Cliftonville 0 - 3 Celtic: Tommy Breslin admits Reds were beaten by superior Bhoys
Goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest gave Celtic a convincing win in the Champions League qualifier
Cliftonville manager Tommy Breslin admitted his side were defeated by a group of superior players and he is now keen to avoid a heavy defeat at Celtic Park.
Goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest gave Celtic a comfortable win over the Reds and ensured there is little chance of an upset when the part-time Irish side travel to Parkhead next week for the second leg of their Champions League second qualifier.
Breslin told BBC Scotland: "Celtic are a class act and moved the ball about well but I was proud of our players. We looked comfortable at times and created a couple of half chances.
"We will go over there and we will have pride and we won't want to get a complete hammering. We will enjoy the occasion and work hard and see what happens."
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.
Celtic started the game with impressive purpose.
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' 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.
Lennon pleased with application
Celtic boss Neil Lennon praised the attitude of his players after they claimed a convincing 3-0 win over Cliftonville in tonight's Champions League qualifier.
The Hoops headed into the second qualifying-round tie against the Northern Ireland champions on the back of a disappointing run of defeats in pre-season matches so far.
But goals from Mikael Lustig, Georgios Samaras and James Forrest secured a commanding lead from the clash at Solitude to take into the return leg at Celtic Park.
Lennon told BBC Scotland: "I'm delighted. We played well and scored three goals and created a lot of chances.
"Hopefully we have a clean bill of health. It was a sticky game for us and we dealt with it very well.
"A lot of the talk has been about our pre-season and the results but we just wanted to try to get right for these games.
"Some are [getting sharper] and some are still quite rusty, which is totally understandable.
"But there were a lot of good performances tonight. I'm delighted with the performance and the attitude of the team."
Lennon admits the match in his native Northern Ireland was a special moment for him, adding: "It meant a lot to me personally, bringing a team back home.
"It was a special occasion and I wanted it to be right. I couldn't have asked for any more of the occasion. Both sets of supporters were brilliant."
Celtic were without Gary Hooper, who is the subject of interest from QPR, but Lennon said there was no update on the striker's future.
He said: "There is nothing to add. Talks are ongoing."
Celtic player ratings
Fraser Forster: The goalkeeper did not have a great deal to do and dealt with any threat from the Cliftonville forwards without too many problems. 7.
Mikael Lustig: Reasonably solid in defence, as well as pushing forward to help the front players, the full-back supplied the opener with an impressive bullet header. 7.
Efe Ambrose: Answered an SOS amid a lack of defensive options despite just one day's training and looked indecisive at times but gradually grew more assured in the heart of defence. 6.
Kelvin Wilson: Responsible for some scrappy play at times but remained resolute enough to prevent Cliftonville from finding the back of the net. 6.
Emilio Izaguirre: Like fellow full-back Lustig, was keen to venture forward and caused a few problems with his pace and delivery. 7.
James Forrest: Looked lively and dangerous on both flanks and helped create a number of chances with an energetic display before grabbing a late goal. 8.
Beram Kayal: Never looked out of his comfort zone in the middle of the park and largely managed to control the midfield along with Brown. 7.
Scott Brown: The skipper led by example with an assured performance in the engine room and ensured there would be no complacency from his team-mates. 7.
Kris Commons: Set up goals for Lustig and Samaras and was also denied by the woodwork twice himself in what was an impressive outing from the attacking midfielder. 9.
Anthony Stokes: Looked busy enough and managed to carve out a couple of chances but was ultimately frustrated in his attempts to add to the scoreline. 7.
Georgios Samaras: The big Greek did plenty of running about and was rewarded with the sight of the net bulging with a decent finish for Celtic's second goal. 7.
Tony Watt (for Samaras, 76): Worked hard in his short spell on the pitch. 4.
Tom Rogic (for Commons, 80): Not enough time to make a real impact. 3.
Dylan McGeouch (for Forrest, 86): Handed the final few minutes. 2.
Belfast Telegraph Digital