Five-star Celtic set for Champions League group stages
Scott Sinclair grabs two goals on dream night for Brendan Rodgers’s side at Parkhead
Scott Sinclair of Celtic scores his team’s second goal during the Uefa Champions League qualifying playoffs round first leg match against FK Astana at Celtic Park. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
Celtic 5 FK Astana 0
Celtic confidently planted one foot into the Champions League group stages with a 5-0 thumping of Astana in the first leg of their playoff at Parkhead.
The former Manchester City and Aston Villa player notched his second on the hour mark with further goals from winger James Forrest and striker Leigh Griffiths – his might have taken a deflection off Igor Shitov – for a result which in no way flattered Brendan Rodgers’s men
The Hoops knocked the Kazakhstan outfit out in the third qualifying round last season on a 3-2 aggregate and only a remarkable turnaround next Tuesday in Astana will prevent a repeat.
Celtic, surely, will be among European football’s big boys for the second successive season under Rodgers.
Griffiths had declared himself free of an ongoing calf complaint and Rogic came back into the midfield, while midfielder Nir Bitton was again asked to play centre-back.
The Hoops were also boosted by the return of the Green Brigade, the ultras-style fan group, which had been suspended for two games for stadium indiscretions and helped provide a fantastic atmosphere inside a packed Celtic Park.
Astana arrived on a run of eight consecutive league wins which saw them top their league after 23 matches, and their Bulgarian boss Stanimir Stoilov had confidently predicted that his side would make it into the group stages.
However, after 90 minutes that looked like a ridiculous boast.
It was hardly a whirlwind start by Celtic but Sinclair miscued his shot from 10 yards in the fourth minute and Griffiths then headed a Forrest cross past the post with only goalkeeper Aleksandr Mokin to beat.
However, the Scottish champions kept passing and probing, and Rogic transformed the game with a driving run into the Astana box before knocking the ball past Mokin from eight yards, with Postnikov succeeding only in helping the ball into his own net.
Whether the Australia international’s shot was going in was a moot point to the ecstatic home supporters who, however, held their breath moments later when Postnikov planted a free header wide.
Celtic increased the pressure as the interval approached and Sinclair took advantage of a break of the ball to race through on goal and drive past Mokin and in at the far post.
The second half was as open and stretched as the first with both sides going for the next goal which would have a massive effect on their respective chances in the return game.
It was the home side who got the third when, with Rogic and Yuri Logvinenko on the ground following a clash of heads, Griffiths slipped in Sinclair and he sped through to drill his shot through the legs of the hapless Mokin.
A groggy Rogic was replaced by Callum McGregor and Logvinenko by Abzal Beysebekov.
Griffiths had missed the target from close range, with what for him was a good chance, as the visitors struggled to cope with the energy and pace of the Scottish treble winners.
But Rodgers’s side kept up their pursuit of a fourth and it came in the 79th minute when midfielder Olivier Ntcham set up Forrest to score on the angle, before he was replaced by Stuart Armstrong, set to sign a new deal before the weekend.
With two minutes remaining Griffiths made it 5-0 with a low deflected drive to surely secure Champions League football again and the fans lapped up the final minutes.