- Griffiths strikes late leveller to rescue Celtic in Kazakhstan
- Logvinenko header on course to give Astana first-leg victory
- Celtic youngster O’Connell catches eye on European debut
- The Hoops have won just three of their last 20 away European games
- Astana are Kazakhstan Premier League champions and current leaders
LEIGH Griffiths rescued Celtic from a potentially damaging defeat in Kazakhstan as FC Astana were denied a first-leg win in the Champions League third qualifying round.
The striker netted for the second European tie in succession with a sizzling left-footed strike 12 minutes from time.
It was, however, their first and only shot on target on what was a largely frustrating evening for the Scottish champions in the Kazakh capital.
Yuri Logvinenko had headed home from a poorly-defended corner after 19 minutes for Astana, who also struck the top of the crossbar through Azat Nurgaliyev’s thunderous drive.
Celtic returned to the Astana Arena for the first time since their 2-0 defeat by Shakhter Karagandy in 2013 – the last time they reached the competition’s group phase.
But they will be confident of at least progressing to the play-off round this term after notching the all-important away goal ahead of the return leg at Celtic Park next Wednesday, August 3.
Not only did Hoops boss Brendan Rodgers have to contend with a six-hour flight and five different time zones but a defensive crisis too – with Kristoffer Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko injured and new signing Kolo Toure not registered in time.
But Rodgers will have been impressed by the composed display of 20-year-old Irishman Eoghan O’Connell, making his European debut alongside Efe Ambrose at the heart of the back four.
The visitors bossed possession on the artificial surface and attempted to play with purpose in the opening stages but Astana took every opportunity to spring forward themselves.
Indeed, the hosts capitalised on a set-piece to break the deadlock when defender Logvinenko got in front of Craig Gordon to steer home from Patrick Twumasi’s corner.
The buoyant Kazakh side continued to force a number of dead-ball situations and ask questions of the visitors’ patchwork backline.
Nurgaliyev’s innocuous attempted lob from close range was clawed away by a backpedalling Gordon after a sloppy Ambrose clearance.
Just as he did against Lincoln Red Imps last week, the impressive Patrick Roberts tried to inspire the Hoops with some penetrating runs but Celtic struggled to produce any kind of end product.
All the goal threat came from Astana in the first half and things almost got worse for Celtic when Junior Kabananga was left free at the back post but his powerful volley was kept out by Gordon.
The same pattern continued after the restart as Twumasi’s low 40-yard effort called Gordon into action before an excellent tackle from O’Connell – making only his seventh Celtic appearance – denied the hosts a clear run at goal.
Nurgaliyev was inches away from doubling the lead when his rasping 18-yard drive hit the woodwork on its way over, prior to the Kazakh’s withdrawal just after the hour mark.
When Celtic finally applied some pressure, Ambrose’s header deflected behind for a corner and Stuart Armstrong sent a daisycutter wide of the post.
Nir Bitton came on for the ineffective Moussa Dembele and James Forrest then replaced Armstrong as Rodgers opted for a change of shape.
There was, however, no apparent alteration in the emphasis, with the Hoops unable to carve out any clear-cut chances or test Astana’s keeper Nenad Eric, who effectively could have had the night off.
But the decisive moment arrived on 78 minutes when Roberts robbed the tentative Dmitri Shomko near the byline and cut the ball back to Griffiths.
The Scot, who scored in the 3-0 success over the Gibraltarian part-timers last week, took one touch to set himself before rifling home an unstoppable shot.
Although Celtic had improved, Astana continued to be the more expansive and dangerous attacking force, with full-backs Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney in particular having to be defensively sound.
In the dying embers of five additional minutes, Roger Canas should have punished haphazard Celtic marking with a header over from Twumasi’s free-kick.
However, the Hoops held out for a precious draw but there will be few positives for Rodgers to mull over when they complete their 6,000-mile round trip from central Asia.
He will undoubtedly be indebted to Griffiths – who produced the goods when it mattered just as he did so often last season, as Celtic avoided another European embarrassment on their travels after the shock loss in Gibraltar a fortnight ago.
FC Astana (4-2-3-1): Eric (c), Shitov, Logvinenko, Anicic, Shomko, Maksimovic, Canas, Beysebekov (Ibraimi 84′), Nurgaliyev (Muzhikov 62′), Twumasi, Kabananga (Despotovic 86′).
Subs bench: Mokin (GK), Tagybergen, Najaryan, Maliy.
Booked: Nurgaliyev (27’), Ibraimi (90+5′)
Goals: Logvinenko (19’)
Celtic (4-4-2): Gordon, Lustig, Ambrose, O’Connell, Tierney, Roberts, Brown (c), McGregor (Rogic 77′), Armstrong (Forrest 72′), Dembele (Bitton 62′), Griffiths.
Subs bench: Fasan (GK), Izaguirre, Janko, Ciftci.
Booked: Griffiths (75′), Brown (90+6′)
Goals: Griffiths (78′)
Referee: Paolo Silvio Mazzoleni (Italy)
Celtic boss Brendan Rodgers: “It was an outstanding result for us. We’re disappointed with the goal, it’s nothing new, but I think after that we showed wonderful mentality in the game to keep fighting. Second half we restricted them to not so many clear chances and we end up scoring a fantastic goal. It’s only half-time but it’s a very important result for us. We’re not getting too carried away. We’ve got another game against a very good side.”
Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths: “They scored from a set-piece, which was poor from our point of view, but we kept our head down and kept working hard and deserved our away goal. They did not create many clear-cut chances – they had a lot of corners, a lot of long throw-ins, but apart from that, Craig Gordon has not had much to do. I think next week we’ll definitely finish the game off.”