HAPOEL BE’ER SHEVA 2 CELTIC 0 (Agg:4-5)
PHEW! Celtic wobbled on the £22million Champions League tightrope in Israel tonight before gatecrashing the eilte group stages.
It wasn’t pretty and there were panic stations at times, but, in the end, Brendan Rodgers’ team saw off dangerous opponents to go into the money-spinning draw in Monte Carlo on Thursday.
There is little doubt Celtic made it tough from themselves. Throughout they were poor in possession and Saidy Janko, at right-back, had something of a personal nightmare. There was little the Swiss defender could do right on an evening he would presumably choose to forget.
He was given little cover in the first-half by James Forrest and it was no surprise the winger was withdrawn at the interval to be replaced by Tom Rogic, who was surprisingly left out of the starting line-up.
At that stage, the Israelis, roared on by a passionate, frenzied support in the 16,000-capacity Turner Stadium, were a goal ahead and obviously fancying their chances of creating a sensation against a clearly-rattled Parkhead outfit.
In fact, Rodgers’ team could have been a goal behind in the 14th minute when the dodgy Dutch referee awarded the Israelis a penalty-kick following a rash challenge from Janko a clear yard outside the area.
Justice was done when Maharan Radi smashed the award at goal and Craig Gordon was alert enough to throw himself to his right to beat the ball to safety.
But disaster was a mere seven minutes away when some dreadful defending allowed the home side to take the lead after the curse of the corner-kick struck again.
Unbelievably, the Hoops defence proved to be lamentable in dealing with the set-play and Gordon had no chance when Ben Sahar, who had just come on as a substitute, outjumped toiling Scott Brown to head down towards the keeper’s left-hand post.
Kieran Tierney had been eliminated by the right-wing cross and was caught in no-man’s land as he tried to get back and cover the unprotected post. Gordon and the left-back collided as the ball squeezed agonisingly over the line.
Suddenly, it was game on and the Israel champions realised they had had 69 minutes in which to score the two goals that would somersault them into the big-time.
They were getting a lot of joy on the wings, particularly their left where Janko was struggling big-time. In the 26th minute, he was posted missing when a ball came over from the opposite wing, but, thankfully, Sahar was wasteful with his finishing effort and fizzed the ball over the bar.
It took until the 33rd minute for Celtic to get a shot on target when Leigh Griffiths tried his luck from outside the box, but it was easily saved by the well-positioned keeper.
Two minutes later, Scott Sinclair half-hit a Janko cross and once more it was easy for the opposing goalie to collect and start another raid on the Hoops goal with an intelligent kick-out.
Rogic came on for Forrest at the start of the second-half, but two minutes later Celtic’s advantage had been cut to one after some horrendous defending and, once more, unfortunately, Janko played a major role.
A simple angled ball from the right was played into the box and it looked easy for Gordon as he left his line. The keeper clearly called for Kolo Toure, impressive all night, and Mikael Lustig to leave it, but the right-back still followed the cross into the six-yard box and collided with a surprised Gordon.
The ball dropped loose behind the startled keeper and was prodded home from three yards by Oviedio Hoban who could hardly believe his luck. At first glance it looked a howler for the Scotland international, but, on closer inspection, questions must be asked about Janko’s part in the loss of a crucial goal.
Just before the hour mark, Rodgers sent on Moussa Dembele for Griffiths who wasn’t getting service and was finding it tough to hold up play and allow his team-mates to join him in the opponents’ half.
And the French hitman almost eased the pressure on the Hoops in the 61st minute when he took a pass from Rogic and swirled a right-foot effort away from the Sheva keeper, but it swept just wide of his left-hand post.
In the 66th minute, Erik Sviatchenko came on for the ineffective Callum McGregor as the manager decided to go for a diamond shape with three centre-backs in the shape of Toure, Lustig and the Norwegian in front of Gordon.
Thankfully, his tactics worked and Celtic held out to find a way through to the Champions League group stages after two awful years in the wilderness.
But once the euphoria dies down, Brendan Rodgers will look again at this performance and wonder why so many of his players failed to turn up on such a vital evening for the Parkhead side.
For the moment, though, we can all enjoy the return to where the club belongs.
There are still questions to be answered, though.
TEAM: Gordon; Janko, Lustig, Toure, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Forrest (sub: Rogic 46), McGregor (sub: Sviatchenko 66), Sinclair; Griffiths (sub: Dembele 57).