Celtic leave Cliftonville with little hope of an upset
Scottish champions show few signs of rustiness when scoring three at Solitude
Celtic’s Mikael Lustig celebrates scoring the opening goal at Solitude. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho
Cliftonville 0 Celtic 3: Goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest gave Celtic a comfortable win over Cliftonville and ensured there is little chance of an upset when the part-time Irish League side travel to Parkhead next week for the second leg of their Champions League second qualifier.
It had promised to be a nervy night for the visitors, who had lost all four of their pre-season games and who had a clutch of players missing for various reasons.
However, Neil Lennon’s side, especially in the first 45 minutes, showed the professionalism and purpose which had taken them to the last-16 of the tournament last season.
Full-back Lustig gave the Scottish champions the lead at Solitude in the 25th minute when he broke away from the Reds defence at the near post to head in a Kris Commons corner.
Six minutes later Greek forward Samaras, who had revealed his aversion for the ground’s artificial pitch before the game, finished off a move involving Forrest and Commons by turning at the edge of the box and driving an unstoppable shot past Reds keeper Conor Devlin.
And in a one-sided first-half, watched by almost 5,000 enthusiastic fans who had packed into the tiny ground in north Belfast, Commons also hit woodwork twice.
With nothing to lose, Tommy Breslin’s side rallied in the second half with Stephen Garrett missing a good chance in the 48th minute from close range after Lustig was short with a headed backpass.
Anthony Stokes hit the bar for Celtic with a drive before he set up Forrest in the 84th minute to hammer the ball low past Devlin from inside the box to make the return game in Glasgow a formality.
Commons hit the bar with a header after two minutes when Forrest stood a cross up for the former Derby and Nottingham Forest player at the back post.
The home side, for all their obvious determination in the early stages, could not make much headway. The Hoops were in control and in the 12th minute Samaras headed an Emilio Izaguirre cross over from eight yards. Brown then picked out Commons, who had raced past the Cliftonville defence — but he failed to control the ball and the backtracking Irish rearguard cleared their lines.
Reds skipper George McMullan then almost put in his own net from just under the bar, as he cleared a Lustig header. However, with the corner, Commons drilled in a cross and Lustig rose to flash a header past Devlin from six yards out.
Cliftonville responded and for the first time in the game, a minute later, Hoops keeper Fraser Forster was forced into a save, from Liam Boyce’s low drive. But just after the half-hour mark and in impressive style, Samaras finished off a Celtic attack with a drive from the edge of the box which whistled high past the helpless Devlin.
Celtic were clearly in the mood and in the 39th minute Commons twisted and turned at the edge of the box before beating Devlin with a curling shot, only to see it crash off the post.
The home fans tried to rally their heroes as they went up the tunnel at the interval and they might have had something to cheer about three minutes after half-time when Garrett pounced on a mistake by Lustig — but his flick from six yards was too feeble to beat Forster.
Still, it gave Cliftonville some encouragement and in the 55th minute only a great saving tackle from Ambrose on Joe Gormley prevented the Reds striker getting his shot away from 12 yards, as the Hoops defence looked vulnerable again.
On the hour mark Celtic’s defending was again sloppy, requiring stopper Kelvin Wilson to throw himself to block a goalbound drive from former Morton player Marc Smyth.
Devlin made a save from Commons’s drive and Stokes sent a shot from the edge of the box spinning back off the bar but much of the tempo had gone out of the visitors’ play — although there was time for Forrest to extend Celtic’s lead.