CELTIC 1 ZENIT ST PETERSBURG 0
A GOAL exquisitely constructed and explosively finished has given Celtic a genuine opportunity of progressing in the Europa League after a dramatic evening at Parkhead.
Brendan Rodgers’ game plan had been working superbly well, but until the 78th minute it had been a night of frustration for the Hoops.
Suddenly, though, the influence of Charly Musonda, not long after his arrival as a substitute for Eboue Kouassi, turned the game on its head.
The on-loan Belgian sparked the decisive move to life with a display of quick feet on the left before feeding a ball to the impressive Olivier Ntcham.
The Frenchman stroked a pass in front of his fellow-countryman Moussa Dembele who knocked it inside for Musonda who had followed up his earlier pass as he thrust into the danger zone.
He didn’t break stride as he looped a pass to the unmarked Callum McGregor at the far post and the Scotland international midfielder cushioned the ball on his chest before thundering an unstoppable effort into the roof of the net.
Celtic Park erupted – the breakthrough goal that gives the champions hope in Russia in the second leg on Thursday had been a long time coming.
Before tonight, 11 games had passed in the group and knock-out stages of the Europa and Champions League without a hint of victory in the east end of Glasgow.
Right from the start, though, Rodgers’ men were up for the challenge as they set a tempo that unsettled Zenit and saw Kouassi playing further up the pitch than usual as he snapped into tackles in a high pressing game.
Dembele supplied a superb chance for Ntcham in the seventh minute, but the finishing effort whizzed just wide of keeper Andrei Lunev’s right-hand post.
McGregor also had a decent opportunity in 15 minutes, but his shot was too direct to give the Russian No.1 any problems.
On the half-hour mark, James Forrest, always eager to get involved, combined with McGregor on the right and the ball zipped across the face of goal with Dembele appearing slow to react.
Then the striker’s timing was out at the near post when Kieran Tierney launched a low cross from the left.
There was a fright for the Hoops when Forrest failed to control a difficult kick-out from Dorus De Vries and Domenico Criscito broke forward on the left.
However, the Dutch keeper anticipated the effort from Anton Zabolotny and the ball spun to safety.
In the second-half, it was much the same story with Celtic surging forward and Zenit looking to hit on the counter-attack.
Kouassi, who played well, came close to breaking the deadlock with a thumping long-range drive, but the keeper managed to push it to safety.
It looked like ending in stalemate until that moment of magic in the 78th minute.
Now all eyes are on the return on Thursday. Dare we dream?
McGregor’s gem has given the team a well deserved advantage. It is to be hoped it will be protected in Russia.
CQN Man of the Match: Scott Brown
TEAM: De Vries; Lustig, Ajer, Simunovic, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham; Forrest, McGregor, Kouassi (sub: Musonda 73); Dembele (sub: Edouard 84).