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KEEP YOUR ASH..CELTS WANT CASH; CHAMPIONS LEAGUE HOOPS STROLL ON Deila's Bhoys take step closer to group stage and PS20m jackpot after roaring back from early scare a.

Byline: Verdict GARY RALSTON in Iceland

THEY erupted with the fire they had promised only for Celtic to reduce their Champions League claims to hot air and bluster.

Iceland once spilled plumes of volcanic cinders all over Europe and brought chaos to travel plans.

When the dust settles this morning, the Hoops can reflect on a job competently completed against Stjarnan as their journey towards the Champions League group stage remains on schedule.

Iceland can keep the ash, the Scottish champions still have their eyes on the cash, with Qarabag of Azerbaijan up next on Wednesday.

Reykjavik may be the architectural lovechild of Greenock and East Kilbride but it's a short hop compared to Baku, a round trip of almost 7,000 miles.

That dangling UEFA carrot of a cool PS20million and dreams of visits to the Spartas, Sportings and Shakhtars of this world, rather than the Samsungvollur, still glows, even if nagging doubts about the trustworthiness of the Celtic defence remains.

Stjarnan's social media bosses posted a pic of Eyjafjallajokull, Iceland's most dramatic volcano, a day before the game with a message: "Welcome to the island of fire and ice."

It was a theme seized upon by boss Runar Pall Sigmundsson, who promised to turn up the temperature on Ronny Deila's side, even though the Hoops were bolstered by a two-goal lead.

For a stage in the first half this was as comfortable as a walk on hot coals for Celtic, who were left stunned after just six minutes when Olafur Karl Finsen netted as the hosts took advantage of some lacklustre defending.

Stjarn and Olli? This was a case of another fine mess the Parkhead defence got themselves into.

Virgil van Dijk failed to get tight enough to Jeppe Hansen before he picked out Finsen to spin off Nir Bitton and score.

The capacity crowd of 1,000 could barely believe their eyes - 150 travelling Hoops fans were rubbing theirs in astonishment as last year's frailties, when their favourites conceded 23 goals in 14 Euro matches, threatened to return. Bitton made amends with a marvellous run to the front post to power home Stefan Johansen's corner.

Charlie Mulgrew's crisp strike into the corner of the net three minutes into the second half finally silenced the instruments of the raucous home support, who were left to play only laments for their side's lowly place in the grand scheme of European football.

Sub Leigh Griffiths slotted home the third to underline his claims for a start ahead of soon-to-be-suspended Nadir Ciftci.

Johansen added the gloss the scoreline deserved when he fired in an injury-time fourth, making some amends for his botched handling of that Parkhead penalty.

Only the hardest heart would not have felt a pang of sympathy for the Icelandic diehards, who turned up with microphones, megaphones and AC/DC's drumkit and became quite possibly the first fan group in history to chant a Leonard Cohen song from the terraces.

Their version of Hallelujah would have raised a smile from old misery guts himself in this one-sided stadium that makes Caley Thistle's home look like the Bernabeu. There is an open air swimming pool behind the one stand, a kids' playpark behind the goal and a line of trees behind the other that is as effective against the biting wind as a string vest.

Stjarnan's stadium in the suburb of Goldabaer is the home of kids' telly favourite Lazy Town but as soon as Bitton put his side 3-1 up on aggregate Stjarnan could have called for Sportacus himself and still fallen short.

Celtic won the right to play out the second half at little more than training-ground pace as they reduced to cinders the argument they could be caused problems by Stjarnan's plastic pitch.

True, it was more PG than 3G, and it threw up more rubber than a Formula One grand prix but as soon as Scott Brown and, in particular, Bitton found their feet the tie was never in doubt.

They were the game's best performers, aided by the ever reliable Mulgrew, handed the left-back berth in a sign Deila is running out of patience with Emilio Izaguirre's defensive eccentricities.

The decision to start with Ciftci after the controversies of the past few days was a show of faith but his lack of match sharpness was evident again as he squandered several good chances and struggled to draw others around him into the game.

The Turk's fitness is not going to improve any time soon in light of his ban for biting and Griffiths has surely done enough in his lively cameo to convince of his claims to lead the attack.

Ciftci was replaced nine minutes from time last night, shortly before Griffiths netted the third. Deila has more than the former Dundee United striker's hair-trigger temperament to get his teeth into over the next few weeks.

CAPTION(S):

MELTING THE ICE Johansen makes it 4-0 after Griffiths and Bitton celebrate, left
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jul 23, 2015
Words:826
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