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LEIGH UP TO SPEED; EUROPA LEAGUE HOOPS IN CRUISE CONTROL; Strike hero Griff hits his ton in style to steer Celts through and fuel belief for derby clash.

Byline: CRAIG SWAN AT CELTIC PARK (AGG 4-1)

CELTIC.3 SUDUVA.0

IN the dock for reaching 62mph. In the history books by hitting 100.

Leigh Griffiths may have spent the morning at a Dundee court for an alleged speeding offence but he was back in Glasgow last night to ensure Celtic raced into the group stage of the Europa League.

The striker joined a select band of Parkhead heroes as he reached a century of goals in the Hoops.

Griffiths did it in style with a spectacular free-kick to open the scoring and help book a ticket until Christmas on the continental stage.

With doubts surrounding the future of Moussa Dembele as Lyon launch transfer bids, the Scotland striker reminded everyone there can be life without the Frenchman as he reached his ton after four-and-a-half years at the club.

Griffiths had a night to remember. As well as hitting his cherished mark he had a hand in creating another European goal for Callum McGregor.

The hitman wasn't finished as he then provided a cross for Kristoffer Ajer to savour his own special moment with a headed third for his first Celtic goal in a memorable hour as the Scottish champs eased through.

It's not the group-stage involvement Celtic really wanted at the start of the summer but it still matters and injected positivity and confidence into the players ahead of Sunday's Premiership showdown with Rangers.

Today's final hours of the transfer window may also have an effect going into the Old Firm clash. But on the park last night was deemed the first of two huge matches in the context of the campaign.

And although the second test against the Light Blues is likely to be tougher than the first against the Lithuanians, the fact they delivered with professionalism and kept a second straight clean sheet with Dedryck Boyata restored to the backline was not to be undervalued.

It was a clear case of job done.

Given the rumblings of the past few weeks, with the lack of transfer activity and failure to make the group stage of the Champions League both offering frustration, the place was packed. The punters had given their backing by attending and it was up to Brendan Rodgers and his team to offer some payback.

It wasn't vintage in the first half but it was marked by the special strike and moment at the Griffiths opener.

The breakthrough had to be earned mind you. Suduva were limited and their gameplan to sit tight and frustrate as long as possible worked for a spell. In the opening quarter it was difficult for Celtic.

Mikey Johnston, who made his maiden Euro start in the first leg, was again given the nod with Tom Rogic rested but struggled for the impact he had in the Baltics. He was not alone.

Without a real flow the openings didn't really come and the first look at unpicking the lock was a shot from distance by Olivier Ntcham which sailed over. Griffiths tested keeper Ivan Kardrum first with a half-volley but that chance came from a Suduva mistake.

Rodgers was of course without Dembele but with Odsonne Edouard also not up to speed after a hamstring injury and left out, the Scotland striker was eager to make his opening pay.

Nicking possession in enemy territory soon after his initial shot, Griffiths hurtled for the box before cracking another drive at Kardrum.

He looked the obvious source for a goal and when it came it was a peach.

McGregor was fouled outside the box and Griffiths grabbed the ball as soon as the ref made his call. Kardrum took a page from the Joe Hart book by leaving a massive gap to his left and the striker was only too happy to accept the invitation.

Calmly stepping forward, the left-foot curler was perfect - right into the bottom corner.

Celtic had let Suduva off the hook the week previously in Lithuania with a host of missed opportunities but Griffiths was not going to let this one slip past and he was celebrated loudly.

Firstly for reaching the outstanding landmark but also for breaking a resistance that was starting to irk.

The next passage with 17 minutes to go to the interval was about whether or not Celtic could put the tie to bed before the break.

Scott Sinclair had the first chance to do so when he was found in the box by an Ntcham cross. But his finish was unconvincing and kept out by Kardrum.

McGregor was also unable to finish when thrust into the box by a precise Kieran Tierney through pass. And although there was a scare through a bit of Craig Gordon slackness just before the whistle, the advantage at the turnaround was confirmed at one.

McGregor's miss may just have been a range-finder because he made amends seven minutes after the restart to finish the tie.

Griffiths was involved in the build-up as he found Sinclair who subsequently fed McGregor in the box. He took a neat touch out of his feet and fired into the bottom corner.

With the stress now removed Celtic were able to start thinking about final scoreline as opposed to qualification and in the end they added one more. Ajer grabbed it just after the hour with a header at the far post - from a deep Griffiths cross - which dribbled across Kardrum and nestled in the corner.

Game over, Rodgers started thinking of Sunday. Griffiths was replaced by Ryan Christie and Tierney was taken off to be replaced by Emilio Izaguirre who played for the first time at home since returning.

Christie, Sinclair, Ajer and third sub Jonny Hayes all came close to making it four in the closing stages but the job was done. And the night belonged to Griffiths.

CAPTION(S):

FRUSTRATION EASED Rodgers

FAST WORKER Griffiths so happy to be a scoring centurion

MAC THE KNIFE McGregor cuts the Lithuanians open with his accurate finish

KRISSING WITH CONFIDENCE Ajer expertly makes it 3-0

HITTING THE TON Griffiths makes it 100 goals for Celtic with a clinical free-kick finish
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 31, 2018
Words:1019
Previous Article:IN IN IN; Benkovic, Mulumbu to sign and Moussa could stay as Celts find form to reach Europa groups; TWO IN WITH ONE STAYING.
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