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  • Celts see off Stjarnan to keep Champions League dream alive

    Celts see off Stjarnan to keep Champions League dream alive

    By: Mark Henderson in Iceland on 22 Jul, 2015 22:25

  • Samsung Stadium
    Reykjavik, Iceland
    UEFA Champions League second qualifying round

    (Finsen 7)

    (Bitton 33, Mulgrew 49, Griffiths 88, Johansen 90+3)

    CELTIC survived an early scare to cruise to a 4-1 victory over FC Stjarnan in Iceland and book their place in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, triumphing 6-1 on aggregate.

    Olafur Karl Finsen stunned the Hoops by opening the scoring for the home side in the seventh minute. It was a goal that came completely against the run of play, but the Hoops steadied themselves and levelled the match through Nir Bitton’s header.

    The away side took the lead on the night shortly after the break when Charlie Mulrgew rifled home from Scott Brown’s pass, effectively ending the tie as a contest.

    And they inflicted further punishment in the closing stages as Leigh Griffiths finished off a flowing move and Stefan Johansen swept home from Gary Mackay-Steven’s cutback.

    In the end, it was comprehensive win for Ronny Deila’s side, who will now square up to Qarabag FK from Azerbaijan for a place in the play-offs

    Mackay-Steven Virgil van Dijk were restored to the Celtic starting XI as the manager made two changes to the team that defeated the Icelandic outfit last week in Glasgow.

    The winger, who missed the corresponding fixture after picking up an injury in the warm-up, came into the team at the expense of James Forrest, while van Dijk replaced Emilio Izaguirre, with Mulgew moving to left back.  

    In the spartan surroundings of the Samsung Stadium, the Hoops immediately took the initiative against the home side, controlling possession and pushing for the crucial opening goal.

    Finding some promising situations down the flanks, the Scottish champions earned several early corners and free-kicks in dangerous positions but failed to test goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen until Mulgrew took aim from a set-piece from 30 yards. His connection was sweet but the Stjarnan shot-stopper was equal to the shot.

    And with seven minutes on the clock, the hosts shocked Celtic by making the breakthrough. Following a swift breakaway down the left, Jeppe Hansen picked out Finsen, who cut inside and fired calmly beyond Craig Gordon.

    That goal provided further fuel for the Icelandic side in their defensive duties as the Hoops resumed the offensive with renewed vigour.

    Bitton fired wide from distance, before Stuart Armstrong lofted a ball in for Nadir Ciftci, who showed good strength to hold off his marker but he couldn’t keep his final effort down.

    Celtic were bossing proceedings but were finding it difficult to break through the wall of blue shirts. However, gradually, Stjarnan’s busy backline started to creak.

    Mulgrew’s free-kick found Johansen in space and his shot entered a ruck of players in the six-yard box. Dedryck Boyata bundled the ball home but his celebrations were cut short by the offside flag.

    As the crosses continued to fly into the Stjarnan box, the Hoops came close again just before the half-hour mark, when Mulgrew’s low corner was almost forced over the line by Bitton and then Ciftci.

    Eventually, the home side’s resistance was broken from yet another Celtic corner. Johansen delivered the set-piece from the left and Bitton rose highest to bullet home a header, much to joy and relief of the travelling support.

    Ronny Deila’s men went quickly in search of a second goal and they came within inches of achieving that objective as Armstrong’s instinctive shot trundled past the far post after diligent work from Mikael Lustig and Mackay-Steven.

    Apart from a well-worked free-kick which Daniel Laxdal volleyed wide, it was all Celtic as the interval approached, with Ciftci trying his luck from the edge of the box and Bitton’s clean strike forcing Nielsen into a smart save.

    Making a purposeful start to the second period, the Scottish champions only took four minutes to complete the turnaround. A slick passing move saw the ball being moved out to the left by Scott Brown. Mulgrew took a touch, steadied himself and then lashed an unstoppable shot into the far corner.

    The visitors continued to probe for further reward, with Johansen particularly prominent, frequently finding dangerous pockets of space in front of the Stjarnan back four and attempting to pick out the runs of Ciftci, Armstrong and Mackay-Steven.

    At the other end, Boyata had to make a timely intervention to deny substitute Veigar Gunnarsson a sight of goal, but the introduction of Leigh Griffiths for the Hoops provided further attacking impetus for the Bhoys.

    Fresh from scoring a hat-trick against Eibar at the weekend, the striker looked full of verve and he only took a matter of moments to link up with Ciftci and flick a shot wide. He then tested Nielsen after collecting Johansen’s pass and driving towards the box.

    Bitton thought he had grabbed his second of the evening as he swept home Mulgrew’s free-kick, but the offside flag again came to Stjarnan’s rescue.

    Gordon was finally called into meaningful action midway through the second half, saving from Finsen and then reacting quickly to thwart the chance for the rebound.

    But it was his opposite number who was considerably busier, and Nielsen prevented Mackay-Steven adding a third as he blocked the winger’s powerful drive after he had raced in on goal.

    The former Motherwell keeper was beaten again, however, as the clock ticked down after the Bhoys cut open the hosts with a wonderfully-worked goal.

    And there was still time for Johansen to compound Stjarnan’s misery as he applied the finish from Mackay-Steven’s low centre to seal the win and keep Celtic’s quest for the group phase alive.

    CELTIC (4-2-3-1) Gordon; Lustig (Ambrose 52), Boyata, van Dijk, Mulgrew; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Armstrong (Griffiths 62); Ciftci (Rogic 82)
    Not Used: Bailly, Izaguirre, Stokes, Forrest

    FC STJARNAN (4-3-3) Nielsen; Aegisson, D. Laxdal, Gudjonsson, Arnason; Runarsson (Gunnarsson 58) Praest, Punyed, Bjorgvinsson, Hansen (Barddal 81) Finsen
    Not Used: Johannesson, J. Laxdal, Ottesen Palsson, Knutsson, Bjornsson

    Website Man of the Match: Nir Bitton

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