Pride before fall for plucky Cliftonville
Battling part-timers can hold heads high
CELTIC 2 CLIFTONVILLE 0 Celtic won 5-0 on aggregate. If there was ever a Champions League clash in which the result mattered little, this was it. Ignore the minor detail of the aggregate score.
Celtic's display of ruthless finishing at Solitude killed off Cliftonville's European dream last week but this Parkhead adventure was always going to spark lifelong memories for the visitors.
This match was about a north Belfast side's trip to Paradise. There was a slight anti-climatic feel to the occasion given the Hoops' 3-0 advantage from the first leg but the 1,500-strong travelling Red Army were still in party mood and fine voice.
As expected, Celtic ran out winners, the goals coming from Efe Ambrose (16) and Georgios Samaras (70), but Cliftonville showed no signs of stage fright and keeper Conor Devlin rose to the occasion with a string of fine saves.
But Tommy Breslin and his men have never before dined at this top table.
Call it Celtic Park, Paradise or Parkhead, it doesn't matter. This Cliftonville team are familiar with Belfast's Shore Road, Mersey Street or Donegall Avenue, not Glasgow's Kerrydale Street and this magnificent venue.
This all-seater stadium, much noisier when it's packed to the rafters with 60,355 fans, has hosted more magical European battles.
Whatever the scoreline, this was always going to be a magical night for everyone associated with the Reds and young Oscar Knox, Celtic mascot for the day and an inspiration to everyone who has followed his brave fight against cancer.
But this wasn't Celtic 4 Juventus 3 in 2001, Celtic 2 Lyon 0 in 2003, Celtic 1 Manchester United 0 in 2006, Celtic 2 AC Milan 1 in 2007 or Celtic 2 Barcelona 1 last November.
Over the years Europe's premier clubs have felt intimidated by the Hoops' passionate support so it was possible to feel a little nervous for the newly crowned Danske Bank Premiership champions.
Hopes of winning 4-0 at Parkhead and booking a date with Swedish champions Elfsborg may have been extremely slim but the north Belfast side were keen to avoid a heavy loss.
Parkhead chief Neil Lennon named the same starting 11 who did the job in style at Solitude last Wednesday and included Gary Hooper on the bench.
Eamonn Seydak and Tomas Cosgrove started for the Reds while Ronan Scannell and Joe Gormley made way to join the replacements.
The hosts started on the front foot but Devlin kept out two headers from Samaras.
At Solitude, Cliftonville held out for 25 minutes until Mikael Lustig struck. On their own patch, the Hoops were celebrating in the 16th minute.
Centre-back Ambrose directed a glancing downward header past Devlin from six yards after Anthony Stokes picked the 24-year-old Nigerian out.
Cliftonville attempted to reply quickly but Ciaran Caldwell's header from Stephen Garrett's left wing delivery was always dropping wide of the target.
In the 25th minute a long range rasping drive from Kris Commons stung Devlin's hands.
The visitors threatened from a corner but Marc Smyth's drive deflected to safety.
After the break the Reds played with composure, offering no hint they were being overawed by the occasion.
Cliftonville breathed a huge sigh of relief in the 61st minute when Scott Brown fed Stokes but the Republic of Ireland striker wasted a golden chance.
Celtic, though, did double their lead in the 70th minute, a close range downward header from Samaras inflicting the damage at the end of Commons' cross.
Substitute Hooper's overhead free-kick bounced back off the base of the post.
Sent into the fray were former Celtic starlet Diarmuid O'Carroll while Amido Balde made his competitive debut for the Hoops.
Cliftonville were awarded a late free-kick in the Hoops' penalty area after Fraser Forster scooped up Wilson's back pass but Gormley's low drive was deflected to safety.
No goals, no victory, but plenty of precious memories.
Celtic: Forster 6, Izaguirre 7, Ambrose 9, Wilson 7, Brown 7, Samaras 9, Stokes 7 (Hooper 6, 65), Commons 8, Lustig 8, Kayal 7 (Rogic 65, 6), Forrest 7 (Balde 65, 6). Subs (not used): Zaluska, Watt, Mouyokolo, McGregor.
Cliftonville: Devlin 8, McGovern 7, E Seydak 6, Johnston 7, Caldwell 6 (Curran 57, 6), McMullan 7, Garrett 7, Smyth 8, Catney 6, Cosgrove 8 (O'Carroll 65), Boyce 6 (Gormley 84, 6). Subs (not used): Brown, Scannell, McNeill, Donnelly.
Referee: Thorsten Kinhofer (Germany) 7.