ASTANA 1 CELTIC 1
LETHAL Leigh Griffiths threw Celtic a Champions League lifeline in Kazakhstan this afternoon.
Brendan Rodgers’ side were weathering the storm as the impressive hosts powered forward in determined fashion to add to their first-half strike.
However, with only 11 minutes remaining, last season’s 40-goal marksman demonstrated his remarkable finishing qualities again to hit the leveller and leave the Hoops odds-on favourites to reach the play-off stages of Europe’s elite tournament.
A lot of the credit must go to Patrick Roberts, who took some heavy punishment from the Astana defenders, but refused to give up throughout an excellent 90 minutes on his debut at the highest level.
A home defender was content to usher a ball out of play, but the on-loan Manchester City winger picked his pocket before passing inside to the lurking Griffiths.
The deadly hitman didn’t hesitate as he curled a left-foot effort away from the stretching keeper into the far corner of the net for a sublime equaliser.
As it stands, Celtic are through on the goals away rule, but, backed by a capacity crowd in the east end of Glasgow on Wednesday, there is little doubt they will want to finish the tie against dangerous opponents with a flourish.
Griffiths and Roberts combined for the vital strike, but credit must also go to goalkeeper Craig Gordon who made several first-class saves when their opponents threatened to get on top, particularly in the first hour.
It was Griffiths, in fact, who had the first effort at goal in the fourth minute when he swivelled to fire in a right-foot effort which swept just wide of the upright.
Rodgers’ team looked comfortable for the opening 15 minutes as they camped in the midfield and protected the new-look central double-act of Efe Ambrose and Eoughan O’Connell, who were starting a game together for the first time.
However, the roof fell in on the Scottish champions in the 19th minute when the old dread of the deadball kick raised its ugly head yet again.
The defence scrambled away a right-wing cross that swept across the face of the goal with no takers.
But the resultant corner-kick created chaos in the penalty box. Gordon, Ambrose and O’Connell all looked unsure as the ball dropped into the danger zone and that was all Yuri Logvinenko needed. He was unchallenged as he rose from just outside the six-yard box to nod the ball into the centre of the net.
It was a dreadful goal to lose and the defence didn’t look at all clever at their attempts to deal the first corner-kick forced by the Kazakhstan title-holders.
Three minutes later, Moussa Dembele charged into the Astana penalty box before he was sent tumbling. Italian referee Paolo Mazzoleni was unimpressed and waved play on.
Just before the half-hour mark, Gordon had a brilliant save from Azat Nuirgaliev as the attacker sprung the offside trap. He got through to attempt to lob the ball into the net, but the 6ft 4in keeper anticipated the effort and managed to claw the ball away for a corner.
In the 34th minute, it was Gordon to the rescue again when Keiran Tierney was exposed on the flank and the ball inside found Junior Kabananga. He volleyed in a vicious effort that the shotstopper pushed to safety.
Just on half-time, Gordon did it again with another superb stop from the same player who was getting far too much room on the edge of the penalty area.
And the Gordon v. Karbananga duel was in evidence right at the start of the second-half when the Astana forward tried a happy-go-lucky effort from 35 yards which was blocked by the Hoops No.1.
Gordon was helpless when Nurgaliev clipped the crossbar with a wicked effort from the edge of the box and Celtic responded with a Stuart Armstrong drive in the 66th minute that went wide.
At this stage, Astana were surging into attack with Griffiths starved off service following the substitution of Dembele by Nir Bitton as Rodgers looked to strengthen the middle of the park.
James Forrest came on for the tiring Armstrong in the 73rd minute and five minutes later Callum McGregor, who had been guilty of gifting possession to the opposition, made way for Tom Rogic.
A minute later came Griffiths’ glorious goal that will surely pave the way to another nail-biting stage in the Champions League qualifying stages.
Hopefully, it will all be worth it in the end!
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Ambrose, O’Connell, Tierney; Roberts, Brown, Armstrong (sub: Forrest 73), McGregor (sub: Rogic 78); Dembele (sub: Bitton 62), Griffiths.