Celtic showed just how much they have progressed since Stevenage sneaked a 2-0 win in Hertfordshire.
With the team now showing the results for all the early season promise, it was going to be a tough match for Stevenage to get anything from - and indeed, Stalybridge turned them over in more convincing fashion than the visitors had their first leg win.
McNeil was making his first start for some time, and he too looked a different player than the one who had failed to impress at Stevenage. Partnered with Turley, the pair harassed their way through the 'Boro back line all afternoon.
Celtic put the pressure on immediately from the kick off, and pressed Stevenage onto the back foot. Almost immediately, McNeil had won a corner, which Peacock put in, though Stevenage would cope well with all of Celtic's corners, and the first was no exception, cleared by Sturgess, who was to prove to be Stevenage's most able player.
Celtic came right back at the visitors, and Turley flicked the ball through to Pickford who found Parr unmarked steaming in at the back post. Somehow the midfield wonder man sliced his shot wide of the mark. Celtic are yet to score in the League before the half hour mark this season, and this particular bogey would continue to haunt us.
Turley twice received the ball at the edge of the Stevenage box. The first time, he fired in a vicious right foot shot that deflected off Sturgess, but still Wilkerson managed to get down to save it, the second he received the ball off Peacock, took it inside one and blasted net bound, missing the top of the crossbar by a fraction of an inch. Even Chris Perkins got in on the act, interchanging with McNeil and Pickford to get to the edge of the box, where his fierce drive was blocked by Fisher.
Stevenage regained some of the initiative in the first half, keeping possession and forcing Celtic to chase the ball as it pinged around the defence and midfield. Eventually, the ball was moved up field to Wormull, as Trott slid the ball through into the box. Batty raced off his line, and snatched the ball off Wormull's feet, just as he looked set to score. However, this was the extent of Stevenage's imagination, as they continued to be caught offside and Beesley and Woods commanded the penalty box. Illman tried a speculative shot from distance, which went well wide, and Wormull saw Woods intercept his pile driver before Batty could be troubled.
Fisher received a yellow card when he crashed into Parr on the half way line, a full second after Parr had laid the ball off. He came in with his studs showing, and his leg high, and was lucky not to get a straight red.
When Wormull did find himself without pressure from a defender, he was unable to direct Goodliffe's cross anywhere other than right at Batty, who saved comfortably. And when he was put under pressure, his shooting was woeful, at one point missing by a good twenty yards.
Celtic never really felt threatened in the first 80 minutes, and even Wood got up-field to flick a shot from the edge of the box. Wilkerson performed superbly, tipping the shot onto the bar and Sturgess whipped it clear before McNeil could turn it back in. Parr almost broke the half hour duck after McNeil had won a corner, and Peacock swung it in, only for Parr to head over the bar.
Peacock, Parr, Pickford and Wood, had an outstanding game in the centre of the park, creating just about everything that Celtic did. Wood's vision was inspired at times, and Pickford and Parr's workhorse performance meant that neither of them stopped running (except when fouled!) all game. And Peacock's crosses and skill on both sides of the field flummoxed the Stevenage team completely. From just this performance, anybody would have said that the two team's positions in the tables were reversed.
As usual, Peacock jinked inside a couple of times to get space off for his curling shots. His first two efforts both missed the target, but he was not going to give up. When he got a third chance, it was on target, and it took a flying leap from Wilkerson to deny him. Sturgess and Wilkerson kept the scores at nought apiece in the first half, blocking, catching and saving everything that this tenacious Celtic side could produce, and it looked for a second as though Stevenage would get an underserved half time lead, when Illman broke the offside trap, and crossed the ball in for Williams to blaze past the opposite post.
Celtic sprang back into life in the second half, determined not to let their first half impetus fade. Wood was obviously feeling unwell as he found himself having a second shot of the day! This one hooked clear by Fisher as it looked to sneak in at the left hand post.
Still Celtic attacked, with Turley feeding Pickford with a clever back heel, and allowing Peacock to get into his favoured position for shooting, and he did just that, curling it into the top corner. Wilkerson made the ground well and plucked the goal-in-waiting out of the air. A long punt up-field by Wilkerson set out Stevenage's style of second half play. Illman latched onto the ball and drove it at the Celtic net, but Batty was up to it.
McNeil was put through by Parr, but Wilkerson pushed him wide. Cleverly McNeil lobbed the ball back into six yard box for Turley to nod into the back of the net, but Sturgess was there to mop up and hook the ball clear.
Stevenage won a couple of corners in quick succession as first Woods blocked for a corner, which McNeil cleared, then Beesley put it out, which Batty punched clear, hurting his hamstring in the process, but he still had the spring to tip Williams close range header off Wormull's cross around the post. This corner Woods cleared, but only as far as Wormull, who knocked it back in for Williams. Batty was prepared, and well placed for Williams' header.
Stevenage have a big problem on the hour mark with leaking goals, and this game would be no exception. Almost to the minute of the hour, Peacock found himself unmarked near the box. Whether Wilkerson was expecting another curling ball, or had just forgotten where his net was, when Peacock fired the ball in low, and to the left, instead of the right, Wilkerson stood motionless and watched the ball trundle into the back of the net. It took Peacock a couple of heartbeats to realise that it had gone in, mistaking Wilkerson's inaction for a miss, but celebrate he did!
Celtic then went looking for a second, and a fierce drive from Turley was well saved by Wilkerson, and mopped up by Sturgess.
Stevenage ran out of inspiration completely, and resorted to hoofing the ball up field in the hope that Illman, Wormull or Williams could run onto it. Though Wormull did connect with a long ball, his distance shot was wide once again.
McMahon received a silly yellow card for arguing about a blatant foul from Trott on Pickford, which left the midfielder in need of treatment, showing signs of the lack of belief that was now pervading the Stevenage team. Williams, who had run himself into the ground chasing lost causes, was replaced by Midson, and when Fish had to replace Batty in the Celtic nets during a corner, Midson almost made his mark immediately, heading Wormull's cross powerfully towards goal from the edge of the box. Fish who had been on for barely a minute responded brilliantly, and probably saved the game, when he tipped the ball over the bar for a corner which Stevenage wasted.
But Stevenage were pressing Celtic as the last 10 was entered. However it is some time since the script read "Last 10 minutes, Concede Equaliser", and it would come to nothing. And when McMahon went in far too hard on Pickford, from behind, with no ball, Stevenage's misery was complete, as McMahon was dismissed for a second yellow, compounding Stevenage's injury worries with a suspension. It took until full time before Pickford was able to continue, so the referee added 10 minutes of stoppages.
Celtic used the extra time, and the extra man to great advantage, easing the pressure that Stevenage had built on them, and in turn applying some on the visitors. McNeil danced through the defence, interchanged with Pickford and got to the by-line. With all the defenders congregating around him like a game of school yard football, McNeil squeezed the ball between the lot of them right into the path of Pickford who passed the ball into the net, getting sweet revenge for the quick free kick that had won Stevenage the game in the reverse leg.
And though Wormull managed to miss another shot before the final whistle, the final act of the game fell justly to Richard Peacock, who achieved his favoured position, but whipped his shot over the bar.
All in all, a masterful performance by Celtic, who have come on in leaps and bounds since the start of the season, especially defensively. They are now organised at the back, creative in the middle and slightly deadly at the front. Exactly what the Conference ordered.