Celtic completed the first leg of their second round tie against Nomme Kalju with a 5-0 victory last night. It was a comprehensive performance by the Hoops on home soil which sets them up very comfortably for the away leg next Tuesday.
Neil Lennon altered the starting line up for the third competitive game in a row. He went with two up top and a flat back three.
We all expected Kristoffer Ajer to play right back once again but instead he was on the left hand side of a three man central defence. Nir Bitton was deployed on the right with Jozo Simunovic central.
Boli Bolingoli played as a left wing-back with James Forrest deployed on the right. Callum McGregor and Scott Brown were the anchors in midfield, allowing Ryan Christie to burst forward.
Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths were our front men in a rare pairing. The outcome was very positive.
Celtic opened the scoring when Ajer headed home a Christie free kick to score his second career goal at Celtic on 37 minutes. Both of his Celtic goals have come in Europe.
Once again, Bolingoli saw a lot of the ball down the left hand side, but will have to work on his end game. The downside was that he was substituted before half time having taken a knock.
That allowed Mikey Johnston to enter the game and keep the momentum going. Shortly before the 45th minute, Christie was involved in a tussle with a Kalju defender who handled the ball inside the box.
The resultant penalty was taken by Christie who smashed it home to make it 2-0. There was still more time for another before the interval though and it was a happy moment at that.
If there is one player who has won over those that doubted him – I was one of those people – then it is Leigh Griffiths. He has been in the limelight since Neil Lennon signed him in January 2014.
Some of it good, some of it bad. Since those early days though he has sorted himself out under two other Celtic managers.
You could say he has come full circle with the man that brought him to Celtic back in the job again. Leigh has had his own personal off the field battle to content with in the last year and last night his emotion was notable.
Whilst the press savaged him during his absence, clutching at straws as they do, Leigh marked his first start since late last year with a a fine goal. Reminiscent of the Scotland v England game two years ago, a fine free kick meant that Celtic went in at half time 3-0 up.
By his own admission, the moment almost brought the striker to tears. Nobody would have denied him that expression of total joy.
The second half could have petered out, but it didn’t. Twenty minutes after the restart Christie was involved once again when he curled in a superb goal from the edge of the box.
This goal scoring ability from Christie in commendable. He’s more potent in that role than I’ve seen any other player at Celtic for many years.
He was denied a hat-trick when he was substituted for the returning Olivier Ntcham. That turned out to be a good move as well when the French under-21 sent McGregor through, who was roving forward to score a fine finish to make it 5-0 on the night.
We could debate whereabouts Nomme Kalju are on the scale of difficulty compared to Celtic, but I don’t need to. Each time we play a match in these qualifying rounds Celtic could easily get it wrong and make heavy weather of the situation.
Last night Celtic did not do that. They imposed themselves on a team who were set up to hit on the break and owned them all night.
It’s also worth noting that Kalju are in the middle of their domestic season. Their ten team championship runs from March to November so be in no doubt, they were in peak condition.
The next round will be tougher though with our opponents yet to be decided. Cluj won 1-0 at home against Maccabi Tel-Aviv so that game remains in the balance.
At this stage I don’t know who I’d prefer. Both teams have a decent history in European competition.
By this time next week, we’ll know exactly who our opponents in the third round will be. Barring any momentous hiccups in Tallinn, Celtic are already there.