THE lead that Celtic will take into the second leg of their Europa League last 32 tie against Zenit St Petersburg in the Krestovsky Stadium on Thursday evening may well be slender and offer them no guarantee of progressing.
Yet, after arguably their finest performance of the entire season, better even than their away win over Anderlecht in the Champions League group stages away back in September, they will travel to Russia next week in expectation not hope.
Perhaps their only failing against their expensively-assembled and highly-fancied rivals, who were rightly installed as favourites before this double header got underway, was their inability to convert the many scoring chances they created.
The Scottish champions finally got the goal their play merited when Callum McGregor chested down a Charly Musonda cross and drilled a shot into the net off the underside of the crossbar with just 12 minutes of regulation time remaining. It would have been an injustice if the game had finished tied at the end of 90 one-sided minutes such was their dominance.
Brendan Rodgers’s men played with pace, invention and physicality from the kick-off to the final whistle. At times, they were a delight to watch. Perhaps the Northern Irishman has been right to insist that his charges attempt to play football against continental opposition. His team didn’t just win, they won with style.
It was a remarkable showing and result given the first team regulars, Dedryck Boyata, Craig Gordon, Leigh Griffiths and Tom Rogic among them, who were missing. The clean sheet they kept comfortably will help their cause no end. If they can sharpen up in attack then a famous triumph and a place in the last 16 of this competition awaits.
Defensively, there had been concerns about Celtic. They had gifted Partick Thistle two soft goals at home five days earlier so how would they fare against Zenit? They were expected by the pessimists among their support to be torn asunder at the back.
Rodgers, as anticipated, kept faith with Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer in the heart of a four man backline that also comprised Mikael Lustig and Kieran Tierney. They acquitted themselves superbly. Having Scott Brown stationed just in front of them in a deep-lying role certainly aided their cause.
Opponents of such quality were always going to have their opportunities during the course of the 90 minutes. But Celtic retained possession to such a degree that those were limited. Indeed, Dorus de Vries only had one save of note to make all evening.
The Dutchman, whose only previous experience of European football had come in the harrowing 7- defeat to Barcelona in the Nou Camp in the Champions League last season, denied Anton Zabolotny brilliantly in the 14th minute. The keeper displayed great composure under pressure throughout proceedings. His distribution was flawless.
Celtic made a bright start and continued in that vein. Olivier Ntcham, operating just in front of his captain Brown, quickly took control in the all-important central midfield area, and James Forrest, Callum McGregor and Eboue Kouassi alongside him were just as influential.
Leandro Paredes, the Argentinian who cost Zenti a cool £20 million during the summer, was the most expensive player on the park. But he was starved of possession and larely anonymous as a result. He was eclipsed by those he came up against.
Kieran Tierney, the left back, was certainly inspired. He found himself up against Igor Smolnikov, the seasoned Russia right back, but left his adversary for dead repeatedly with his speed and skill.
Moussa Dembele, playing as the lone striker, laid the ball off deftly for Ntcham just outside the Zenit area in the eighth minute, but his countryman curled his attempt wide. That was to set the tone for much of the evening. McGregor shot straight at goalkeeper Andrei Lunev not long afterwards.
Forrest and McGregor combined to devastating effect down the right flank on the half hour mark leaving Miha Mevlja in their wake and the latter squared the ball across the front of goal. There was, though, nobody in the six yard box to convert. A collective groan went around the stadium. Would they come to rue their lack of ruthlessness in the final third?
But Celtic continued to control proceedings in the second half and Zenit manager Roberto Mancini grew increasingly frustrated on the touchline. He made a double substitution in the 62nd minute, bringing on Sebastian Driussi for Daler Kuzyaev and Matias Kranevitter for Emiliano Rigoni up front. His changes, though, were to no avail.
Charly Musonda, however, provided the spark after replacing Kouassi in the 73rd minute. The Belgian, who joined on an 18 month loan deal from Chelsea last month, received the ball from Dembele just five minutes after taking to the field and supplied McGregor who was lurking in space just in front of the Zenit goal.
Celtic: De Vries, Lustig, Ajer, Simunovic, Tierney, Brown, Ntcham, Forrest, McGregor, Louassi (Musonda, 73), Dembele (Edouard, 84).
Substitutes not used: Bain, Hendry, Sinclair, Rogic, Edouard, Miller.
Zenit St Petersburg: Lunev, Mevlja, Mammana, Criscito, Smolnikov, Erokhin, Kuzyaev (Kranevitter, 62), Paredes, Rigoni (Driussi, 62), Kokorin, Zabolotny.
Substitutes not used: Lodygin, Teretyev, Poloz, Zhirkov, Ivanovic.
Referee: Damir Skomina (SVN).