CELTIC 5 HAPOEL BE’ER SHEVA 2
CELTIC are 90 minutes away from the £20million-plus Champions League group stages after a nerve-wracking evening at Parkhead.
Only a three-goal defeat without reply will derail Brendan Rodgers’ dream in the return leg in Israel on Tuesday.
But that only tells you half of the story that unfolded in the east end of Glasgow on another tension-laden European occasion.
Almost unbelievably, the Hoops were leading 3-0 at the interval with Leigh Griffiths netting two remarkable goals in the last six minutes of the half.
The talk at half-time was the possibility of a five or six-goal triumph to render the second game a mere formality.
However, in the space of three minutes before the hour mark, the Israelis had pulled two goals back and jittery Celtic were on the ropes.
Suddenly, the massive cash windfall appeared to be disappearing before thousands of disbelieving onlookers.
But there was even more drama when substitute Moussa Dembele and skipper Scott Brown claimed two crucial goals to leave Celtic Park rocking to its foundations.
In the first-half, Rodgers could have no complaints about his team, their discipline or their urge to get the goals that mattered.
Brown served a warning in the third minute with an angled drive that goalkeeper David Garesh did well to plunge to his left to turn away for a corner-kick.
Six minutes later, the goalie was left helpless as Tom Rogic got the opening goal. Griffiths was the creator with a wonderful slide-rule pass into the tracks of the rampaging Scott Sinclair.
Garesh was swiftly off his line as the players accidentally collided and the ball rolled free to the Aussie midfielder. He was calmness personified as he summed up the situation before slotting the ball into the vacant net.
The Israeli was unhappy with the challenge from the ex-Aston Villa frontman and was booked by Slovenian referee Damir Skomina for his troubles.
He was in action again seven minutes later as he dived to his right to repel an 18-yard left-foot drive from the lively Rogic.
In the 25th minute, Keiran Tierney superbly turned inside onto his right foot and his dangerous cross was cleared at the back post with Griffiths lurking.
However, 14 minutes later Celtic doubled their advantage with an absolutely superb goal which was expertly designed and excellently executed.
Kolo Toure saw an opening as he came out of defence and he drove forward before sliding a pass to the intelligent Sinclair who timed his run to perfection.
He knocked the ball in front of James Forrest and the winger lofted an inviting cross into the penalty area. Griffiths had to be brave as he raced in to take off and power an unstoppable header low into the keeper’s right-hand side.
And the roof almost came off Parkhead when Griffiths made it 3-0 with an exquisite free-kick just on the half-time whistle. The striker was flattened by a crude challenge from an Israeli defender about 25 yards out.
He took his time as he sized up the situation before curling an inch-perfect left-foot curler high past the stretching goalie into his top left-hand corner of the net.
The grins were replaced by groans before the hour mark, though, as Hapoel came back into the game without warning.
They clawed one back in the 54th minute when they broke upfield with Toure out of position. Callum McGregor was slow to notice the run of Lucio Maranhao and the Brazilian striker took the ball in his stride before eluding a last-ditch tackle from Eoghan O’Connell and powering an effort low past Craig Gordon.
Three minutes later, there was another sensational strike from the Israeli champions as skipper Milikson smashed a low 20-yarder beyond Gordon after Hapoel had worked the ball up the left.
Brendan Rodgers reacted by taking off McGregor and putting on the more tactically-astute Nir Bitton on the hour mark and two minutes afterwards Saidy Janko replaced the tiring Mikael Lustig.
Celtic got back into their earlier mode of playing with poise and purpose and Dembele joined the fray when he came on for Rogic in the 70th minute as Rodgers pushed his side forward in search of the vital goals that might make the away trip a bit more bearable.
In the 73rd minute, there was a mixture of relief and joy as the Hoops went 4-2 ahead. Griffiths swung in an inviting right-wing corner-kick and Dembele and Bitton went for it with the keeper in no-man’s land. It looked as though the final touch came from the head of the former Fulham frontman as the ball swirled welcomingly into the net.
Gordon then produced a truly magnificent high-flying save as he clawed away a six-yard header that was zooming for the corner and, with five minutes to go, Parkhead was in joyous bedlam as Brown scored the fifth.
It started with a bad kick from keeper Garesh that was picked up by Dembele who fed it forward. Forrest got a touch as it fell to the Hoops captain. His left-foot shot was blocked, but the ball rebounded perfectly for a right foot shot and this time the midfielder buried it behind the helpless goalie.
With a minute to go, Sinclair had the chance to put the tie out of sight when he was released with a fine pass and was left with only Garesh to beat. Unfortunately, his low shot took a touch off the keeper’s knee and the ball flew past the upright.
So, it’s still all to play for in Israel on Tuesday, but somehow it is difficult to see this Brendan Rodgers team allowing their opponents back into the tie for a second time.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig (sub: Janko 62), Toure, O’Connell, Tierney; Brown, Rogic (sub: Dembele 70), McGregor (sub: Bitton 60); Forrest, Griffiths, Sinclair.