CELTIC’S first step in a lengthened journey they hope will lead them to a second successive Champions League group stage campaign was anything but faltering as they firmly seized the initiative in a second qualifying round tie which held genuine concerns for Neil Lennon.
Scorers: Celtic - Lustig (25), Samaras (31), Forrest (84)
He needn’t have worried. First-half goals from Mikael Lustig and Georgios Samaras made his first working trip to his homeland as Celtic manager as comfortable and enjoyable as he could have wished for. A late strike from James Forrest added further gloss to a first leg victory over a gutsy but outclassed Cliftonville outfit.
It leaves next Tuesday’s return fixture at Celtic Park little more than a formality as Lennon’s men prepare themselves for sterner tests in the remaining two qualifying rounds they must negotiate in Europe’s elite tournament this season.
On a gloriously sunny evening in Belfast, there was an unapologetically carnival feel to the occasion as far as the home fans were concerned. They lined the tight streets around Solitude, adorned in the colours of both clubs as they greeted the Celtic team bus and its police escort as the Scottish champions arrived around 90 minutes before kick-off. The temporary seating installed on a side of the ground where there is normally just grass banking raised the capacity for the biggest occasion in Cliftonville’s 134-year history.
Lennon had been at pains in the build-up to warn just how seriously his players must treat the challenge posed by opponents who won the Irish League at a canter last season. For a tie he described as “fraught with anxiety”, Lennon’s team selection underlined the level of his concern at the potential hazard in front of them. He named the strongest and most experienced starting XI available to him, summer signing Amido Balde having to settle for a place among the substitutes as Lennon opted for a front pairing of Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes.
Efe Ambrose, who only returned to training on Monday after an extended summer break due to his international commitments with Nigeria, was thrown straight into the heart of Celtic’s first competitive fixture of the season as he partnered Kelvin Wilson in central defence.
Cliftonville’s most significant threat was expected to be posed by their front pair of Liam Boyce and Joe Gormley who had scored 66 goals between them last season.
Boyce, who once had a spell with Werder Bremen, did not take long to make his presence felt as Cliftonville tried to get on the front foot right from the start.
Within 30 seconds of kick-off, he earned a free-kick in a dangerous position when his run was illegally halted by Scott Brown. Boyce took the set piece himself but was unable to test Fraser Forster.
Celtic’s response was rapid and so nearly delivered the early goal which would have settled Lennon’s nerves. Samaras surged through the middle and fed James Forrest on the left, the winger making the byeline before curling in a cross which Kris Commons headed against the crossbar from eight yards.
Samaras and Forrest linked up smartly again to carve out another opening, the latter this time deciding to cut inside and try a shot from the edge of the box which flew over the top.
Home goalkeeper Conor Devlin was forced into his first save of the evening in the eighth minute, comfortably holding a shot from Stokes after the Dubliner had played a clever one-two with Samaras.
In reversing the order of fixtures to have the home leg of the tie first, Cliftonville had hoped to keep it alive for the trip to Glasgow next week. The raucous home support, though, was deflated by Celtic’s two-goal burst in the space of six minutes midway through the first half which put the visitors firmly in the asendancy. The 25th-minute opener came from a corner conceded by Cliftonville captain George McMullan who narrowly avoided putting the ball through his own net as he cleared a cross from Forrest. It did not stay out of Devlin’s net for much longer, Commons sweeping the set piece over from the left and picking out the unmarked Lustig who powered home a near-post header.
Cliftonville tried to hit back immediately and Fraser Forster was forced into serious action for the first time, the Celtic goalkeeper showing good concentration as he got down to hold a snapshot from Boyce.
Celtic fully asserted their authority when they made it 2-0 with an excellent 31st-minute strike from Samaras.
A slick move involving Ambrose, Forrest and Commons stretched the home defence and Samaras showed smart footwork to turn and smash a rising right-foot shot high beyond the helpless Devlin. It was the big Greek’s sixth goal in Celtic’s last seven away games in Europe, once again underlining his value to Lennon.
Celtic came close to adding a third before the interval, Commons desperately unfortunate to see a thunderous effort on the turn bounce back off the inside of Devlin’s left hand post.
To their credit, Cliftonville were not yet completely discouraged and they made a vibrant start to the second half.Lustig’s short pass back let in Stephen Garrett but the mdfielder could not beat Forster from close range.
There was more last-ditch defending for Celtic to do when Wilson bravely blocked Marc Smyth’s close-range shot, prompting Lennon to the edge of the touchline as he looked for his team to rediscover their earlier focus and intensity.
They duly responded, Devlin making an excellent save from a low Commons drive and then Stokes coming close with a powerful effort which struck the crossbar.
Celtic were not to be denied a third goal which was provided by Forrest with six minutes remaining, the winger ending a solo run with a firm low shot beyond Devlin.
Cliftonville: Devlin, McMullan, McGovern, Smyth, Scannell; Caldwell (Donnelly 73), Johnston, Catney, Garrett (Curran 78); Boyce; Gormley (O’Carroll 69). Subs not used: Brown, McNeill, Cosgrove, Seydak.
Celtic: Foster, Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson, Izaguirre; Forrest (McGeouch 86), Brown, Kayal, Commons (Rogic 80); Samaras (Watt 76), Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Balde, Irvine, Waters.