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Kalju 0 - 2 Celtic
Neil Lennon threw down the gauntlet to Olivier Ntcham after a summer row with the midfielder.

Neil Lennon threw down the gauntlet to Olivier Ntcham after a summer row with the midfielder.

And last night the Frenchman reminded Celtic of his talent in a stroll in the Estonian capital.Ntcham looked certain to be heading for the Parkhead exit after claiming he was too good for Scottish football.

But Lennon handed the 23-year-old a second chance following clear-the-air talks and was handed a start in the Champions League dead rubber return against Nomme Kalju.

And, whether the £14 million-rated man was playing for that move amid interest from Marseille and FC Porto or to make it up to his boss for his controversial comments, he certainly proved a cut above in the A Le Coq Arena.

He delivered the response Lennon would have been looking for with a classy display in an advanced midfield role and showed great skill to start the move to break the deadlock which came courtesy of Aleksandr Kulinits’ own goal after 10 minutes.

Celtic were sloppy in the second half as they took their foot off the gas but substitute Marian Shved netted an injury time debut strike to complete a 7-0 aggregate demolition job.

And Ntcham could be happy with his work even if his finishing might have been better - he skied one particular effort - as he pulled the strings, finding pockets of space and spraying the ball around before going off late on.

With key men Callum McGregor and James Forrest left at home and Lennon given fringe men a run-out it was up to others to stand up and, on a night when complacency was the biggest danger, his attitude was spot on.

Ntcham’s claim that Celtic are only a stepping stone came on the eve of the last qualifier against Sarjaveo and could have been the end for him but he could yet have a big part to play in their bid to reach the group stage.

But the Frenchman and his team-mates will now face a huge step up in class when they take on Romanians FC Cluj, who have been in the group stage three times, in the third qualifier, where they fell to AEK Athens last season.

This was a pre-season friendly in all but name with the job already done in Glasgow and they were in cruise control before understandably taking their foot off the gas in the second half.

Nir Bitton was another who impressed before he went off with Shved replacing him and £7 million man Christopher Jullien also started.

Celtic’s commanding first leg lead meant the tie was never in danger and Lennon had the luxury of being able to make half a dozen changes to the team that started that thumping 5-0 win in Glasgow.

Jullien made his much-anticipated competitive debut while goalkeeper Craig Gordon featured for the first time in seven months and Anthony Ralston made his first appearance of the season.

Youngsters Mikey Johnston and Lewis Morgan were also handed the chance to shine along with Ntcham who was making his first start of the season .

For the 200-strong travelling support it was a chance to enjoy a pressure-free qualifier while sampling the delights of the popular Baltic city.

The players emerged to the stirring strains of the Champions League’s Zadok the Priest anthem - usually reserved for the play-off and group stage - and that was a reminder of what awaits them if they can progress.

Despite the changes, this was always likely to be a stroll given the gulf in class and that’s how it started with the visitors knocking the ball about confidently.

And it was a great move to break the deadlock after just 10 minutes with brilliant play from Ntcham who released Johnston down the left.

The young winger then did well to skip past the defence before fizzing a low ball across goal and the hapless Kulintis put the ball into his own net with Leigh Griffiths waiting for a tap in.
Mikey Johnston comes off (Image: Daily Record)

Nomme Kalju skipper Max Ugge insisted in the pre-match press conference that his team-mates had to believe they could score six. That was never likely to happen - and even the Italian would have conceded bagging seven was an impossible mission.

And the hardest part of ring-rusty keeper Gordon staking his claim to reclaim the number one jersey was having the night off between the sticks.

He watched a Deniss Tjapkin effort whistle past the post after Christopher Jullien’s defensive header went straight to the midfielder.

There was real concern when Griffiths went down midway through the first half after he showed some fantastic footwork to control the ball but luckily he was fit to carry on.

Johnston should have doubled Celtic’s advantage before the break when substitute Max Mata’s header from Boli Bolingoli’s cross fell to the winger but he lacked composure as he shot well over.

Ntcham picked up where he left off after the restart and curled a shot just past the post for the goal that would have capped a fine individual display.
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The hardest task for the Celtic players was always going to be keeping their focus and Gordon was called into action to deny Kaspar Paur.

Scott Sinclair was on after the hour in place of Johnston but Gordon again had to be alert when he was forced to deny Paur’s angled drive.

Those saves - and his general confident handling - would have helped Gordon’s case to start the season as number one with the position up for grabs.

Shved replaced Bitton and almost made an immediate impact when Morgan put him through but the Ukrainian winger’s shot was saved before Ryan Christie was introduced in place of Ntcham, with Lennon quick to praise his midfield star.

Sinclair went close to adding a second and Jullien had a header ruled out for a foul on the goalkeeper.

But there was just enough time for a second strike and what a goal at was as the ball broke to Shved and he smashed a left foot shot into the top right hand corner.

Posted by voc1967 on Tuesday 30 July 2019 - 21:55:11 | Comments (0)  |  printer friendly
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