Boss Brendan Rodgers insists his Celtic side answered a big question about their mentality during a pulsating 5-2 win over Hapoel Be’er Sheva, which took the Parkhead club closer to the Champions League group stage.
The Scottish champions were cruising at the interval after hitman Leigh Griffiths struck with a header and a brilliant free-kick after attacking midfielder Tom Rogic opened the scoring in a thrilling play-off first leg at Parkhead.
However, two strikes in two minutes after the break from Brazilian striker Lucio Maranhao and captain Maor Melikson had the Israeli side back in the game.
But Celtic steadied, rallied and goals from substitute Moussa Dembele and skipper Scott Brown restored the home side’s three-goal advantage for the return game at the Turner stadium next Tuesday night.
Rodgers said: “It is a brilliant result for us. You would obviously prefer 3-0 but 5-2 really shows the level that the team played at in a European game where there is everything riding on it.
“We were excellent in the first half, we pressed them aggressively, created opportunities, scored three and maybe could have had more.
“We started the second half well, I was pleased, then we had a spell when we defended very poorly for 10-12 minutes and conceded two poor goals.
“We didn’t reduce the space, there was a little bit of inexperience, and it goes to 3-2 quickly again and then there is a question asked of you.
“Before the game I mentioned about periods when you come under pressure and it is having those check points in place to stay calm, get control of the game and look to shift the momentum of the game.
“At 3-2, to then go and win the game 5-2, really shows that mental strength of the players as well as the quality.
“They are nowhere near the finished article yet but they look a really exciting team which is full of character.”
Rodgers was happy with the way the Hoops fans reacted when Hapoel Be’er Sheva reduced the deficit to 3-2, saying: “I said before about the supporters being patient and allowing the players to play, especially in difficult moments in games and I have to say a massive thank you because I think they took a stride forward tonight in terms of understanding how we want to work”.
However, he reserved special praise for tireless midfielder Brown, 31, who has been at Parkhead for nine years.
The former Liverpool boss said: “I thought he was brilliant. He has become lean over the course of pre-season and I thought he looked powerful, I thought the team looked fit and powerful.
“Having worked in England, I look at him and think he could play in the Premier League in England. There is no question of that.
“But he loves it here, his heart is here and he wants to see out his career at Celtic.
“I thought he was outstanding with the ball, his goal after driving forward was a wonderful finish.
“But his dominance in the game – you see the importance of him playing in there and he was one of many great performers tonight.”
Hapoel Be’er Sheva boss Barak Bakhar described what he had seen as a “crazy night” and is not very hopeful of recovering the tie.
He said: “It is hard to analyse this kind of match.
“We started the match very badly, we didn’t play aggressively, but came back and were close to equalising but Celtic scored.
“We showed our qualities and we hope to do the unbelievable next week.
“We don’t have a big chance. It will be very hard.”