AZ ALKMAAR 2 CELTIC 1 (Agg: 2-3)
THERE was anxiety in Alkmaar this evening as Celtic walked the Europa League tightrope without a safety net in sight.
Thankfully, Ange Postecoglou’s side somehow managed to make it to the group stages draw tomorrow after a nerve-shredding evening.
It was tense and tough against uncompromising Dutch opponents, but the Hoops, with courage, determination and no little skill and spirit, manoeuvred a path to the next stage.
Postecoglou and his players couldn’t have dreamed of a better start with a goal in exactly two minutes 10 seconds, but by the end of a dramatic first-half their first leg advantage had been cut to one.
Two dreadful defensive errors allowed the Dutch back into the contest when a little bit of composure at the back would have kept the pressure on the home side.
LIGHTNING STRIKES…Kyogo Furuhashi thumps Celtic into an early lead.
Portuguese referee Tiago Martins adopted a lenient stance and that suited a bunch of Dutch bruisers who were quite content to throw their weight around. Poor Kyogo Furuhashi seemed to be singled out for some special treatment and was clattered on several occasions. He looked shattered by the time he came off minutes before the end.
And yet the Japanese striker was all smiles so early in the encounter when the Hoops took the lead and stretched their overall lead to 3-0. Anthony Ralston released Liel Abada with a neat pass on the right and the Israeli raced into the penalty box from the right at great pace.
He hit a perfect ball across the face of the goal and Kyogo’s timing was absolutely spot on as he arrived eight yards out to thrash the ball into the roof of the net with keeper Hobie Verholst stranded.
Alas, some absolutely inexplicable defending allowed the Dutch side to equalise on the night with Stephen Welsh and Joe Hart both culpable for not clearing the danger.
The centre-back should have taken the responsibility of dealing with a simple long kick down the middle of the park by Verhulst. He allowed the ball to strike off his shoulder as it sped towards the keeper.
THUMBS UP…Ange Postecoglou is clearly happy with the great start.
The former England netminder made the fatal mistake of waiting for the ball to arrive at his feet instead of racing out to meet it. As he hesitated, the bustling Zacaria Aboukhlal kept up the chase and managed to nick the ball from the shotstopper, stepped round him and roll it into the empty net.
That was a terrible goal to lose, but the second in the 26th minute was even worse and it came direct from Swedish defender Carl Starfelt who struggled in the opening 45 minutes, but responded with a far superior display after the turnaround.
Right-back Yukinari Sugawara, a Japanese international team-mate of Kyogo, slung a hopeful ball into the box from the wing. It cleared everyone, but Starfelt was caught half-asleep as he swung his left foot at the ball, missed completely and it bounced off his right leg into the net past the startled Hart.
Just two minutes earlier, Greg Taylor had been forced to go off with a shoulder injury with young Adam Montgomery coming on in his place.
As expected, the Dutch were right up for it at the start of the second period and took control immediately after the kick-off when Kyogo passed the ball straight to an opponent.
Not quite the start Postecoglou would have asked or expected from his players.
Experienced keeper Hart, who had made a superb save just before the interval with a swoop to his left to deny the rampaging Aboukhlal who was booked for trying to run through Ralston only a few minutes earlier, began to take control of his penalty area.
MY BALL…keeper Joe Hart collects a cross.
Callum McGregor also tried to exert some authority in the middle of the park, but the long ball from the home side that eliminated the midfield and dropped into danger zones continued to carry threats.
In the 53rd minute, it was Hart who once again atoned for his earlier howler when he dived to his right to to stop a fiercely-struck low effort from dangerman Aboukhlal who was giving Welsh and Co a stern test as he stormed around with a full head of steam.
Celtic were doing very little in an attacking sense as they attempted to keep things calm, but there was no surprise when Postecoglou made a second substitution on the hour mark when Tom Rogic came off to be replaced by Odsonne Edouard.
There was a startling change with the introduction of the Frenchman who played through the middle with Kyogo moving wide left.
In the 68th minute, some bewildering feet from Edouard transfixed the Dutch defenders in the box and he set up Montgomery for a first-time drive from the edge of the box that was deflected just past the upright with the keeper scrambling. What a moment that might have been for the young Celtic who is still waiting for his first start in the top side.
AZ Alkmaar missed a good opportunity as it neared full-time, but there had been a hint of offside in the build-up and then Ismaila Soro was sent on for Kyogo who had suffered some brutal treatment.
Celtic repelled the late and desperate attacks from the home side who threw their keeper up front for a couple of corner-kicks in stoppage time.
Both were cleared and then came the referee’s welcome final whistle.
It’s not going to be dull riding the Ange Postecoglou rollercoaster, that’s for sure.
TEAM: Hart; Ralston, Welsh, Starfelt, Taylor (sub: Montgomery 24); Rogic, (sub: Edouard 60). McGregor, Turnbull; Abada, Kyogo (sub: 86), Christie.