Olivier Ntcham gave Celtic supporters a tantalising glimpse of why Brendan Rodgers has made him the club’s most expensive signing in a decade as he stamped his obvious quality over the comfortable completion of a Champions League second qualifying round victory over Linfield.
The £4.5 million capture from Manchester City marked his competitive debut for the Scottish champions by having a hand in the first three of their four goals as they overpowered the gutsy but overwhelmingly outclassed visitors.
Scott Sinclair’s double - the first after only four minutes - along with a Tom Rogic strike and substitute Stuart Armstrong’s stoppage time goal saw Brendan Rodgers’ men confirm a third qualifying round meeting with Rosenborg. They will go into the first leg of that tie against the Norwegian champions in Glasgow next week feeling they have hit their stride just about perfectly as they eye a precious place in the group stage of Europe’s elite tournament once more.
Celtic started the game with a pace and intensity to their play which left no-one in any doubt as to the level of their desire to complete the job as quickly and ruthlessly as possible.
The noisy travelling group of Linfield supporters, housed in a corner of the Lisbon Lions Stand, certainly had cause to fear the worst when the hosts made such an early breakthrough. It was to the considerable credit of David Healy’s side that they did not capitulate after Sinclair’s opener, although their success in preventing any further damage before half-time also owed a great deal to some woeful finishing from Celtic.
Rodgers made three changes to the side which won 2-0 in Belfast five days earlier. Erik Sviatchenko paid the price for his ropy display at Windsor Park, relegated to the bench as the Celtic boss deployed a back three with skipper Scott Brown just in front of them. Armstrong, whose future remains uncertain amid painfully protracted contract negotiations, was also dropped as Ntcham lined up in central midfield alongside Callum McGregor. Moussa Dembele replaced the injured Leigh Griffiths up front in an unusual 3-1-2-3-1 formation which allowed Celtic to operate with speed, width and power. With Ntcham immediately prominent, their flying start reaped a rapid reward with the opener.
Sinclair cut in from the left to feed Ntcham on the corner of the penalty area and his firm side-footed shot rebounded off Linfield defender Mark Haughey, completely wrong-footing veteran ‘keeper Roy Carroll to present Sinclair with a fairly routine close range finish.
It felt like the cue for a deluge of goals from Celtic but although they maintained a one-way flow of traffic towards Carroll’s goal, they were unable to add to their tally before the break.
Dembele, seeking to reassert his status as number one front man in the absence of Griffiths, should have done better than miscue from close range after being picked out by Kieran Tierney’s cross.
The 21-year-old Frenchman was left frustrated again when his close range header from a Sinclair corner was well saved by Carroll. Linfield were being hemmed into their own half and were grateful for Celtic’s profligacy at this stage.
Tom Rogic guided a shot narrowly wide after some sublime footwork had created the opening. The Australian then set up a decent chance for Sinclair who clipped his shot wide. Whenever Linfield did manage to forage their way into the Celtic half, they were caught on the counter attack. They should have been punished on one such occasion but Dembele, with only Carroll to beat, shanked his shot wide.
The pattern of play was repetitive and must have been draining for the Linfield players who were straining every sinew in their efforts to keep Celtic at bay. There was another reprieve for them on the stroke of half-time when Rogic contrived to miss the simplest of chances, shooting wide of Carroll’s right hand post from around eight yards.
There was no let-up from Celtic after the break and Linfield’s resistance was broken again less than two minutes into the second half. Ntcham slipped a pass to Rogic on the edge of the penalty area and this time his left foot shot beat Carroll low to the keeper’s right and nestled in the corner.
Linfield were suddenly facing up to the prospect of a heavy beating once again when Sinclair made it 3-0 in the 54th minute. The winger played a sharp one-two with Ntcham, getting the break of the ball before spearing a fine finish beyond the helpless Carroll.
As they were at Windsor Park, Linfield were indebted to Carroll for keeping the score down. The 39-year-old made a string of outstanding saves in the closing stages, keeping out effort from Sinclair, Jonny Hayes, Armstrong and Tierney before he was finally beaten again in the second minute of stoppage time by Armstrong’s smart left foot finish.