A Callum McGregor goal after 78 minutes finally broke the Russian resistance of Zenit St Petersburg to hand Celtic a 1-0 victory in their Europa League tie. The Hoops now have a slender lead in the Europa League last 32 tie as reported by BBC Sport.
Celtic’s narrow win hands them advantage over Zenit
Celtic XI: De Vries, Lustig, Simunovic, Ajer, Forrest, Brown, Kouassi, Tierney, Ntcham, McGregor, Dembele. (3-4-2-1)
Zenit XI: Lunev, Smolnikov, Mevlja, Mammana, Criscito, Paredes, Kuzyaev, Yerokhin, Rigoni, Kokorin, Zabolotny. (4-3-3)
Thursday night’s encounter between Scottish champions Celtic and Russian side Zenit St Petersburg was a highly anticipated match. Many expected Zenit, as the top scorers in the Europa League group stages, to run riot in Glasgow with Celtic’s dodgy defence that shipped a total of twelve goals in two matches against PSG in the Champions League.
However, the Zenit side were lacking a real sharpness as this was their first game back from their winter break. Despite having played eight friendly matches, nothing had clearly prepared them for the cauldron of Celtic Park.
The Scots looked hungry right from the first whistle. Meanwhile, as the game went on, the Russians slowly tired and eventually gave in.
Celtic set the tone for the half early on with some simple passes to retain possession. Their early patience was nearly rewarded when an Oliver Ntcham shot flashed just past the post after some great pressing high up the pitch.
Brendan Rodgers’ tactic of the high press again started to yield results with McGregor winning the ball on the edge of the Zenit box but could only pick out a diving Andrey Lunev.
Just after, Zenit created their one and only real chance of the match. Flying left-back Domenico Criscito delivered a great low ball across the area but Anton Zabolotyn’s side foot touch was well blocked by Dorus de Vries.
The Dutch ‘keeper was fairly quiet after that and his team came so close to opening the scoring midway through the half. It was McGregor again, a constant thorn in the side of Zenit, who linked up well with James Forrest. The midfielder then drove in a terrific ball but neither Moussa Dembele or wing-back Kieran Tierney gambled in the box.
Celtic’s Tierney and Forrest continue to exploit the St. Petersburg side down the flanks but a dominant first half from the Scots was just missing that vital goal.
The interval provided a much-needed rest for Zenit, who were being overrun by the midfielder of Ntcham and captain Scott Brown.
Celtic continued to dominate the ball for large parts and kept up their high press which unnerved the opposition so well in the first half.
The side lead by Roberto Mancini struggled to create chances all game but their best hope looked to be from a set piece. Emiliano Rigoni, the top scorer in the competition, was showing off his delivery rather than his goals in this game. The wide man was consistently whipping in some great crosses which only needed touch to fly into the net.
Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t to be but the set pieces from Zenit were considerably better than their Scottish counterparts, something Rodgers will look to improve.
As the second half minutes ticked away, the Celtic support got louder and louder as they willed their team on. Eboue Kouassi, making his first Europa League start, tested the ‘keeper with a stinging effort. A great ball by Tierney again picked out Kouassi in an attacking position but the Ivorian’s pass was just to heavy as McGregor ran through.
Along with just about every Celtic player, Kouassi put in a great display, especially for such a young man, but he was eventually replaced with Rodgers looking to add that little extra quality in Chelsea loanee Charly Musonda.
As Musonda entered the fray, his ability became clear. The young attacker danced past the Zenit tackles and set Ntcham away. The midfielder found his French counterpart Dembele and drove at the defence and cut inside to Musonda. The young Belgian then flicked a ball over to the waiting McGregor, who kept his composure and fired home just under the crossbar. Celtic Park erupted. After long waves of pressure, the hosts finally got their goal to the relief of the Celtic fans.
Mancini’s men pushed on looking for an equaliser but struggled to create any real openings. Star striker Aleksandr Kokorin failed to make any impact along with fellow sub Sebastian Driussi.
Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer, who looked a crooked pairing in the last game, certainly matured to show a great display. A mark of centre-back Simunovic’s performance was his 100% pass completion rate. Right-back Mikael Lustig, who has struggled recently, kept things simple and ensured. Lustig was forced to take out the attacking Driussi as he flew forward but kept strong otherwise.
Odsonne Edouard came on to replace Dembele late on. The striker had again drawn a bank in front of goal, but his strong hold-up play was excellent and gave the Hoops a platform to attack.
With Zenit a tired team, they will perhaps look at the 1-0 defeat as their losses well limited. Celtic couldn’t quite grab the second goal so the last 32 tie is by no means over, but Rodgers will be delighted. His side grabbed their first non-qualifying European home win in three years and are very much in the driving seat for next week’s decider in St Petersburg.