Celtic steered a clear passage towards the next phase of Champions League qualifying as they marked Brendan Rodgers’ return to Northern Ireland by taking firm command of their opening tie against Linfield.
First-half goals from Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic, pictured inset, gave the Scottish champions a comfortable first-leg lead on an evening marred by missile-throwing from home supporters directed primarily at Leigh Griffiths.
Around 300 Celtic fans found their way into Windsor Park, despite the club’s decision not to take up an allocation of tickets for a fixture which had raised security concerns from the moment the second qualifying round draw was made.
On the pitch, Rodgers’ players did exactly what was required of them and should now complete the job with minimal difficulty in the second leg at Celtic Park on Wednesday.
Celtic’s superiority was as pronounced as it was unsurprising from the opening moments. This quickly looked like an exercise in damage limitation for David Healy’s players as the visitors dominated possession and territory with some ease.
Scott Brown directed operations with the kind of authority which has become the trademark of his re-energised performances over the past 12 months. The Celtic skipper was also the prime target for the home support’s jeers which, as ever, he seemed to relish.
He was fortunate, however, to escape with only the concession of a free-kick for a forceful foul on Stephen Lowry which saw Linfield’s veteran goalkeeper Roy Carroll protest loudly to the match
officials that the scissors movement of the challenge merited far more severe punishment.
Carroll soon had other matters to occupy his thoughts, however, and the 39-year-old former Manchester United man would have been dismayed at the manner in which Celtic’s first goal was conceded in the 17th minute.
Linfield’s defence were caught flat-footed when Jozo Simunovic’s header from a Griffiths corner broke to James Forrest. The winger slung the ball back into the six-yard box where a tame header from Sinclair drifted beyond Carroll’s left hand into the corner of the net.
Celtic doubled their lead from another corner five minutes later, but this time there was top quality to the set piece which left the home side helpless. Griffiths delivered again from the left, picking out Rogic, whose sweet first-time left-foot shot flew wide of Carroll’s despairing right hand.
Griffiths turned to face the Linfield fans in the North Stand to celebrate his part in the goal and what appeared to be a bottle of juice was thrown in his direction, the first of the incidents likely to have attracted the attention of the Uefa
Mark Haughey had a good chance to provide a response for Linfield as they made a rare attacking break through Chris Casement, but the big defender blazed his shot over.
Celtic were soon back in control and only the excellent reflexes of Carroll prevented them adding to their tally before half-time as he made two fine saves, denying Sinclair on both occasions.
Linfield made a spirited start to the second half in a bid to reclaim some kind of foothold in the tie, but the wind was taken out of their sails by what appeared a serious injury suffered by Matthew Clarke, who was taken off on a stretcher after a lengthy stoppage in play.
Griffiths was a target for another section of the Linfield support, this time in a corner of the South Stand, as bottles and coins were thrown at him as he lined up another set piece. Astonishingly, the Spanish referee Alejandro Hernandez booked the Celtic striker for delaying the kick for too long when he picked one of the bottles up to show it to the official.
As the mood of the occasion threatened to turn darker, Linfield chairman Roy McGivern made his way down from the directors’ box to plead with the offending fans for order.
Rodgers removed Griffiths from harm’s way and the threat of a second caution by replacing him with Moussa Dembele, while Jonny Hayes made his competitive Celtic debut as he came on for Forrest. Hayes assumed the corner-taking duties and he
also had objects thrown at him.
Celtic looked to give themselves an even greater cushion ahead of next week’s return fixture but had to settle for what they had as Carroll made further saves from Stuart Armstrong, Mikael Lustig
and Dembele in the latter