CELTIC 5 ASTANA 0
CELTIC are 90 minutes away from the £30million Champions League group stage bonanza after another exhilarating European night at a packed Parkhead.
Scotty Sinclair’s timing was perfect as he returned to last season’s scintillating form with two fabulous goals and James Forrest, the hero of Trondheim, added another plus there were own goals from two unfortunate Astana defenders as Brendan Rodgers’ men pulverised their opponents.
The champions reigned in the rain in the east end of Glasgow as they took an enormous step towards the glittering next stage among Europe’s elite.
They haven’t lost a game in 41 outings since they went down 2-0 to Barcelona in November. It is inconceivable to believe they can throw this one away in Kazakhstan on Tuesday.
In the first-half, 10 magical minutes turned the game around completely and had Parkhead rocking to its foundations.
The Hoops had passed up two reasonable opportunities inside eight minutes with Sinclair and Leigh Griffiths failing to hit the target from excellent positions.
The Kazakhstan champions were playing with praiseworthy commitment and cohesion as they soaked up attacks and looked to hit on the break.
Celtic didn’t help their cause with some sloppy passes out of defence, with Jozo Simunovic and Nir Bitton the main culprits, and Astana were snapping up the loose balls.
However, the visiotrs were rocked in the 32nd minute when the Wizard of Oz Tom Rogic, getting the nod ahead of Callum McGregor to start the game, sprinkled some stardust on the proceedings.
With his mesmerising quick feet, the moved onto a pass from Mikael Lustig, bamboozled a couple of opponents as he moved menacingly into the box at an angle.
He drew the keeper before chipping an effort towards the far post. Desperate defender Evgeni Postnikov threw himself at the floating ball and tried to hook it off the line, but only succeeded in sending it towards the net.
It will go down as an own goal, but that meant nothing to Rogic as he accepted the plaudits of his delirious team-mates.
However, the Hoops survived a genuine scare only two minutes later when the defence switched off at a left-wing corner-kick.
Postnikov had the ideal chance to even the scores, but his six-yard header flashed wide of Craig Gordon’s right-hand post with the keeper rooted to the line.
It just wasn’t the Astana player’s night – he had earlier been booked for a touchline foul on Rogic.
Scott Brown also fell foul of Romanian whistler Ovidiu Hategan who showed him a yellow card in the 40th minute for an off-the-ball incident.
Parkhead erupted again three minutes from the interval when the quick-witted, fleet-footed Sinclair struck to double his side’s advantage.
He hared onto a loose ball as the visitors’ defence stood in a line claiming offside. He was on as he carried forward before burying a right-footed angled drive wide of the exposed keeper.
Griffiths was also denied a goal in the 22nd minute when he hurtled onto a Kieran Tierney through pass to lob the keeper, but was adjudged to be offside. It was a lot closer than it looked.
Fifteen minutes after the break, a marvellous piece of team-work between Griffiths and Sinclair led to the Englishman netting the third goal.
Bitton thumped a long ball downfield and Rogic and Yuri Logvinenko clashed as they both challenged in mid-air. The ref waved play on and Griffiths slipped a pass in front of Sinclair and he poked it through the legs of the stranded goalie.
Rogic was taken off after the clash of heads and Rodgers sent on McGregor in his place. A dazed Logvinenko, with a bandage on his head wound, was booked as he made his way groggily to the touchline to be replaced. He will now miss Tuesday’s second leg and he might not complain about that situation.
Astana lost the plot after the third goal and their tackling fell into the agricultural variety, but Celtic, to their credit, kept their concentration.
Griffiths should have made it 4-0 when he was sent clean through, but he finished a storming run with an awful finish as he blazed the ball wildly into the crowd.
In the 79th minute, Olivier Ntcham, who was splendid throughout, picked out Griffiths with a thoughtfully threaded forward pass.
The striker held it up before rolling it in front of James Forrest who tucked it away from a tight angle for the fourth.
Could the Hoops get a fifth and make next week’s game just about redundant? The answer came two minutes from time when substitute Stuart Armstrong, on for Forrest, released Griffiths.
He took a touch inside before firing a shot at goal, It took a deflection off Igor Shitov before it hit the net, but, once again, no-one was complaining.
Barring an absolute disaster in Kazakhstan next week, Celtic are as good as in the group stages.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Simunovic, Bitton, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham; Forrest (sub: Armstrong 82), Rogic (Sub: McGregor 60), Sinclair; Griffiths.