Tuesday August 22nd: Champions League Play-Off Second Leg; Astana 4 (Ajer (OG) 26’, Muzhikov 48’, Twumasi 49’, 69’) Celtic 3 (Sinclair 33’, Ntcham 80’, Griffiths 90’) Celtic Win 8-4 On Aggregate
Celtic put their fans through the emotional ringer during a second-half which saw five goals scored but ultimately came away with a result which gets us through to the Champions League Group Stages.
With Jozo Simunovic feeling a slight injury, the untried pair of Ajer and Bitton made up the centre-halves, the rest of the team was as expected, with Callum McGregor in for Tom Rogic perhaps the only quibble.
Celtic actually created our first chance in the opening seconds, with Griffiths firing a shot just wide. The game started off relatively quietly apart from that, with Celtic content and looking good in possession, and we created a good chance when a Sinclair was clawed by by Eric in the Astana goal.
Against the run of play Astana took the lead in the 26th minute, and there was a touch of fortune about the goal, as Shomko’s shot took a wicked deflection off Kristoffer Ajer, giving Craig Gordon no chance.
Celtic’s response was good and a fine Sinclair run and shot was saved by Eric, before Sinclair secured the all important away goal in the 33rd minute, curling a brilliant shot into the top corner.
Forrest should have done better with a header before Craig Gordon made a great save to tip over a Anicic header, but with the half-time whistle blowing Celtic seemed in control.
The second half was chaotic. Firstly Astana went ahead on the night when Brown gave the ball away in midfield then his header diverted the ball into the path of Muzhikov who prodded the ball past Gordon. Then a minute later some horrific defending from Bitton allowed Twumasi a free header and it 3-1 on the night, 6-3 on aggregate and the tie was alive once again.
Celtic looked all at sea, as Astana carved out chance after chance, with Muzhikov having a shot tipped over by Gordon then Kabananga missed a good chance. Brendan Rodgers tried to stem the tide by replacing McGregor and Forrest with Rogic and Ralston and then replaced Sinclair with Armstrong.
Soon after, Griffiths missed a great chance to kill the game off, blazing over the bar when in acres of space after being found by Tierney’s great ball. From the resulting goal kick, appalling defending by both Bitton and Lustig enabled Twumasi to get his second goal as the near post to make it 4-1 to Astana and 6-4 on aggregate.
The hosts smelled blood now, and after some chaotic scenes in the Celtic box Twumasi missed an absolute sitter to get his hat-trick, firing over when it seemed easier to score just inside the penalty box.
That let-off seemed to energise Celtic, and in the 80th minute the goal arrived which finally killed the tie. a Tom Rogic pass finding the brilliant Olivier Ntcham and his shot took a deflection off Shitov and nestled in the net. Relief all round!
Remarkably the goal scoring wasn’t over, and in the 90th minute an archetypal Leigh Griffiths goal gave Celtic a four goal advantage over the two legs.
The final whistle brought scenes of relief more than anything, as Celtic had - as usual - made qualifying for the Champions League very difficult, but you can’t really complain about a four goal victory over the two legs when you factor in our injury issues. The performances tonight were a mixed bag, with Bitton and Ajer looking very exposed, but Sincalir and Ntcham were both excellent. The bottom line however is that Celtic have reached the promised land of the Champions League group stages, banking in around £30 million, and that’s all you can ask for at this stage of the season. Now let’s enjoy the ride!