FC RIGA 0 CELTIC 1
MAGICAL Mohamed Elyounoussi was Celtic’s man of the moment when he struck a 90th-minute winner in Latvia this evening.
The Norwegian international replaced the ineffective Odsonne Edouard eight minutes from time and proved to be an inspired substitution by Neil Lennon.
The game was heading for Extra-time when Vasilis Barkas, who was not asked to produce a single save all evening, rolled a ball to Ryan Christie who sent a superb sweeping pass down the right touch to the ever-willing Jeremie Frimpong.
The Dutch teenager burst forward before threading a ball into the congested penalty area and Elyounoussi, with perfect timing arrived, was lurking to tuck a first-time drive low past keeper Roberts Ozols to his right.
There was a massive sigh of relief around the Skonto stadium from everyone connected with Celtic as the ball settled in the net.
It was not an inspired performance by the Parkhead men, but, at least, it is job done and they now have a Europa League play-off to look forward to a week tonight.
In the first-half, the Hoops toiled to impose themselves on their opponents and it took them until eight minutes from the interval to trouble Ozols.
Olivier Ntcham, the pick of a sluggish midfield in the opening half, tried his luck from distance, but the Latvian shotstopper was alert to the danger and managed to turn the effort over the bar.
That kick-started a flurry of activity around the home goal and a minute later Nir Bitton was presented with the opportunity to claim the breakthrough goal.
Christie sent over an inviting ball from the left that was headed on by Shane Duffy, but his knockdown was hacked clear from Odsonne Edouard. The clearance fell to the Israeli international 10 yards out, but his powderpuff return was easily smothered by Ozols when it looked as though the Hoops ace would burst the net.
In the 39th minute, some slick play by Edouard and Callum McGregor set Frimpong, a 34th minute substitute for the limping James Forrest, racing clear, but he was crowded out.
Four minutes from the end of the opening period, Scott Brown was booked by over-fussy Portuguese referee Luis Campo who had earlier pulled up Duffy for two infringements seen only by the match official.
A pattern had developed early in the game, but the Hoops just were not sharp enough to turn possession into goals.
It was similar after the break. Edouard, rested against Livingston at the weekend, looked lacklustre and his touch was off. Too often he miscontrolled the ball and the chance was gone. It was no surprised he was hooked again – the only surprise was that it took as late as the 82nd minute.
Greg Taylor, who put in a good shift without too many rewards, had a superb opportunity to score in the 66th minute when he was picked out by Christie with a swinging ball into the penalty area.
Unfortunately, the left-back’s timing was horribly out and the ball hit him on the top of the head and sailed harmlessly over the crossbar from a great position.
In the 70th minute, the refree at last produced a yellow card for a Latvian when Vladimirs Kamess went into the book for a crude challenge on Brown.
A minute later, he flashed a yellow card at Duffy for a trip on Sandoe Milosevic.
Neil Lennon made a change in the 72nd minute when he replaced the hard-owrking Ntcham with Albian Ajeti to put the Swiss international up front with Edouard who looked as though he urgently required support.
Only 60 seconds after his introduction, Ajeti almost netted following another breathtaking run down the right by Frimpong, but keeper Ozols managed to flop on the ball at the crucial moment.
In the 82nd minute, Riga had a remarkable let-off when another low ball across from the Dutch kid struck a home defender smack in front of goal and the ricochet flew straight into the arms of Ozols who was lying on the ground at his near post.
Moments later, Elyounoussi was sent on for the labouring Edouard and his timing was absolutely spot-on as he rifled in the winner with the tie heading for an extra 30 minutes.
It could prove to be an invaluable strike for the champions.
TEAM: Barkas; Bitton, Duffy, Ajer; Forrest (sub: Frimpong 34) Brown, McGregor, Ntcham (sub: Ajeti 72), Taylor; Christie, Edouard (sub: Elyounoussi 82).