One down, three to go. Celtic eased their way into the second of the four qualifying rounds they must negotiate to reach this year’s Champions League group stage, although it was not a completely trouble-free passage.
The pleasingly emphatic nature of their victory over outclassed Armenian champions Alashkert was soured just a little by the red card shown to Jozo Simunovic after just 11 minutes of an otherwise straightforward evening for Brendan Rodgers’ side.
It earns Simunovic a suspension for the first leg of Celtic’s next tie against Rosenborg, leaving the Scottish champions under-resourced in central defence as they await Dedryck Boyata’s return from holiday after his World Cup participation for Belgium.
Celtic will still face their familiar Norwegian opponents, whom they defeated in last year’s qualifiers, with confidence. They lack nothing in terms of firepower at this early stage of the season. Moussa Dembele’s double and a James Forrest strike put them out of sight before half-time in front of an appreciate home crowd.
This return fixture was widely regarded as a mere formality for Celtic and that’s exactly how it panned out in terms of simply extending the superiority they had shown in the 3-0 win over Alashkert in the first leg in Yerevan last week.
But Rodgers, who paid the visitors the respect of fielding a strong and unchanged starting line-up, could have done without the complication of Simunovic’s early dismissal and the automatic ban it entails.
That said, he would take satisfaction at the manner in which his 10 remaining players maintained comfortable control of the match. On the occasion of Simunovic’s previous red card for Celtic, they responded superbly to win a pivotal Premiership fixture against Rangers at Ibrox in March this year.
Similar levels of exertion were not required here against opponents who, even with numerical superiority for so long, were incapable of seriously troubling the re-shaped Celtic defence.
By the time of Simunovic’s exit from proceedings, Celtic had already added to their aggregate lead with Dembele’s eighth minute opener. The goal was a source of discontent for Alashkert who complained that play should have been stopped when their captain Artur Yedigaryan stayed down after a clash with Dembele.
The French striker got to his feet, groggily at first but then sprang into action as he received a pass from Forrest. Bustling his way through a couple of challenges on the edge of the penalty area, Dembele found room for a right foot shot which beat Alashkert ‘keeper Ognjen Cancarevic low to his right with the aid of a slight deflection off Taron Voskanyon.
The hosts were already in cruise control, making Simunovic’s thigh high challenge on Jefferson Reis De Jesus near the halfway line three minutes later all the more needless. Romanian referee Horatiu Fesnic hesitated initially before reaching for his red card. Simunovic made only minimal protest as he left the field almost apologetically.
Celtic captain Scott Brown plugged the gap left by Simunovic, dropping back whenever required from his already deep-lying central midfield position to join the remaining central defenders Jack Hendry and Kristoffer Ajer.
The home side, however, remained largely on the front foot and made it 2-0 on the night in the 19th minute from the penalty spot. It was a harsh decision from Alashkert’s perspective as their defender Artak Grigoryan appeared to get plenty of the ball with his challenge on Odsonne Edouard.
But there was no doubt in the referee’s mind as he pointed to the spot and Dembele stepped up to beat Cancarevic with a firmly struck effort.
Alashkert summoned up some defiance when skipper Yedigaryan tested Craig Gordon with a powerful shot from around 25 yards which allowed the Celtic keeper to show he remained alert as he dived to his right to turn it behind.
From the resulting corner, the visitors’ limitations were ruthlessly exposed again by Celtic who made it 3-0 with a brilliant counter-attack. Edouard led the charge, combining his tremendous pace with outstanding awareness as he played a perfectly timed and weighted pass into the path of Forrest who guided a low shot beyond Cancarevic.
There was no drop in the intensity of Celtic’s play after the break, despite the benign circumstances of the tie. They continued to pursue more goals and Kieran Tierney almost grabbed one of the spectacular variety when his dipping 25 yard shot was brilliantly touched over by Cancarevic.
It was barely noticeable that Celtic had been down to 10 men for so much of the evening as they continued to dominate possession, passing the ball with accuracy and attacking intent. Forrest, Callum McGregor and substitutes Ryan Christie and Scott Sinclair all came close to adding to Celtic’s tally, while their support responded warmly to the late introduction of teenage winger Mikey Johnston for his European debut.