ST JOHNSTONE 2 CELTIC 5
NO doubt about it – Moussa Dembele knows how to make an entrance.
Celtic were toiling at 2-1 down against a highly-motivated Saints outfit in Perth before Brendan Rodgers unleashed the 20-goal striker in the 59th minute.
Just over half-an-hour later, the French Under-21 hitman had hoisted his season’s total to 23 with a splendidly-taken hat-trick, his second of the campaign after his trio against Sevco Rangers in September.
The Perth outfit will complain long and loud about the penalty-kick award that allowed Dembele to level the scores with virtually his first touch of the ball.
Referee Craig Thomson had no hesitation in pointing to the spot after a Kieran Tierney left-wing cross had hit the hand of defender Keith Watson.
Was it hand-to-ball? Or ball-to-hand? Clearly, the home side weren’t happy with the decision and Richard Foster was booked for continuing to mouth off in the aftermath of the equaliser.
Possibly, on this occasion, fortunate favoured the Hoops, but Saints should remember they may have been more than a little lucky to still have 11 men on the field after Paul Paton was merely yellow-carded for hacking down Nir Bitton from behind only minutes beforehand.
Another day and another referee and the Perth culprit would have undoubtedly seen red for making no attempt to play the ball.
Dembele was composure itself as he placed the ball on the spot, took a short run-up and walloped a drive into the roof of the net as keeper Zander Clark took off for his right.
With 30 minutes still to play, the champions went for the jugular, struck three more times and stretched their lead at the top of the Premiership to an extraordinary TWENTY-SEVEN points.
Yet they had to fight for this victory after making life difficult for themselves, despite a whirlwind start that saw them a goal ahead in the sixth minute.
Gary Mackay-Steven missed an early opportunity when his finishing effort was weak and lacked direction. The ball was scrambled clear and Celtic kept it alive with Scott Brown sending birthday Bhoy Patrick Roberts, celebrating his 20th birthday, in on goal again.
Once more, Clark managed to block the effort, but his luck ran out when the ball bounced to Liam Henderson and he calmly took aim and slotted in an effort at the shotstopper’s exposed right-hand post.
The Hoops were given a wake-up call, though, when Craig Gordon was forced into a marvellous sprawling save as Richard Foster was one-on-one with the keeper after a through ball from Danny Swanson saw him unmarked. Gordon, though, beat the ball to safety.
At the other end, Mackay-Steven was again wasteful in the 22nd minute when he raced in on the unprotected Clark, set free with a thoughtful pass from Scott Sinclair.
Frustratingly, the winger again rushed his shot and once more Clark was able to push it away.
It should have been an opportunity to double Celtic’s advantage and the miss came back to haunt the Hoops when the Saints equalised in the 31st minute.
The home team broke after defending a Henderson corner-kick to force one of their own on the right.
Danny Swanson drilled it over and Bitton was caught napping. Watson was allowed to come in from behind and outjump the 6ft-plus midfielder and bullet a header towards goal.
It took a touch off skipper Brown as it raged into the far corner.
Worse was to follow two minutes from the interval!
Swanson swung over a left-wing cross that was missed by David Wotherspoon at the near post. The unfortunate Dedryck Boyata was in direct line behind him and the defender, who has scored two matchwinning goals against the Saints and Aberdeen in recent weeks, couldn’t get out of the way.
The ball struck him on the head and flew into the net beyond the flummoxed Gordon.
Boss Rodgers resisted the temptation to introduce top marksman Dembele at the start of the second-half, but the French ace did come on in the 59th minute for Mackay-Steven, who was having a frustrating afternoon against the hard-tackling Brian Easton.
Then came the leveller via the penalty spot and after the ball thumped into the rigging behind Clark, there was only going to be one winner.
In the 75th minute, Mikael Lustig gathered a left-wing cross from Tierney before delivering a perfect pass in front of Dembele on the edge of the box.
He coolly sent a controlled right-foot effort low past the diving keeper to put the Hoops ahead.
Six minutes afterwards, Roberts set up Sinclair, who drove at the Perth rearguard throughout the encounter, and the Englishman slotted in his 14th league goal of the season.
Celtic were relentless as they piled forward in pursuit of a more handsome winning margin and it was no surprise when they claimed a fifth.
And, equally, it was no surprise when it was Dembele who scored again after a neat bit of penalty-box trickery from Lustig and Callum McGregor.
The 20-year-old frontman almost casually swept the ball past Clark to bring down the curtain on an excellent personal performance.
Celtic got up to speed in the second-half and, although the Saints will complain to anyone within hearing distance about the penalty-kick decision, there can be no argument the better team won.
Now the attention will switch to the Scottish Cup and the visit of Inverness Caley Thistle at the weekend.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that Celtic have some unfinished business with the Highlanders this season.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Sviatchenko, Boyata, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven (sub: Dembele 59), Henderson (sub: McGregor 72), Sinclair; Roberts (sub: Ciftci 86).