Celtic swaggered into Bosnia’s city of iron and again proved they have too much steel and style for Sarajevo.
Little more than one year on from a Champions League qualifier in which Neil Lennon ’s side won 3-1, the 10 In A Row chasers were again victorious, this time claiming a 1-0 result.
Odsonne Edouard did the damage in Zinica in the second half after a rather sluggish opening 45 minutes, with the game not played in the capital because the Bosnian champions’ ground doesn’t meet UEFA requirements. In other words, it’s a bit of a dump. There was no garbage on show from Celtic, though.
The Bilino Polje Stadium is hardly some seething cauldron – where is without supporters? – but for one night only, or rather one half, it was Celtic’s own theatre of dreams as Lennon’s side banked a potential £10million by reaching the Europa League group stage.
They booked their place in Friday’s draw and European football until Christmas at least to bring back at least some normality in this Covid-torn world – Celtic remaining in continental action.
Lennon was forced into an early reshuffle when Nir Bitton had to go off after just seven minutes following a foul in the centre of the park, with the Irishman throwing on Hatem Abd Elhamed in the Israeli’s place.
The blow didn’t seem to bother Celtic’s flow, right enough. Not to begin with. They were the better team from the off but slowly, the Bosnians began to win more of the ball.
It wasn’t a first half of attacking verve; of breathtaking football but the Scottish champions came close when Mohamed Elyounoussi decided to have a lash at the ball with five minutes left. Sarajevo keeper Vladan Kovacevic saved his volley but it almost seemed to give Lennon’s side a wee gee-up. Almost. Ryan Christie looked in the mood, Elhamed enjoyed a penetrative run but all in all, there was not much to email home about as the first 45 minutes came to an end.
Right upon the restart, Celtic came out flying. Scott Brown went on a couple of driving runs and suddenly, things looked a whole lot better. Jeremie Frimpong came close, so did Kris Ajer, but it was Edouard who broke the deadlock on 70 minutes.
The superstar striker pounced after Christie had unleashed a shot from the edge of the box to put his team on the brink of glory. But Edouard wasn’t done there. Minutes later, he plucked a clearance out of the sky with a gorgeous touch, beat his man, then swung a ball out to the left for Elyounoussi. The attack came to little but it was still a sublime moment which was soon to be followed up by a rampaging run and excellent pass out to Christie.
That was the end of Edouard’s night, however, as Patryck Klimala entered the fray. The Pole didn’t get much joy as Sarajevo chased an equaliser. It never came and Celtic can travel back to Scotland safe in the knowledge it’s another job done.
5 talking points
Eddy or not, here I come
Edouard has downed tools, they said. Well if that really was the case then he picked them up in Bosnia during a second-half spell and started setting about Sarajevo in a frenzy with them. Whether 3-5-2 is working for Celtic and is even best suited to the France U21 star is a moot point. But while formation can be temporary, class is permanent. Sure, he didn’t do much in that first half but as the game wore on, he became more and more of a central figure. A goal, a piece of sublime skill. Yes, Celtic’s big-game hunter has just destroyed his latest prey.
The Europa League is not UEFA’s premier club competition, that much is true. But a place in UEFA’s lesser tournament can’t be viewed as a second prize. Not when it’s worth as much as £10m and, let’s be honest, offers a far better chance of real success.
The past couple of seasons have seen blockbuster ties for Celtic against the likes of Lazio, Leipzig and Valencia and the Nyon draw may well throw up some more of the same. If only the fans could be at Celtic Park to generate that world renowned wall of sound and dance the night away under those disco lights.
Greg Taylor has coped some amount of stick from the fans this season but he performed well, swinging in a couple of crosses and looking solid in defence. He also enjoyed a few fine link-ups with Ryan Christie. Conversely, his fellow wingback Frimpong is already the darling of the support at the age of just 19. Seems word of how good he is even reached Bosnia, with Sarajevo doubling up on the former Manchester City graduate. Well, that was when they were giving him freedom. Often there were three players on the young Dutchman. This was no nine out of 10 performance from Frimpong but he still proved a great outball for the midfield and embarked on a fine jinking run late on.
El for leather
Lennon has struggled to get the best out of Elyounoussi in his favoured 3-5-2 system. In saying that, the Norway star has still managed to burst the back of the net five times, one of which was the goal against Riga in the last round that ensured Celtic could pitch up in the former Yugoslavia. He wasn’t at his rampaging best again but still enjoyed a good performance. For Lennon, though, his conundrum over Elyounoussi continues.
The argument raged before this game and Rangers’ one against Galatasaray had even kicked off. Would qualifying for the Europa League proper be a disadvantage in the title race? Don’t be so silly. Any manager will tell you they want to win every competition in which they are playing. Especially one that is so financially rewarding to them. Also, winning breeds confidence and Celtic will be buoyed by this victory as they now again return their focus to domestic matters and their goal of a historic 10 In A Row.