Cliftonville v Celtic: boys against Bhoys
Cliftonville 0 Celtic 3: This is what happens when you extend the hand of friendship. Cliftonville and their supporters rolled out the welcome mat to Neil Lennon and his Hoops but the Scottish Premier League champions enjoyed the party and then left with their pride intact.
This was a real banana skin fixture for a side with genuine ambitions of making the Champions League group stages but, fortunately for Celtic, there was no luck of the Irish in this particular historic tale.
Solitude has never staged a bigger fixture and the 5,442 fans came to witness an enthralling spectacle of colour and noise.
The bond between Cliftonville and the Hoops has never been stronger but for 90 minutes at Solitude, Lennon’s boys did a professional job, killing off any hopes the Reds had of securing the greatest result in their history at Parkhead next Tuesday.
Celtic’s pre-season journey has been a tale of big name exits, woeful results and a growing injury list but this was still a professional outfit against an amateur one and the gulf in class was clear in the bright north Belfast sunshine.
Former Northern Ireland international Lennon, back on a stage he once played for as a rising star with Glenavon, admitted he feared the worst in this Champions League second round qualifying first leg tie but his players absorbed everything Cliftonville threw at them.
First half goals from slick Swede Mikael Lustig and Greek goal-getter Georgios Samaras calmed any nerves in the travelling party and it could have been much worse for the Reds as Kris Commons twice hit the woodwork. Anthony Stokes clipped the crossbar in the second half but James Forrest supplied the icing on the Parkhead cake with a third six minutes before the end.
The BBC cameras were here to capture the electric atmosphere and, naturally, the fans were in fine voice.
Celtic were without the injured Adam Matthews, Charlie Mulgrew, Joe Ledley and Virgil van Dijk as well as unavailable new signing Steven Mouyokol.
Victor Wanyama has left for Southampton and Gary Hooper is also heading for the exit door.
In sharp contrast, Reds boss Tommy Breslin hasn’t lost the aces in his pack including star striker Liam Boyce who failed to seal a move to Celtic in 2010 following a trial.
Celtic's defensive injury crisis led to an early recall to action for Nigeria defender Efe Ambrose.
The Reds managed to keep the back door shut until the 25th minute but the visitors looked dangerous on the attack and fully deserved their 2-0 interval lead.
Cliftonville performed with plenty of aggression but, at times, their defence was left floundering.
The warning signs came as early as the third minute but the home fans breathed a sigh of relief when Commons’ header, from a Forrest cross, bounced back off the crossbar.
But Lennon’s men had to wait until the 25th minute to strike first. A delicious right wing corner from Commons was headed home from close range by Lustig, the 26-year-old Sweden defender making the most of some slack marking.
Cliftonville tried to respond but Boyce’s low drive in the 29th minute was straight at keeper Fraser Forster.
The Hoops doubled their lead and in style in the 31st minute. Samaras collected a pass from Commons, spun away from Ciaran Caldwell and unleashed a sweet left foot shot that was past keeper Conor Devlin before he could feast his eyes on it.
It was a goal that summed up Celtic’s dominance. The strike had class written all over it and the visitors were a class apart.
Jaimie McGovern and Ronan Scannell were both shown yellow cards for dissent as the home side’s hopes began to melt in the early evening sun.
Commons struck the woodwork for a second time in the 39th minute with a sumptuous curling effort as Devlin looked on helpless.
Cliftonville missed a golden chance to reduce Celtic’s lead when Lustig’s header to Forster lacked power, allowing Stephen Garrett to nip in but the striker fluffed his lines.
Joe Gormley was also given a sight at goal but a last ditch challenge from Ambrose thwarted the striker.
The Reds were more adventurous and played with more freedom after the break. Marc Smyth’s shot was on target until Kelvin Wilson made a stunning intervention.
But the visitors still posed a major threat and Devlin dived low to keep out Commons’ drive in the 65th minute.
Three minutes later Celtic were denied by the woodwork again, this time Anthony Stokes’ swerving shot slipped the crossbar en route to the away stand.
Forrest had the chance to make it 3-0 10 minutes before the end but screwed his shot wide.
However, he made no mistake in the 84th minute, burying a low shot under the body of Devlin.
Celtic earned the bragging rights but it was a party no-one who was there will forget and there’s a bigger one being planned for Parkhead on Tuesday night.
Cliftonville: Devlin 6, McGovern 7, R Scannell 7, Johnston 7, Caldwell 6 (Donnelly 73, 6), McMullan 7, Garrett 6 (Curran 77, 6), Smyth 7, Catney 6, Gormley 6 (O’Carroll 69, 6), Boyce 7. Subs (not used): Brown, McNeill, Cosgrove, Seydak.
Celtic: Forster 6, Izaguirre 7, Ambrose 7, Wilson 8, Brown 7, Samaras 8 (Watt 76, 6), Stokes 7, Commons 8 (Rogic 80, 6), Lustig 8, Kayal 8, Forrest 8 (McGeouch 86). Subs (not used): Zaluska, Balde, Irvine, Waters.
Referee: Sergii Boiko (Ukraine) 7.
Belfast Telegraph Digital