Celtic sent out a statement of intent this evening in their hopes for Champions League football after devastating Nomme Kalju 5-0 in Glasgow.
Kristoffer Ajer broke the deadlock in the 36th minute after some resilient defending from the Estonian side, and from there Celtic ran riot, with goals from Ryan Christie and Leigh Griffiths ensuring a 3-0 half time lead.
But, Celtic weren’t finished there, as they continued to pile the pressure after the restart, with Christie netting his second of the match, before Callum McGregor completed the rout.
The result puts Celtic in pole position for the second leg of this Champions League second qualifying round, but what did we learn from Parkhead?
1. Ajer set for big Bhoy season
Despite standing at an impressive 6ft 6in tall, Kristoffer Ajer is a very competent ball-playing footballer, and it showed tonight, as his composure at the back, as well as driving runs from deep, kept the Glasgow club ticking over nicely.
Defensively, the Norway international wasn’t stretched to the limit this evening as the Estonian outfit offered very little by way of attack, instead looking to park the proverbial bus and stifle Neil Lennon’s Bhoys, but Pavel Londak was eventually breached in the 36th minute, and from there the floodgates were well and truly open.
It was Ajer who actually initiated Celtic’s eventual rampage, knocking home from a Ryan Christie free-kick with just under 10 minutes to go before the half-time interval, and what an important goal it proved, as you could sense a growing frustration in the terraces with Nomme Kalju standing firm.
But, it wasn’t just the Scandinavian’s goal that caught the eye. Ajer was calm under pressure, eager to operate as the springboard for starting attacking moves from the back, and strong in the challenge when called upon. He only started 23 of Celtic’s 38 league games last season, but looks set to play a pivotal role this term following Dedryck Boyata’s recent departure.
2. Griffiths off the mark
Leigh Griffiths missed the majority of the 2018/19 season on personal leave but has returned to the squad this summer and has now opened his account for the campaign.
In trademark style the 28-year-old netted one of his customary dazzling free-kick strikes, curling the ball up and around the Nomme Kalju wall before evading Londak’s outstretched glove in the dying embers of the first half.
It was a scintillating finish almost reminiscent of the one he thumped past Joe Hart at Hampden Park two years ago in Scotland’s 2-2 World Cup Qualifier against England.
With Lennon back at the helm following the departure of Brendan Rodgers, he will be hoping Griffiths can rediscover the form demonstrated during his previous stint in the dugout, notably the 2015/16 season, in which the lethal marksman netted 40 goals across 50 matches in all competitions.
3. Classy Christie
Deployed in the No 10 role just behind a front two of Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie flourished in Parkhead this evening, making the playmaker position his own as he ran hither and thither across the turf, unlocking doors.
With Roman Kozhukhovskyi’s side really doing their best to frustrate Celtic and thwart their attacking strides, Christie sought other ideas, and functioned as a very adroit release valve in the final third for the Scottish side.
As he dovetailed between the lines, the 24-year-old was Celtic’s MVP this evening, involving himself in every positive move that unravelled at Celtic Park. He delivered a sumptuous ball for the opening goal, won and converted the penalty kick, and struck home a delectable effort after the restart.
This was the complete performance from Christie who, like Ajer, could be set for a monumental season in Glasgow.
4. Lennon embraces predecessor approach
During Rodgers’ three-year tenure in Glasgow he would often utilise a three-at-the-back system, and Lennon adopted that approach tonight, deploying a trident of centre-backs in the form of Ajer, Jozo Simunovic and Nir Bitton, with James Forrest and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo operating as floated wing-backs on either flank.
On reflection, the system worked a treat as Celtic ran amok, but prior to their opening goal, Lennon’s tactical approach may have hindered his side’s full attacking potential, with Forrest being forced to continuously cut in as he had no overlapping full-back, which really nullified his threat going forward.
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Elsewhere, with Scott Brown playing in an anchorman role, it was perhaps defensive overkill from Lennon as Nomme Kalju really didn’t look like offering any semblance of an attacking move.
That said, once the first went in, the Pink Panthers completely collapsed and it was far too easy for the Scottish champions from there on in.
5. Celtic well-stocked should Tierney leave
There have been no secrets made about Arsenal’s fervent interest in Kieran Tierney, and while Celtic may yet retain the services of their cherished academy star, Lennon certainly won’t be sounding the alarm should he pitch up in north London, as the 48-year-old has backup aplenty to fill the void should a departure materialise.
This evening Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo was entrusted with the left wing-back role, and he certainly looked threatening surging forward, save for one or two erratic passes. Unfortunately injury forced him off, but his replacement, Mikey Johnston – nominally a winger – shined on the touchline.
Granted, the 20-year-old is an out-and-out left winger, but should Lennon persist with this three-at-the-back system, with Brown covering in defensive midfield, it will allow the Northern Irishman the luxury of deploying more forward-thinking players on the flanks, and this could be key for the development of both Johnston and Bolingoli-Mbombo.