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Ruthless Celts show no mercy as they finish the job

Celtic 4 Linfield 0 - Celtic win 6-0 on aggregate

By Graham Luney

That souvenir gift Linfield presented to Celtic, which was produced by Belfast Crystal, with the message 'In Friendship' was not enough to encourage the Hoops to show mercy at Parkhead last night.

With the Blues already trailing 2-0 from the first leg of this Champions League second round qualifier, they were a boxer on the ropes expecting a knockout blow and Celtic duly obliged.

A Scott Sinclair double, a stunning Tom Rogic drive and late Stuart Armstrong strike rocked the visitors as the Bhoys finally found their ruthless streak in the second half.

Thankfully there was no bottle of Buckfast flying through the air at anyone, but the atmosphere was lively, a slightly milder version of the Old Firm with rival supporters in full voice.

There were a few skirmishes near the away section of the crowd six minutes into the second half but stewards were quick to react.

But Linfield supporters were loud and proud long before kick-off and were determined to play their part in this unforgettable spectacle.

And with Leigh Griffiths left out of the squad by Hoops boss Brendan Rodgers, there were no scarves tied to goalposts, even half and half ones in the name of peace.

For the Linfield players, this is highly likely to be a once in a career opportunity to perform at Celtic Park, and for their 1,000 travelling support perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to roar on the Blues at Paradise.

It's been said that it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts and, while that's certainly not Linfield's motto, this was one occasion they were determined to relish and savour while knowing the task before them was virtually impossible.

Ulsterman Rodgers' Invincibles live on a different financial planet and are a class above the rest of the Scottish Premiership, never mind our top flight.

While Scotland's finest wine and dine at the finest restaurants, Linfield are left with the last turkey in the shop.

But the Hoops had only first-half goals from Sinclair and Rogic to show from their first-leg domination.

New signing Olivier Ntcham made his debut for the hosts while Linfield boss David Healy brought in former Rangers ace Andy Mitchell on the right flank.

Ntcham was dangerous and played a key role in the fourth-minute breakthrough when his shot was deflected into the path of Sinclair, who couldn't believe his luck and slid the ball past a wrong-footed Roy Carroll in the Blues net.

The annihilation boss Healy feared looked on the cards, but Celtic were wasteful and Linfield's No.1, the hero of the first leg, produced another smart block to beat out Moussa Dembele's header from Sinclair's 20th-minute corner.

The chances kept coming for the Hoops but Callum McGregor headed over the bar and, in the 28th minute, Rogic's low drive whistled past the post.

Linfield were fighting for their lives as the Hoops pressed and probed but they did enjoy a few attacking moments as Niall Quinn fired a cross into the box and Stephen Lowry's free-kick was scrambled clear.

The outstanding Sinclair dinked a shot just wide and Dembele poked an effort past the post as the Blues continued to live dangerously.

Rogic was wayward in first-half injury-time, but in the second period the home side found their killer touch.

Two minutes after the restart, Rogic drilled a stunning low shot from 25 yards into the bottom corner of the net.

On 54 minutes it was 3-0, with Sinclair producing the cool finish but after another deflection, this time from the unfortunate Jamie Mulgrew.

Carroll's magic touch returned in the 64th minute as he made a vital intervention to thwart Sinclair in stunning fashion.

The 39-year-old stopper again denied Kieran Tierney to prevent further damage but Linfield will reflect on a sloppy start to both halves.

With the Blues tiring, they conceded a fourth goal on the night two minutes into added time as substitute Armstrong lashed the ball home.

From the moment these teams were pitted together in the draw, we have been treated to some sectarian drivel, particularly on social media, and we should be tired of it all.

It carries as much meaning as an episode of Love Island and remains as pointless as Ed Sheeran appearing in Game of Thrones.

The two games should have been about football, nothing else, but the first leg was overshadowed by missile-throwing at Griffiths and the Uefa charges that followed.

While the player was foolish to tie a Celtic scarf to a Windsor Park goalpost and make gestures at the Linfield fans in a highly charged atmosphere, that does not excuse the behaviour of the idiots who aimed coins and bottles at him.

Imagine if one had struck the player and resulted in a bloody face and shirt - what would the consequences have been for Linfield then?

But those unsavoury incidents should not deflect from the reality that the overwhelming majority of Linfield fans were respectful towards their opponents.

Carroll's immense performance at Windsor, one of the best by an Irish League goalkeeper in recent memory, should be remembered, while the Blues refused to lie down and give up after conceding a second goal in the 23rd minute.

Over the two legs against a quality Celtic side, the Irish League part-timers only conceded one goal in 117 minutes, a tribute to their fitness, fighting spirit and work ethic.

In the darker days of 'The Troubles', clashes involving Linfield and Celtic would have left a bigger stain on the reputation of both.

While respectful of the history and traditions of both clubs and where their support comes from, it's still my belief that religion and politics should be a million miles away from sport.

Sport unites people and it should never be used as a platform for bigotry or intolerance.

Celtic, now unbeaten in 35 matches, will take on Rosenborg in the third qualifying round while Linfield will look back on these historic games with mixed emotions.

If football can eradicate sectarianism then it's an even more beautiful game than I thought. Until then, our clubs must continue to fight the good fight 'In Friendship'.

Celtic: Gordon, Simunovic, Brown, Dembele, Sinclair, Rogic, Ntcham (Armstrong 68) Lustig, McGregor (Benyu 75), Forrest (Hayes 68), Tierney.

Linfield: Carroll, Stafford, Haughey, Waterworth (C Stewart 72), Lowry, Casement, Mulgrew, Garrett (Millar 65), Mitchell, Quinn, Smyth (J Stewart 65)

Man of match: Scott Sinclair.

Match rating: 6/10

Referee: Stephen Klossner (Switzerland).

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