ASTANA: Scottish title-holders Celtic are back in the group stage of the Champions League after a ‘mere’ 4-3 second-leg qualifying defeat in Astana saw them emerge 8-4 winners on aggregate.
The Hoops’ progress was never in doubt after their 5-0 thrashing of the Kazakh champions at Parkhead last week however there were some nervy moments for the Scottish champions in a pulsating encounter at the Astana Arena.
Celtic’s 19-year-old defender Kristoffer Ajer, in for injured Jozo Simunovic, deflected a shot from defender Dmitri Shomko past goalkeeper Craig Gordon in the 26th minute to give the Kazakh side the merest glimmer of hope, quashed, it appeared, eight minutes later when Hoops attacker Scott Sinclair curled in the equaliser.
Two goals in a minute at the start of the second-half from attackers Serikzhan Muzhikov and Patrick Twumasi brought the home side back to life and – when Ghanaian Twumasi grabbed his second – the visitors were on the ropes before late goals from Olivier Ntcham and Leigh Griffiths confirmed Brendan Rodgers side were into the group stages for the second-successive season.
Manager Brendan Rogers saud: “It’s mixed emotions because we didn’t defend well enough and our possession at times wasn’t good enough either.
“I said to the players (at half-time) we started the game very well. We wanted to control the tempo but we were too loose in our passing and our positioning, we weren’t compact enough when they had the ball. That didn’t allow us to press.
“I thought we were going to get through this campaign without the anxiety but that little period (at the start of the second half) they scored two quick goals. We were working on the side to plug gaps.
“I then have to give credit to the players because they were on the ropes for 15-20 minutes, but they regained their composure.”