Leigh Griffiths strike leaves Celtic in charge

Leigh Griffiths scored the equaliser for Celtic against Astana on Wednesday
Picture by PA  
Ronnie Esplin in Astana

LEIGH GRIFFITHS' 78th minute strike gave Celtic a 1-1 draw against FC Astana and put the Hoops firmly in charge of their Champions League destiny.

Defender Yuri Logvinenko headed the home side ahead from a corner in the 19th minute of the third qualifying round match at the noisy Astana Arena, which was just short of its 30,000-capacity. The visitors' makeshift central-defence, with European debutant Eoghan O'Connell and Efe Ambrose, had to work hard with the rest of their Parkhead team-mates to prevent Astana adding to their lead.

Just when it looked like Celtic would be content enough with a narrow defeat, Griffiths drilled in a shot from the edge of the box to stun the Kazakhstan champions, who may rue not pressing home their advantage when they travel to Glasgow for the return game next week.

Brendan Rodgers had found himself with defensive problems ahead of the long journey to Astana for a match on an artificial surface on which the home side looked more comfortable. With five central-defenders either out injured or trying to catch up on fitness, the former Liverpool boss gambled by giving a European debut to 20-year-old O'Connell.

The Cork-born defender was put alongside the often-criticised Ambrose, with Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney either side as full-backs, although there was fluidity in the system. A midfield of Patrick Roberts, Callum McGregor, Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong was given license to support strikers Griffiths and Moussa Dembele.

And amid a promising start for the Hoops, it was Griffiths who had an effort on the turn from 20 yards, which trundled wide. By that time, O'Connell had flattened home forward Patrick Twumasi and then gave possession away 30 yards from goal, but at no cost.

But there was a heavy price to be paid when Ambrose allowed a cross from Twumasi to go through his legs, with Lustig having to concede a corner and, when Twumasi's set-piece came in, Logvinenko got in front of keeper Craig Gordon to head in, with O'Connell also culpable.

After Dembele went down in the Astana box under pressure by Igor Shitov - penalty claims were ignored by Italian referee Paolo Mazzoleni - the Hoops' goal had to survive a couple of more dangerous corners. Gordon had to make a good save on the stretch from Azat Nurgaliyev's attempted lob, before denying Junior Kabananga at his near post. 

Roberts was providing Celtic's most potent threat down the right-wing, but coming up short around the Astana box. At the other end, every high ball into the Parkhead side's penalty area had the small band of travelling fans nervy, those nerves not helped early in the second-half when Gordon made hard work of holding on to a long drive from Twumasi. Celtic were wobbling.

In the 52nd minute, Nurgaliyev clipped the top of the bar with a drive after Abzal Beysebekov had got past Tierney all too easily. Midfielder Nir Bitton replaced Dembele just after the hour mark to leave Griffiths foraging alone, but still Astana drove forward with menace.

There was drama when Roberts won the ball back from Dmitri Shomko and set up Griffiths to rifle his shot past past keeper Nenad Eric for what could be a crucial goal. In a frantic finale, Gordon saved from Kabananga with his foot but, in the five added-minutes, Celtic were equally threatening.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access