By Tom English
BBC Scotland at Celtic Park
Leigh Griffiths scored on his first Celtic start since December as Neil Lennon’s men hammered Nomme Kalju in the first leg of their Champions League second qualifying round tie.
The striker whipped home a brilliant free-kick to net dominant Celtic’s third goal on the stroke of half-time.
Kristoffer Ajer and Ryan Christie – from the penalty spot – had put the Scots 2-0 up and Christie and Callum McGregor completed the scoring after the break to render next week’s return leg in Estonia effectively moot.
Celtic are now poised to face either Israeli side Maccabi Tel-Aviv or Cluj of Romania, with the latter earning a 1-0 home win on Wednesday.
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‘Griffiths delivers ultimate comeback’
If the night was all about Celtic building a mountainous lead and securing their passage into the next qualifying round, then the sub-plot was all about Griffiths.
No home start in a competitive game since last September. No goal in a competitive game since last November. The striker has had his mental health to take care of and amid the process he had to endure some ugly moments of dark speculation in one of world football’s capital cities for dark speculation.
Griffiths has spoken about the difficulties of hearing the gossip and the lies, but against the thoroughly outclassed Estonians he delivered the ultimate comeback. Celtic were cruising by then. After close to 40 minutes of softening up Kalju, they duly beat them up in the closing moments of the opening half.
Christie’s free-kick was nutted home by Ajer via the underside of Pavel Londak’s crossbar. Celtic lost Boli Bolingoli through illness straight after; Mikey Johnston came on and played with verve. Surely we’ll see more of him this season than last.
Six minutes later, Celtic went two ahead, the influential Christie winning a penalty when Aleksandr Kulinits stuck out an arm to stop his delivery. Christie lashed the penalty past Londak. Such was the ferocity of the strike, three Londaks might not have stopped it.
The piece-de-resistance was coming, though. With time almost up at the end of the half, Griffiths lined up his second free-kick of the night. The first one came off the defensive wall and fell to Scott Brown whose point-blank shot was blocked by Londak, but this time the outcome would be altogether different.
Griffiths’ execution was lethal. Over the wall it soared and down it descended into the top right-hand corner. Londak flailed as any goalkeeper would have flailed. The striker ran away to celebrate and sank to his knees. It’s early days, but if this moment marks the return of Griffiths as a striker of substance then what terrific news for Celtic – and Scotland.
He was replaced early in the second half, leaving to a standing ovation. Celtic could have been further ahead by then, Kalju’s goal being peppered non-stop. A fourth arrived just after the hour mark, Christie curling a left-footed pearler beyond Londak’s reach.
Christopher Jullien, the £7m centre-half, started on the bench and on the bench he remained. Lennon suggested that he’s not quite up to the speed of things just yet, not that he was needed. You don’t bring on a defender when you’re running over the top of your opponents, every one of your attacks promising goals.
Lennon brought on Olivier Ntcham for Christie. Christie got the appreciation he deserved, the Frenchman got the lukewarm reception he deserved. If anything, given some of Ntcham’s comments about wanting to move clubs, he got off lightly. Celtic’s supporters were probably too cheery to give him any more stick. Soon, they’d be cheerier still.
The fifth was rattled in by McGregor, an emphatic thump that flew into the net. Game over. Tie over. In this marathon qualifying process nights like this are a relief. They can take it handy in Estonia next week before the big stuff begins again the week after.