Sunday 4 December 2016

Celtic just about survive in Israel to squeak into Champions League group stage

Ronnie Esplin

Published 23/08/2016 | 22:15

Hapoel's Ben Bitton (L) tries to tackle Celtic's Scott Sinclair (C) during the UEFA Champions League group stages play-off football match between Celtic and Hapoel Beer Sheva at the Turner Stadium in the southern Israeli city of Beer Sheva on August 23, 2016.
The game is being played in the most southerly stadium in European competition history, UEFA confirmed. / AFP / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Hapoel's Ben Bitton (L) tries to tackle Celtic's Scott Sinclair (C) during the UEFA Champions League group stages play-off football match between Celtic and Hapoel Beer Sheva at the Turner Stadium in the southern Israeli city of Beer Sheva on August 23, 2016. The game is being played in the most southerly stadium in European competition history, UEFA confirmed. / AFP / GIL COHEN-MAGEN (Photo credit should read GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Celtic reached the Champions League group stage for the first time in three years, but only after an enormous scare in Israel.

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Brendan Rodgers' side were heavy favourites to see out the play-off second leg after their 5-2 victory at Parkhead last week, but were left sweating as they lost 2-0 to Hapoel Be'er Sheva at the Turner Stadium.

Substitute Ben Sahar headed the Israeli champions ahead in the 20th minute and the rattled Hoops were two down on 48 minutes when a mix-up between Saidy Janko and Gordon allowed Romania international Ovidiu Hoban the easiest of chances from a yard out, but the visitors held on for a 5-4 aggregate triumph.

The Scottish champions go into Thursday's group-stage draw breathing a huge sigh of relief, knowing they will earn more than £20million and receive a incalculable boost to prestige and status.

But they made their fans suffer, including the 150 or so who made the trip to Israel.

After two previous play-off defeats under previous boss Ronny Deila, the stage was set for Celtic success under the former Liverpool manager.

Rodgers brought right-back Mikael Lustig into the centre of defence at the expense of young Irishman Eoghan O'Connell, who dropped out altogether.

Midfielder Callum McGregor replaced Tom Rogic while skipper Scott Brown made a club-record 70th appearance in European competition.

Barak Bakhar's Hapoel, boosted by the return of Portugal defender Miguel Vitor, stormed forward from kick-off with Craig Gordon making an early save from Hoban's drive.

There was drama in the 14th minute when the Israeli side were awarded a penalty, Dutch referee Bas Nijhuis adjudging Janko to have tripped Ofir Davidzada just inside the box, but Gordon beat Maharan Radi's blasted spot-kick away.

Hapoel soon had to make a change when former Chelsea striker Sahar replaced Lucio Maranhao, who had suffered an earlier knock, and within moments the substitute leapt to head a Radi corner past Gordon to give the hosts renewed encouragement.

Celtic were disjointed and in some disarray, and Hapoel surged forward confidently for number two.

The Scottish champions were unconvincing in their rare forays.

Striker Leigh Griffiths sent a drive straight to David Goresh, before the Hapoel goalkeeper made an equally comfortable save from Scott Sinclair.

Hapoel captain Maor Melikson went off injured to be replaced by Maor Buzaglo but it made little difference to the home side's dominance, although Gordon was not too troubled before the interval which brought some much-needed respite for Celtic.

Rogic replaced James Forrest for the start of the second half but three minutes later there was bedlam inside the stadium when Janko appeared to knock the ball out of the hands of Gordon as he dealt with a Ben Bitton cross, leaving Hoban to tap into the empty net.

Celtic were rocking.

The traffic continued towards Gordon and he was fortunate that Sahar failed to connect properly with a volley from 10 yards.

French striker Moussa Dembele came on for the dejected Griffiths and moments later shaved the far post with a curling shot on a Celtic counter-attack.

In the 63rd minute Sinclair got the break of the ball six yards out but Goresh made a fine save before Dembele's shot on the follow-up was blocked by two home defenders.

But at the other end Hoban's spectacular scissors-kick escaped the far post before he had a long-range effort saved by the Scotland goalkeeper.

The home side probed down the right and left but ran out of ideas and then time - four minutes of which were added - leaving Celtic shocked but in the Champions League.

Press Association

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