Celtic Rallies to Join AC Milan in Champions League Group Stage

Celtic came from behind to beat Shakter Karagandy 3-2 over two games and join AC Milan and 12 other former winners in the Champions League group stage.

James Forrest’s stoppage-time goal last night capped a 3-0 home victory in Glasgow as Celtic overturned a 2-0 deficit from the opener of the two-match playoff in Kazakhstan.

“This is the greatest night of football in my life,” Celtic manager Neil Lennon, who ran the length of the field to join the celebration after Forrest scored, told Sky Sports. “I have a huge feeling of relief and a huge feeling of pride.”

The victory took Celtic into the 32-team group stage of European soccer’s elite club competition for the second straight season, alongside teams including defending champion Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Kevin-Prince Boateng scored twice as AC Milan, a seven-time European Cup winner, beat PSV Eindhoven 3-0 for a 4-1 series victory. Zenit St. Petersburg, Viktoria Plzen and Real Sociedad also won in the final round of playoff games to move into the group stage. The 10 playoff winners join 22 automatic qualifiers in today’s draw in Monaco.

The victory for 1967 European champion Celtic denied Shakter the chance to become the first team from Kazakhstan to qualify for the group stage, where teams are guaranteed a minimum of 8.6 million euros ($11.5 million) in payments from tournament organizer UEFA.

Shakter goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin made three early saves against Mikael Lustig, Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons to keep the visitors in front. Celtic broke through in first-half stoppage time as Commons scored with a swerving left-foot shot from outside the area.

Celtic’s Comeback

The Scottish champion tied the series 2-2 three minutes into the second half on Giorgos Samaras’s goal and almost took the lead in the 61st minute as Stokes’s volley hit the crossbar.

Shakter was twice denied moments later when Nikola Vasiljevic’s shot was cleared off the line by Adam Matthews and Sergei Khizhnickenko hit the bar.

Celtic completed its comeback in stoppage time as Stokes weaved through three defenders in the area and cut the ball back for Forrest, who drilled a shot into the roof of the net.

“It’s going to go down as one of the greatest nights at Celtic Park,” Commons told Celtic’s website. “We needed to score three goals and keep them out, and we did it the way we had dreamt about it.”

Milan Advances

AC Milan took the lead in the ninth minute at the San Siro in Italy as Boateng sent a shot from outside the penalty area into the lower left corner. Mario Balotelli made it 2-0 in the 55th minute and Boateng closed the scoring with 13 minutes left.

Zenit St. Petersburg beat Pacos Ferreira 4-2 in Russia to reach the group stage for a fourth time. Danny scored two goals, while Aleksandr Bukharov and Andrey Arshavin had one each, as Zenit won 8-3 on aggregate.

Viktoria Plzen booked its second trip to the group stage as Stanislav Tecl’s third-minute goal secured a 1-0 win at Maribor and a 4-1 series victory. Carlos Vela scored twice as Real Sociedad advanced with its second straight 2-0 win against Lyon.

The 32 teams will be split into four seeding pots for today’s draw, using club’s co-efficients based on their European results from the past five years and national team co-efficients. One team from each of the pots will be drawn to form the eight groups of four, with teams from the same country unable to be pooled together.

Pot 1: Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Chelsea, Real Madrid,
Manchester United, Arsenal, Porto, Benfica.

Pot 2: Atletico Madrid, Shaktar Donetsk, AC Milan, Schalke,
Marseille, CSKA Moscow, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus.

Pot 3: Manchester City, Zenit St. Petersburg, Ajax, Borussia
Dortmund, Basel, Olympiacos, Galatasarray, Bayer Leverkusen.

Pot 4: Copenhagen, Napoli, Anderlecht, Celtic, Steaua Bucharest,
Viktoria Plzen, Real Sociedad, Austria Vienna.
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