CELTIC HAVE ONE foot in the Champions League group stages after a Scott Sinclair double helped his side to a 5-0 thrashing of Astana in their play-off round first leg in Glasgow.
An own-goal from Evgeni Postnikov opened the scoring in the 32nd minute before Sinclair doubled Celtic’s advantage 10 minutes later. The English winger then grabbed his sixth goal of the season on the hour before James Forrest added another in the 79th minute.
Leigh Griffiths rounded off the rout in the 79th minute with a deflection off Igor Shitov to help the Scottish champions secure a commanding advantage to take to Kazakhstan for the return leg next Tuesday.
It is a major boost for Brendan Rodgers’ side who are now within touching distance of sealing their place in the lucrative group stages for a second successive season.
Having narrowly seen off Astana in the third qualifying round last year, Celtic knew the threat their opponents could pose and piled on the pressure from the start in search of a positive result to take to Kazakhstan.
Sinclair was first to come close as he fired wide when the ball broke to him in the box from a free-kick, before Griffiths somehow sent a powerful header off-target.
After soaking up the pressure, Astana were arguably enjoying their best spell of the half when Celtic took the lead. Australian midfielder Tom Rogic confidently took a perfectly weighted through ball from Mikel Lustig in his stride before charging down the right wing.
The Socceroo star then got the break of the ball as he cut into the box before clipping a shot over Aleksandr Mokin that was going wide before Postnikov applied the finishing touch to send it into his own net.
Stung by his mistake, Postnikov came close to making amends at the other end minutes later with a powerful downward header after connecting well with a corner.
With half-time looming, Sinclair doubled Celtic’s advantage. The winger beat the offside trap to race on to a deflected ball and burst into the box before sending a shot into the far corner from a tight angle.
Sinclair then took advantage of hesitation in the Astana defence to make it 3-0. Romanian referee Ovidiu Hategan allowed play to continue after Rogic and Ivan Maevski’s clash of heads and Sinclair played a neat one-two with Griffiths before slotting through the legs of Mokin.
Griffiths was again the architect of Celtic’s fourth. The striker held the ball up after collecting a long pass before knocking into the path of the on-running Forrest, who sent a low angled shot past Mokin.
The Celtic striker got the goal his play deserved late on when he controlled a pass from substitute Stuart Armstrong, cut into the box and sent a deflected shot past the helpless keeper, although Shitov’s decisive intervention seemed to ensure it was another own-goal.
Tonight’s other Champions League results
Napoli (ITA) 2 (Mertens 13, Jorginho 70-pen)
Nice (FRA) 0
Istanbul Basaksehir (TUR) 1 (Elia 64)
Sevilla (ESP) 2 (Escudero 16, Ben Yedder 84)
Hapoel Beer-Sheva (ISR) 2 (Nwakaeme 12, Tzedek 45+2-pen)
Maribor (SLO) 1 (Tavares 10)
Olympiacos (GRE) 2 (Odjidja 66, Romao 90+3)
Rijeka (CRO) 1 (Heber 42)