Early goals give Celtic victory over Linfield in stormy Windsor Park encounter
Uefa Champions League second qualifying round, first leg: Linfield 0 Celtic 2
AFTER weeks of build-up, Brendan Rodgers’s return and the ‘will they, won’t they’ pantomime over the away support, it was hoped – perhaps optimistically – that all the major talking points surrounding Celtic versus Linfield had already been dealt with.
And for 65 minutes last night, that looked set to be the case.
Celtic were in cruise control, leading 2-0 without barely having to break sweat against a Roy Carroll-inspired Blues side, the lashing rain threatening to dampen spirits inside Windsor Park as the game ambled towards its inevitable conclusion.
But, despite the odd crunching tackle – if nothing Old Firm-worthy – the blue touch paper was lit when Leigh Griffiths lined up a corner kick right in front of the Linfield supporters on the far left of the south stand.
Chewing gum, cups of coffee and plastic bottles hailed down in the direction of the Celtic striker, but tensions reached a new level when coins and a bottle of Buckfast were added into the mix.
Having shaped to take the kick twice, before stopping to clear debris from the pitch, the former Hibs man was inexplicably shown a yellow card by Spanish referee Alejandro Hernandez.
Griffiths was withdrawn by Rodgers three minutes later but, despite being removed from the action, he hadn’t finished making an impression just yet.
As the Celtic players saluted those supporters who made it into the ground after the game, Griffiths grabbed a scarf thrown by the Bhoys’ support and tied it around a goalpost.
It was an act reminiscent of fellow Scot Graeme Souness’s famous planting of the flag in the centre of Fenerbahce’s pitch after the Turkish Cup final when manager of their great rivals Galatasaray.
And while Griffiths trotted defiantly back towards the tunnel, thrusting his arms in the air, riot police and dogs immediately streamed out from the corner of the ground as emotions threatened to boil over among a section of enraged Linfield fans.
Indeed one managed to make it onto the pitch, but was quickly led away.
It’s never good when a football match is being talked about for everything apart from the football, and what occurred late on was an unfortunate end to a game that was played in a generally sporting spirit.
The 2-0 scoreline was nowhere near as convincing as many had expected, but there was never any threat of a repeat of last year’s embarrassing slip-up against Gibraltan minnows Lincoln Red Imps.
Only back to training three weeks ago after a remarkable unbeaten domestic campaign last season, Rodgers’s men delivered a professional display that rarely saw them get out of first gear.
And they did it in front of around 150-200 of their own fans who, in the end, didn’t have to don funny wigs and cartoon moustaches to gain access to the ground.
It always seemed a long shot that, with tickets having gone on general sale last week, there would be no Celtic fans inside Windsor Park.
And at 11.50am yesterday morning, Linfield released a statement on their website confirming that any Celtic fans who had purchased tickets should enter only via the Boucher Road end, where they would then be housed in the west stand.
“Apparently there’s a segregated section so I don’t know why they put it out all week that we couldn’t get in,” remarked a Bhoys supporter, in full Hooped regalia, outside the Boucher entrance, giving the thumbs up as the occasional car tooted its horn.
“They had to do something,” said one steward.
“We knew there would be Celtic fans in the south stand [with Linfield supporters] so rather than have to drag them out, they decided to let them into the west stand.”
Inside the ground, barring the occasional party song from both sides of the house, the atmosphere was fairly subdued before the game.
Any booing during the warm-up was, predictably, directed at Celtic captain Scott Brown. The Scotland midfielder would surely have been offended had it been any other way.
Once the game got under way, Rodgers’s men assumed control, patiently building through the midfield before quick interchanges around the Linfield box.
Despite their understandable lack of sharpness, the gulf in class was evident from early on.
After a couple of near misses, the Hoops broke the deadlock 17 minutes in, winger Scott Sinclair – Celtic’s most dangerous player all evening – heading home from a James Forrest cross.
Linfield ‘keeper Carroll might have been a bit disappointed after being caught flat-footed as the ball trickled home to his left, but the former Northern Ireland number one rolled back the years for the rest of the game, denying Celtic time and again.
Five minutes later though, he was picking the ball out of his net again.
This time the Blues paid the penalty for switching off as Celtic played a short corner routine straight from the training ground, Griffiths’s low hard pass finding the influential Tom Rogic and the big Australian made no mistake, lashing low to the net.
Twenty-two minutes gone, and the game was all but over.
“Are you Rangers in disguise?” came the refrain from the west stand, before a chorus of “cheer up David Healy”, directed at the Blues boss, once of Celtic’s hated rivals Rangers.
But the remaining 70 odd minutes, on the pitch at least, will have cheered up the Killyleagh man somewhat.
Granted, for the final half hour football became a secondary concern, a sideshow to what was going on in the stands, but Linfield battled hard and defended impressively throughout.
Mark Haughey squandered their best chance of the game when he blazed over from Robert Garrett’s cross after 27 minutes, and they created a couple of half chances after the break as the falling rain aided their cause.
Sinclair (twice), Stuart Armstrong and Erik Sviatchenko all fell foul of Carroll’s brilliance, with Sinclair also sending a header over the bar, spurning the opportunity to send Celtic back to Glasgow with a more convincing lead.
Not that anyone leaving Windsor Park last night was talking about the scoreline.
Linfield: R Carroll, M Stafford, M Haughey, M Clarke, C Casement, R Garrett, J Mulgrew, S Lowry, N Quinn, A Waterworth, P Smyth; Subs: J Stewart for M Clarke (54); Yellow cards: R Garrett (62), A Waterworth (68), J Mulgrew (94)
Celtic: C Gordon, M Lustig, J Simunovic, E Sviatchenko, K Tierney, S Armstrong, S Brown, J Forrest, T Rogic, S Sinclair, L Griffiths; Subs: M Dembele for L Griffiths (68), J Hayes for J Forrest (70)
Yellow cards: J Simunovic (59), L Griffiths (65), T Rogic (66), S Brown (74), J Hayes (94)
Referee: A Hernandez (Spain)