QARABAG 0-0 CELTIC (Agg: 0-1 )
CELTIC staged a European masterclass in the stifling heat of Baku tonight to reach Friday’s draw for the third round of the Champions League qualifiers.
Ronny Deila sent the team out with a game plan and his players responded magnificently, putting in tireless shifts.
They chased and harried all the way through and the reward is that the club is now just three hours away from the lucrative group stages.
Deila opted for Nadir Ciftci ahead of Leigh Griffiths to the start the game and the Turkish striker knew he was in for a game when he was clattered from behind in the opening minutes.
Referee Martin Strombergsson, from Sweden, immediately blew for a free-kick. Minutes later Celtic’s first leg matchwinner Dedryck Boyata suffered a similar fate as he was bundled to the ground.
The Azerbaijani champions were a clever technical team, but they weren’t slow to put in hefty challenges to test the match official as well as the mettle of their opponents.
Reynaldo created a bit of alarm for the Hoops rearguard when Boyata was drawn towards the ball and was then completely eliminated when the midfielder passed for Rydell Peopon inside the box.
Thankfully, Virgil van Dijk was alert to the situation and was quickly across to fill the void and allow the ball to drift harmlessly for a goal-kick.
The crowd in the 31,000-capacity Tofiq Bahramov stadium were making themselves heard as were the Hoops’ travelling support.
Ciftci was caught offside in the 18th minute when Scott Brown tried to thread a pass through the defence.
The frontman was a willing worker, but the timing of his runs forward wasn’t the best on occasion.
In the 21st minute, Ciftci and Stuart Armstrong combined well on the left before the ball was hastily booted out of play by a desperate Qarabag defender.
The home team gave Celtic a fright in the 21st minute when Daniel Quintana broke free of Emilio Izaguirre on the right wing before firing over an inviting cross.
Craig Gordon seemed to lose the flight of the ball as Peopon threw himself at it at the near post. The ball struck the keeper before being smuggled clear.
Ansi Agolli, the defender who wrote of Deila’s men after last week’s first leg, was having a real battle with Gary Mackay-Steven on the Qarabag left flank and it was developing into an interesting duel between the two combatants.
Gordon made up for his earlier slip with a world-class save just before the half-hour mark.
Brown and Nir Bitton were caught upfield as the Azerbaijanis broke away and Richard Olivera was presented with a chance 25 yards out.
He struck a thunderous drive at goal, but the international shotstopper showed his class with a high flying save to his right to punch the ball to safety.
Five minutes from the break, home keeper Ibrahim Sehic gave his team-mates a fright when he completed misjudged a long-range free-kick from Stefan Johansen.
He fumbled the ball with Van Dijk in attendance and it slipped past for a corner-kick which came to nothing.
Quick-thinking Bitton, who put in a wonderful shift, tested him with a drive from well inside his own half, but the goalie scrambled back to hold the ball just yards from his line.
The first-half ended with Johansen and a Qarabag player not quite seeing eye to eye, but the match official had a word to calm down the situation.
Eight minutes after the interval, Gordon had to throw himself full stretch to push the ball for a corner after a pass from Armstrong had hit a bump on the dodgy surface.
Johansen was booked for taking down Olivera after Van Dijk had given away possession as he strolled forward into attack.
Deila freshened things up when he put on Griifiths for the tiring Ciftci in the 67th minute and then Kris Commons for Gary Mackay-Steven 11 minutes later. James Forrest then came on for Armstrong in 83 minutes.
Johansen had the chance to settle the tie in the fading moments when he raced onto an Armstrong pass, but, with just the keeper to beat, he blasted the ball past the left-hand post.
Forrest, too, was presented with an opportunity when he was sent clear, but he elected to pass instead of shooting and the chance was gone.
Izaguirre was booked for kicking the ball away after another bewildering decision by the Swedish official.
However, at the end of an evening played in suffocating heat, the SPFL champions did what they set out to do – and that was get into the ballot for the next stage.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven (sub: Commons 78), Johansen, Armstrong (sub: Forrest 83); Ciftci (sub: Griffiths 67). Subs not used: Bailly, Ambrose, Rogic, Janko.