Celtic bite back to secure vital away goal against Cluj
Celtic travelled to the land of Dracula and bit back after going a goal down to secure a valuable away goal and a good result ahead of next week’s second leg at Celtic Park.
With Czech champions Slavia Prague waiting in the wings, Celtic knew that Wednesday night’s opponents Cluj would be a major step up from FK Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju, and they were not to be disappointed.
Mario Rondon gave Cluj the lead, before James Forrest scored an equaliser before the break to secure a vital away goal against a good counter attacking side that threatened Celtic’s defensive line throughout the tie.
Celtic will now go into next week’s second leg as favourites to go through to face Slavia Prague in the play-off round, although there is still much work needing doing defensively.
Story of the match
From the first minute of the game it was clear what Cluj’s game plan was - to counter attack Celtic at pace at every opportunity and they duly delivered time and again as Celtic had to deal with a string of cross and set pieces in the early exchanges as both sides traded blows at a frenetic pace - with Celtic’s left flank seen as the weak point.
Both Lewis Morgan and Boli Bolingoli certainly didn’t cover themselves in glory defensively, but from an attacking sense they did produce some good runs and link up play with Celtic’s main attacking threats of Edouard, Christie and Forrest - without really shining.
Both struggled throughout the first half and picked up yellow cards - albeit Morgan’s booking was a ridiculous decision.
And it was down Celtic’s left flank that Cluj broke down to open the scoring. From a Celtic corner, Morgan missed an interception allowing Cluj time and space down the flank for a perfect ball in behind Bolingoli who was ball watching as he played Rondon onside before the Cluj forward slotted home the opening goal of the game between the legs of the helpless Scott Bain.
Celtic survived a number of further close calls from the Romanian side’s fast paced counter attacks, but when it looked like Celtic would be lucky to go in at the break just a goal down up popped James Forrest.
The winger has popped up throughout his time in a Celtic shirt to score vital goals and he delivered once more.
Playing a one-two with new signing Hatem Elhamed down the right flank, Forrest picked up the ball inside the 18 yard box turning under pressure from three Cluj defenders to fire a low shot off the inside of the post.
Into the second half, and Forrest again threatened the Cluj goal but rather than laying the ball off to the likes of McGregor or Edouard he chose instead to shoot from distance and failed to trouble the Cluj keeper much to the disappointment of Edouard.
Cluj really should have been down to ten men with 25 minutes remaining when Scott Brown was brought down late and off the ball by Mateo Susic - but surprisingly the card happy Serbian referee only flashed a yellow rather than what would have been a deserved red card.
Both teams chased for a winner, with Celtic finally putting their first half showing behind them as Bolingoli, Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard all headed wide threatening their host’s goal further.
While Alexandru Paun struck a powerful effort which Bain couldn't hold into, but George Tucudean’s resulting overhead kick sailed over the bar.
Despite further chances for both sides, the score remained all-square at the full time whistle with Celtic more than happy with the final result as they take a vital away goal back to Celtic Park with them.
CELTIC: Bain, Elhamed (Bitton 87), Simunovic (Jullien 74), Ajer, Bolingoli; Brown, McGregor, Christie; Forrest, Edouard, Morgan (Ntcham 66).
Subs not used: Gordon, Griffiths, Hayes, Shved.