Just as Celtic Park was poised to celebrate a hard-fought and at times stylish 3-1 victory over Malmo, one that seemed to ensure their return to the Champions League group stage, the winger who had been on loan at Celtic last season, Jo Inge Berget, rattled in a goal that made the score 3-2 and hands the momentum to the Swedish champions with two away goals ahead of the second leg next Tuesday. The stadium, which had been raucous from the kick-off, was stunned into silence.
Inspired by the soaring atmosphere before kick-off, Celtic had raced into a two-goal lead after just 10 minutes courtesy of Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton.
With captain Scott Brown rampant in midfield and Stuart Armstrong and James Forrest speeding down either flank, it looked then as if Celtic could kill off this play-off tie in the first half of the first leg.
Berget’s fantastic volley seven minutes into the second half altered that view. Griffiths’ second tipped the balance back in Celtic’s favour but Berget’s late, late second did the same for Malmo.
Celtic manager Ronny Deila now has defensive concerns to address before the return in Sweden, when the focus might otherwise have been on his side’s attacking vim.
The roar when the teams emerged from the tunnel, the Champions League anthem blaring, should have left no Celtic player in doubt as to what this competition means to this stadium. Judging by the nervous manner in which they started, the visiting Malmo team certainly understood.
Playing with speed and intensity, Celtic went straight at the Swedish champions and the vibrancy threatened to overwhelm Malmo. As it was, Celtic were two up before the visiting side could settle.
Deila had calls to make on his personnel. He plumped for Griffiths at centre-forward ahead of Nadir Ciftci and the decision was validated as soon as the third minute.
After Armstrong had made a sprightly burst down the Celtic left, he fed Stefan Johansen, who was as swift as Armstrong in his thinking in delivering a cute pass to Griffiths 12 yards out. So early in the game, in such tumult, Griffiths could have panicked, but he retained composure to bend the ball around Malmo keeper Johan Wiland and in.
Celtic were up and running. Seven minutes later, Armstrong was away on another left-wing foray. He won a corner – taken by Johansen – and Bitton met it on the run six yards out. His downward header was a simple act in a dramatic beginning.
Just two minutes later, with Malmo gasping, Johansen should have made it 3-0 from a Griffiths pass but his finish was weak. Another home goal then could have sealed the qualifier. Brown and Bitton had a firm grip of the centre circle and Forrest was as menacing on the right as Armstrong on the left.
But rather than 3-0, instead Malmo played their way back into the contest and reached half-time just two down. They must have been thankful.
Going forward, they also had a measure of success. Profiting from some sloppy midfield and defensive passing, Malmo forced some anxious moments in the Celtic area and, in the 23rd minute, keeper Craig Gordon had to be sharp to his left to tip away a goalbound effort from Vladimir Rodic.
That warning meant Deila’s message at the interval was twofold: keep attacking aggressively but ensure there was no breakaway goal that would give Malmo hope for the second leg.
The 52nd minute saw a bit of both. From a corner taken by Armstrong, Malmo broke. Johansen and Emilio Izaguirre had chances to clear but the ball bounced around. Eventually Brown headed it, 40 yards from Gordon. Izaguirre hesitated, and Magnus Eikrem took possession. The Malmo forward was on his right and sent in a deep cross. No one in green could meet it but to Celtic Park’s audible dismay Berget did. His volley was unstoppable and screeched past Gordon. Suddenly it was a different night altogether.
Or so it seemed. Ten worried minutes passed, then Mikael Lustig threw in a cross from the right. The awkward bounce caused defender Anton Tinnerholm difficulties, the ball flying up from his forehead. Lurking, Griffiths leapt over Tinnerholm to head into the far corner. Celtic had restored their advantage but would not maintain it.
Man of the match Brown.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee F Brych (Germany).