ON a windless night in the east end of Glasgow Celtic enjoyed the breeze of a passage into the third qualifying round of the Champions League expected of them.
Scorers: Celtic - Ambrose (16), Samaras (70)
Celtic won 5-0 on aggregate
Referee: T Kinhofer (Ger)
The surprise of the evening was that so many home supporters turned up to watch a formality of a fixture; made so by the 3-0 win for Neil Lennon’s side away to Northern Irish side Cliftonville last week.
The ground was more than two-thirds full, and even if those in most hearty voice were predictably the visiting fans from across the Irish sea, the allure of continental fair that had appeared unattractive in its domestic-like in its predetermined nature was powerful. The power a strong Celtic requitred to show was minimal to rack up another half co-efficient point for the nation on their way to setting up a tie with Swedish champions Elfsborg, who will visit Celtic Park next Wednesday. The punters cheered Efe Ambrose’s double-backflip gymnastic goal celebration as much as the cheered his 16th-minute headed opener, and were roused to clapping by the familiar songs belted out by the Cliftonville fans but perhaps the real point of note for them came with the introduction of Gary Hooper for Anthony Stokes in 64 minutes.
The English striker, who desires a move to his homeland but doesn’t appear overly-enthused by the fact the club that wants him most – and are prepared to pay the £5m asking price – are the Championship-residing Queens Park Rangers, received a mixed reception on his arrival... which might be his last on-pitch entrance before his departure. Hooper certainly was cheered noisily by plenty of the support, but a number of jeers were audible too. His contribution in the three years since his £2.2m move from Scunthorpe has been outstanding, and he provides a source of goals that Celtic will struggle to fill when his inevitable departure is confirmed. The saga has become so protracted that his service is in danger of being clouded.
Hooper bounded about with earnest in his short run-out last night in an encounter that also witnessed the first Celtic Patrk bow for Amido Balde, who replaced james Forrest for the final quarter of an hour. Balde, Stokes and Georgios Samaras may find they are required to do some serious heavy-lifting in the goals-accumulation stakes in Celtic’s world post-Hooper, who is reputedly hanging out hope that Norwich City will reignite their interest in a player who they failed to capture with a £5.5m bid in January.
Samaras showed that he appears in the mood for continuing his happy knack of scoting goals in Europe – he netted against every side Celtic played on their way to the last 16 of the Champions League last season, only drawing a blank at that stage against Juventus – with a fine header from a deep Kris Commons cross from the left.
That goal came at a juncture when a lull had allowed the Northern Irish champions to ponder the possibility of coming away with a draw from Celtic Park, the visitors causing a couple of scares as their opponents began to ease up.
Of course, there had never been any dangetr of a shock scoreline from a cure flick from Mikael Lustig set up Stokes to loft the ball across for Ambrose to snap his neck muscles and bury the ball high into the net. Celtic kept up the pressure from that point and Commons, with his usual chincanery, and Forrest, ensured a plentiful supply of chances for Stokes and Samaras. All four men would have finished the encounter cursing that they could not provide the touch to ensure that Celtic set themselves up for next midweek with the 11-1 aggregate scoreline with which Elfsborg readied themselves for their assignment in Glasgow. Forrest admitted afterwards that he hand his team-mates could have scored “seven or eight” on the night.
There was a settled look to Lennon’s selection with predictably ten changes from the side which secured a 2-1 friendly win over Brentford at the weekend. Kelvin Wilson partnered Ambrose in the centre of Celtic’s defence with his future being cast in to a degree of doubt by his manager’s initial reaction that the £1.3m bid received from Nottingham Forest for the player “wasn’t nearly enough”.
Such distractions are unwelcome as Celtic gear up for a tie which will entirely shape their season. Should the Swedes, most likely Mo Bangura and all, be overcome Celtic will be guaranteed European football until Christmas, with victory ensuring they will at least claim a place in the Europa League group stages.
At full-time, many Celtic players gave teir shirts to their Irish opponents without demanding a swap. It was all so serene and friendly. Lennon and his players will know that this is not how it will be from this point on.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Wilson, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Forrest (Balde 76), Kayal (Rogic 65), Brown, Commons, Samaras, Stokes (Hooper 65). Subs Not Used: Zaluska, Watt, Mouyokolo, McGregor.
Cliftonville: Devlin, Cosgrove (O’Carroll 76), Marc Smyth, McGovern, Seydak, Caldwell (Curran 58), Catney, McMullan, Johnston, Garrett, Boyce (Gormley 85). Subs Not Used: Brown, Ronan Scannell, McNeill, Martin Donnelly.