Celtic 2 Stjarnan 0
Celtic’s Champions League journey began with a comfortable 2-0 qualifying win over Icelandic outfit Stjarnan at Parkhead.
The part-time visitors came with hopes of spoiling the party in the first leg of the second qualifying round but even though the home side passed up several chances to take the lead, they made the breakthrough when defender Dedryck Boyata – making his competitive debut – headed in the opener a minute from the break from Stefan Johansen’s cross.
The Norwegian midfielder made it 2-0 early in the second-half with a confident finish and even though second-half substitute Leigh Griffiths had a penalty saved in the 78th minute by former Motherwell keeper Gunnar Neilsen, the return game in Iceland next week should be a formality for Ronny Deila’s side, who will face tougher challenges if they are to reach the group stages.
It was a game, though, to blow away the cobwebs for a Celtic side who had played only three pre-season friendlies in preparation, all at St Mirren Park.
Along with former Manchester City defender Boyata, Deila’s most recent signing from Dundee United, Nadir Ciftci, was handed his first start, perhaps surprisingly, at the expense of last season’s top scorer Griffiths.
There was a blow for the home side, however, when winger Gary Mackay-Steven had to withdraw before kick-off with an injury.
Scotland winger James Forrest came in as replacement and he looked positive in the early stages as Celtic went looking for the opener.
It nearly came in the ninth minute when Ciftci was played in by Johansen following slack play in the Stjarnan defence but his low drive from 16 yards was blocked by the legs of Nielsen.
Celtic swarmed around the visitors’ penalty area and in the 21st minute the barrier of blue jerseys was breached again when a loose header from Charlie Mulgrew’s cross fell to Johansen but he dragged his shot from 12 yards wide of the target.
Moments later, a Stuart Armstrong drive from distance cleared the bar and the former Dundee United midfielder should have scored in the 29th minute when he was sent clear by Johansen but again, Nielsen came to the rescue with a save with his feet.
As the Icelandic champions retreated almost totally, Hoops fans groaned again when Ciftci headed an Emilio Izaguirre cross past the far post from eight yards.
The resolute but limited visitors, however, were caught sleeping in the 44th minute, allowing Celtic to take a short corner and when Johansen’s cross came to the back post, Boyata leapt high to header past Nielsen.
It was a more relaxed Parkhead side who came out for the second-half and with less than two minutes played Forrest presented Ciftci with another chance from a cross but again the Turkish striker headed over.
Striker Jappe Hansen and defender Hordur Arnason then came close enough with efforts for the visitors to suggest Stjarnan could be capable of snatching an away goal.
However, slim Icelandic hopes were ended in the 56th minute when the tireless Johansen broke through the Stjarnan defence to take Armstrong’s pass and knock the ball past Nielsen.
There was more frustration for Ciftci when he again headed over, this time from a Johansen cross, before he was replaced by Anthony Stokes.
Celtic had the chance to make it 3-0 following the award of a penalty when Johansen was felled in a packed box but Griffiths’ spot-kick was parried to safety by Nielsen, who made another great close-range save from Johansen, although both seem sure to be inconsequential in the final analysis.