Celtic will also be boosted by the fact that, for the second leg, they will be able to host European football for the first time this season at Celtic Park, after they had been obliged to temporarily vacate their home to facilitate the Commonwealth Games.
Ronny Deila’s side got off to the best possible start last night when they took the lead after just six minutes, Callum McGregor on hand to capitalise on the rebound after Maribor keeper Jasmin Handovic could only parry Jo Inge Beret’s shot.
But the visitors cheaply surrendered their advantage just eight minutes later when a flat-footed defensive line was carved open by a Zelip Filipovic through ball which Damjan Bohar slipped past Craig Gordon.
Celtic should have been back in front before half-time but, in a bizarre incident, Virgil van Dijk’s close-range header from an Anthony Stokes corner was accidentally cleared off the line by his team-mate Stefan Johansen — the ball striking him in the face — with, for bad measure, the Norwegian also whistled up for offside.
Deila’s predecessor Neil Lennon had left Celtic Park feeling he had exhausted the challenges offered by the SPL and amid concerns that lack of investment in the team would hamper the club’s ability to progress, especially in Europe. Nine goals scored in Celtic’s opening two league games as against six conceded in the same number of fixtures in Europe would seem to prove his point.
But not even the keen-eyed Lennon could have predicted the freakish bounce of the ball which saw Celtic’s humiliating Champions League exit to Legia Warsaw overturned after an official at the Polish club made the costly administrative error — reckoned to be worth in the region of €15 million — which saw them field an ineligible player for the dying moments of the second leg of their qualifier, at a point in the game when the visitors were a whopping 6-1 up on aggregate, the tie clearly in the bag and Delia already painfully coming to terms with the meaning of his baptism of fire.
There was something undeniably poignant about Legia’s bid to guilt-trip Celtic into a re-match, co-owner Dariusz Mioduski clearly knowing his Hoops history — or, at least, having done diligent research on the subject — when he appealed to the Glasgow giants as follows: “Imagine Jock Stein and Billy McNeill deprived of the chance to achieve the biggest triumph in their career by an application form filled improperly by a club employee acting in good faith. Would any true legend of Celtic FC accept the qualification won despite the double defeat suffered on the pitch? I am strongly convinced that their legendary Celtic pride would not allow them to do that.”
Poignant, yes, but pointless too, of course — in so far as it was inevitable that it would be met with the same cold response as all those calls on France and even Fifa to do the right thing by little old Ireland after the ‘Hand of Gaul’ goal in Paris in 2009. (By the way, a little question for those supporters, many of whom are presumably Celtic fans too, still smarting about Trap’s team being “cheated” out of the 2010 World Cup: ever wondered what it felt like to be Egyptian when ourselves and Holland decided to turn a competitive game into a friendly at Italia 90?).
The defensive vulnerability their team showed against ordinary opposition in Slovenia should be a concern but, as Celtic supporters prepare for what they hope will be another of those special European nights in Paradise next week — all the more special indeed for suggesting there is indeed life after death — spare one final thought for Legia Warsaw whose reward for that convincing Champions League ‘win’ is a Europa League game tonight away to Aktobe of Kazakhstan.
MARIBOR: Handanovic, Stojanovic, Rajcevic, Suler, Viler, Vrsic (Mendy 72), Filipovic, Dervisevic (Mertelj 80), Bohar (Sallalich 78), Tavares, Ibraimi.
CELTIC: Gordon, Lustig, Denayer, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Johansen, Mulgrew, McGregor, Kayal (Biton 86), Berget (Ambrose 72), Stokes (Griffiths 80).
Ref: Pavel Kralovec (Czech Republic).