long, diagonal balls to Leigh Griffiths and McGregor but KR dealt with those. Then, when full-backs Izaguirre and Mikael Lustig pushed way, way up field the KR half was too densely populated for Celtic to find any room to breathe.

The left-midfield place was McGregor's, with Derk Boerrigter, Biram Kayal and Adam Matthews, all far more experienced alternatives, on the bench. McGregor was tidy enough without making a big impression, until the most important of all.

Griffiths was out on the right and generally out of the game. Anthony Stokes was the centre-forward and although he moved well he blasted one chance way over the bar and otherwise didn't threaten.

Commons was the main threat. He smacked a great effort off the bar after only nine minutes then forced Magnusson into a fine save soon after. Occasional chances were inevitable given Celtic's control of possession and pressure but it was all quite flat and one-paced.

Ambrose's last game had been a World Cup last-16 tie for Nigeria against France in Brasilia. Izaguirre's had been a group game for Honduras against Ecuador in Curitiba. Forster spent much of last month in Brazil, too, as Englands No.3 goalkeeper.

It must have felt like a different world. They, above all, could have been forgiven for wondering what on earth they were doing in Europe's northern margins in the middle of July. Bizarrely they weren't the only on-field connection to the World Cup. On the left of KR's midfield was a Uruguayan called Gonzalo Balbi. His sister, Sofia, is married to someone quite well known: Luis Suarez.

The KR-Vollur Stadium was so low key it had the potential to disorientate them, and all the other Celtic players too. There was a stand on only one side of the ground. Behind one goal were the KR office buildings, behind the other only trees. Across from the main stand was . . . nothing. The dug-outs, a television gantry, and behind that a couple of vans, a truck and another playing field.

Celtic never looked likely to fall behind, but not until the start of the second half did they really look like opening up KR. A flurry of chances came and went. Commons lifted a shot just over the bar. A Stokes attack ended when he passed the ball at the referee and KR booted it away. Griffiths lashed one towards the trees. Stokes teed up Commons and he missed again. When they mounted another attack Commons could not quite connect properly and the goalkeeper smothered his low shot.

KR were holding on. Griffiths came even closer when he cut in from the right and struck a curling shot which hit the underside of the bar.

It felt like a goal was coming but in a couple of mad seconds Magnusson saved another Commons shot, brilliantly blocked McGregor's rebound, then saw substitute Teemu Pukki hit the outside of the post. Pukki and Boerrigter came on for Stokes and Griffiths, but it was young McGregor who showed them the way through.

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