THREE first half goals in a frenetic seven-minute spell ensured last week’s demeaning defeat in Gibraltar did not contribute to an incalculably damaging exit from European football for Celtic.
The rapid fire strikes from Mikael Lustig, Leigh Griffiths and the impressive Patrick Roberts wiped out the 1-0 reversal Brendan Rodgers suffered in his first competitive game in charge of the Scottish champions.
Celtic now progress to a logistically challenging Champions League third qualifying round tie against Astana, making the 6000-mile round trip to Kazakhstan for the first leg next week.
In front of an impressive crowd in excess of 50,000, who saw last season’s Scottish Premiership title flag unfurled before kick-off, Celtic overpowered and outclassed their semi-professional opponents in the manner expected of them.
On an evening when failure to deliver simply could not be countenanced by Rodgers and his players, their intent was clear from the opening seconds as they set out with a high tempo and sense of urgency which had been so lamentably lacking under the Rock of Gibraltar last week.
There were five changes to the starting line-up which besmirched the proud European reputation in that first leg as Rodgers deployed an aggressive 3-5-2 formation which immediately succeeded in placing Lincoln firmly on the back foot.
Lustig joined Erik Sviatchenko and Kieran Tierney in a three-man defence, with captain Scott Brown the deepest lying of an attack-minded midfield quintet.
Roberts, one of those who played no part in the first leg, quickly caught the eye here. The on-loan Manchester City winger cut in from the right to register the first of no less than 14 attempts at goal Celtic produced in the first half.
His effort was blocked by Bernardo Lopes in just the first example of gutsy defending from Lincoln which somehow managed to repel the home side until Lustig’s 23rd minute opener.
Before that breakthrough, the visitors were quite simple under siege. Goalkeeper Raul Navas saved bravely from Moussa Dembele, then Lincoln were spared from a penalty decision initially awarded against them for a foul by Roy Chipolina on Stuart Armstrong.
Referee Bartosz Frankowski pointed to the spot but then amended his judgement on the advice of one of his assistants, instead awarding a free-kick on the edge of the area which Griffiths blazed over.
Navas made further fine stops to deny Armstrong and Callum McGregor, with the latter also seeing another effort deflected against the crossbar.
Just as dreaded thoughts of ‘one of those nights’ might have been creeping into the minds of the Celtic supporters, Lincoln succumbed. Armstrong’s free-kick from the right caused a scramble in the penalty area, the ball breaking from Brown into the path of Lustig who coolly hooked a left foot shot beyond Navas from around 12 yards.
There was barely a flicker of emotion from Rodgers as the ball hit the net, but Celtic’s first competitive goal of his tenure must have come as something of a relief in the circumstances.
He was soon able to relax and enjoy the evening a whole lot more as Celtic, having cancelled out their first leg deficit, went ahead in the tie just two minutes later.
Roberts, who was tormenting Lincoln left-back Joseph Chipolina with his pace and trickery, was the creator as he drove infield and fed Griffiths on the edge of the penalty area. The man whose goals carried Celtic to the Premiership title last season claimed his first of this season in some style, lashing a left foot shot low beyond the helpless Navas.
Lincoln were reeling now and found themselves 3-0 behind in the 29th minute. It was another brilliantly finished goal, this time from Roberts who executed a slick one-two with Callum McGregor on the right side of the penalty area before drilling a shot past Navas.
Perhaps sensing their job was now done to all intents and purposes, the pace of Celtic’s play dropped noticeably for the first time on the evening. With Craig Gordon little more than a spectator, the prospect of Lincoln providing any notable response certainly appeared remote.
But they did manage their first attempt at goal five minutes before the interval when their first leg scorer Lee Casciaro sent a rising shot wide of Gordon’s left hand post.
Celtic found it difficult to rediscover their earlier momentum and the second half saw Lincoln enjoy more possession and find their way towards the home goal with increased regularity. A moment of slackness from Sviatchenko presented Lee Casciaro with another opportunity. He managed to poke his shot beyond Gordon this time but the ball drifted narrowly wide of the goalkeeper’s right hand post.
While there was no sense that this could yet become awkward for Celtic again, they were toiling to add to their first half tally with summer signing Moussa Dembele missing a couple of inviting opportunities to open his account.
The 19-year-old Frenchman received generous applause from the home fans when he was replaced by Nadir Ciftci with 15 minutes remaining but they will hope he can improve upon a less than stellar initial impression in the coming weeks.
Griffiths should have grabbed his second goal of the night when he was sent clear in the 83rd minute but he drove his close range shot straight at Navas who saved.
Celtic will take some satisfaction from the improvements they showed in match sharpness and accuracy of passing they delivered, albeit against opponents from the very lowest level of European football.
Far more difficult assignments, starting in Astana next week, lie ahead and Celtic will need to raise their game a whole lot more if Rodgers is to succeed at the first attempt in taking them back to the group stage of the Champions League.