Celtic appear to have taken advantage of their European reprieve with a well-deserved 1-1 draw against Maribor in the first leg of their Champions League play-off in Slovenia.
Legia Warsaw had beaten the Hoops 6-1 on aggregate in the third qualifier but were effectively dumped out of the competition by UEFA for bringing on a player who should have been suspended in the second leg at Murrayfield, which left Ronny Deila’s side facing the Slovenian champions.
Callum McGregor shot the visitors into the lead in the sixth minute, only to see his fourth goal in seven games cancelled out by Damjan Bohar.
Hoops skipper Charlie Mulgrew and defender Virgil van Dijk came close before the interval as the Scottish champions showed a marked improvement on their Legia performances.
Maribor came out with more purpose at the start of the second half in the Ldjuski vrt stadium but the Hoops held firm and indeed Stefan Johansen passed up a great chance to win the game when he stumbled when he was right through – but nevertheless they are in the box seat going into the second leg at Celtic Park next Tuesday.
Deila dropped last season’s top scorer Kris Commons to the bench, replaced by Beram Kayal, while right-back Mikael Lustig came in for Efe Ambrose, who joined up with the squad late after it was originally believed he was suspended for the game.
There was an element of risk in Deila picking 19-year-old Belgian defender Jason Denayer, who made his Hoops debut against Dundee United on Saturday after signing on loan from Manchester City – but they got off to a great start when McGregor opened the scoring.
Midfielder Johansen’s raking pass picked out Jo Inge Berget on the left and when he got his shot in at the second attempt, Maribor goalkeeper Jasmin Handanovic could only palm the ball to 21-year-old McGregor – who slammed in from eight yards for his third European away goal this season.
Maribor looked shaky in the following minutes but their lifeline came when Zeljko Filipovic split the Hoops defence wide, allowing Bohar to ignore a foul on Maribor skipper Tavares and go through and slip the ball past Parkhead keeper Craig Gordon.
Mulgrew almost restored the Hoops’ lead in the 21st minute when he got his head on to a Johansen corner – but Filipovic cleared to safety.
Moments later, from another Johansen corner, Lustig headed over at the back post, while Gordon made a decent save from Petar Stojanovic’s angled drive at the other end.
Just after the half-hour mark, Parkhead stopper van Dijk beat Handanovic with a header from an Anthony Stokes corner, only to see the ball rebound off Johansen – who was on the line and consequently flagged offside.
The home side could have gone in front four minutes from the break when Gordon parried a long-distance drive from Agim Ibraimi into the air – but Dare Vrsic volleyed high over the bar.
Stokes had the ball in the Maribor net early in the second half but even he knew it was from an offside position, before Tavares fired a yard over the bar from the edge of the box after being set up by Vrsic, the first sign that the home side had upped the tempo.
Celtic looked happy to contain the Slovenian champions but Gordon had to make a fine save in the 59th minute from Ibraimi’s powerful header, after Hoops left-back Emilio Izaguirre had needlessly conceded possession.
There was a Hoops penalty claim soon afterwards when Stokes’ header from a McGregor cross appeared to strike the hand of Maribor stopper Aleksander Rajcevic – but Czech referee Pavel Kralovec was unimpressed.
As the home side loosened their grip on the game, Stokes twice shot wide, the second time just inches past the post – but Johansen should have scored when he was sent clean through on goal by Kayal but he lost control of the ball, allowing Handanovic to gather.
As Celtic finished strongly, Handanovic made a decent save from van Dijk after Kayal had gone down in the box under a challenge by Mitja Viler, another penalty claim ignored.
With seven minutes remaining Gordon had another impressive save from Ibraimi before surviving a late burst of pressure from the home side.tweet Follow @@metrolens1