THE Whirlwind had not been scheduled until half-time. But Celtic didn’t wait for snooker player Jimmy White’s surprise guest appearance in front of the fans. Instead, they left scorch marks on the turf as they raced into a two-goal lead within ten minutes, their opener chalked up by a clearly in-the-mood Leigh Griffiths, who turns 25 today.
Sadly, Jo Inge Berget was also on fire, managing to make good his pre-match vow to repeat what he did on his home debut for Celtic while on loan last season by scoring twice. This he did, the second coming at the end of an agonising period of five minutes of time added on. He might have dealt Celtic the cruellest blow yet; worse than anything he managed while wearing the hoops in an undistinguished spell last year, those two goals against Dundee United aside.
Before Berget’s intervention, the night was set to be all about another two-goal hero who it felt had something to prove. Strangely for someone with such a prodigious scoring record, Griffiths does not seem to encourage trust. No wonder he celebrated his goals with such abandon last night.
Griffiths’ appearance did not seem as incongruous as ‘The Whirlwind’ White’s. But it was deemed a surprise given Nadir Ciftci’s apparent role as Celtic’s European specialist.
However, a distinct lack of goals is beginning to count against the Turk, who appeared as a second-half substitute. This is certainly the case as far as those in the stands are concerned. And there is evidence these doubts are now being shared by Ronny Deila. Despite pre-match suggestions he would stubbornly persist with Ciftci, this didn’t prove to be the case.
It didn’t take long for the majority inside Celtic Park to be glad of this; just two minutes and 35 seconds in fact, Griffiths clipping the ball into the net. The striker acknowledged the show of faith by the manager by making an elaborate display of pointing to him as he returned to the halfway line amid joyous scenes.
It was Griffiths’ fifth goal of another season where he seems to be continuing to answer whatever doubters are now left. He added another before the night was out, a looping header of the sort someone his size isn’t supposed to score. It means he now has 34 goals in 64 Celtic appearances. Not bad at all. Three of these have now come in Europe, an arena where it was feared he might come unstuck. These latest strikes are potentially vital since they mean next week’s trip to Sweden is not quite so perilous.
His entire 72-minute performance was an articulate riposte to those, Gordon Strachan included, who contend Griffiths cannot play the lone front-man role. Here he was excelling in this position at a level not to be scoffed at; on a Champions League night of all things.
And make no mistake, this was a Champions League night. In previous qualifying rounds they have been thankfully reluctant to blast out the theme tune we know so well. But, at the play-off stage, Uefa judge it now time to roll out the branded ephemera. They even produced a retro Champions League ball for the occasion, one that should now be sitting on a sideboard in Griffiths’ home considering he came so close to a hat-trick. Even when he wasn’t taking pot-shots at goal, he was proving a delightful menace as far as the hosts were concerned.
Nir Bitton had added a second with a deft header from Stefan Johansen’s corner after only nine minutes. Griffiths was credited with an assist by many, having kept the Malmö goalkeeper Johan Wiland occupied on the goal-line.
Malmö initially looked overawed. Perhaps the Champions League embellishments sought to enervate them, though this should not have been the case. After all, Malmö were in the group stage last season while Celtic took what they hoped would be a one-season sabbatical. Celtic and Malmö were both once European Cup finalists in the same decade. But that was in the Seventies, this is now.
The teams seemed poles apart in the opening half. Had Celtic gone in 4-0 up, it wouldn’t have seemed an injustice. But they didn’t. And they paid the price for over-elaborate play when they were so far in control it seemed like the second leg would be an after-thought.
The hard-working Berget scored a brilliantly executed strike seven minutes after half-time and then silenced Celtic Park by lashing a loose ball in at the death.
His intervention means nothing can be taken for granted ahead of next week. But it could be a lot worse for Celtic were it not for Griffiths, a player who continues to prove he can be relied upon.
Will Strachan take note?