CELTIC 2 ROSS COUNTY 1
MESMERISING Reo Hatate was the architect as Celtic powered NINE points clear at the Premiership pinnacle following a hard-fought win over a stubborn Dingwall outfit at Parkhead this afternoon.
The Japanese midfielder was excellent throughout the 90 minutes-plus and set up the goals that mattered with David Turnbull hitting the crucial equaliser and Sead Haksabanovic claiming a sublime winner.
After their nearest challengers’ 1-1 draw with St Mirren in Paisley earlier in the day, the champions eased into the World Cup break with a commanding advantage in their quest for a second successive title.
As usual, though, the champions had to ride a rollercoaster to get to their destination.
GRINNING AND WINNING…Reo Hatate is smiles better.
In the tenth minute, referee David Munro baffled everyone inside the ground following a bizarre decision after keeper Ross Laidlaw picked up the ball, released it and scooped it up again when Kyogo Furuhashi came in to challenge.
The laws of the land dictate that is a free-kick for Celtic. Not according to today’s match official who gave the award to the Highlanders.
Two minutws later, the keeper flapped at a glancing header from Kyogo following a neat left-wing delivery from Haksabanovic, but the effort flew just over the crossbar.
In the 18th minute, Cameron Carter-Vickers stormed forward with County retreating into their defensive shell. The stand-in skipper decided to let fly from 30 yards and his rasping drive was blocked by the diving Laidlaw before the rebound was booted to safety.
Kyogo blew the chance to open the scoring in the 23rd minute after some nice inter-play with Hatate and Matt O’Riley saw the Japanese striker racing clear into the box.
Alas, the normally dead-eyed hitman tugged his final effort harmlessly wide when he should have hit the target at the very least.
Kyogo passed up another opportunity only moments later when Haksabanovic set him up with a clever cutback from the left. The attacker took a touch and the chance was gone. A first-time shot would have been more likely to bring a dividend.
THE EQUALISER…David Turnbull struck with the crucial leveller.
Celtic were well in control with Malky Mackay’s men content to filter into defence. The champions tried their best to maintain the tempo, but first touches were often off and the passes were not crisp or accurate enough to unlock a well-drilled rearguard.
The Highlanders were in Glasgow to get the job done without any thoughts of contributing to the entertainment value and the onus was on the Hoops to do all the hard work while they were content to soak up the pressure.
In the 38th minute, Moritz Jenz came off following a head knock and Carl Starfelt replaced him to take his slot alongside Carter-Vickers.
In 41 minutes, Kyogo got his angles mixed up as he lofted the ball over the bar after a superb six-man sweeping move opened up County.
Alexandro Bernabei was hurtling down the left as he added his skills to the attack, but the visitors were resolute.
Match official Munro continued a performance laced with unfathomable decisions including a free-kick deep in the visitors box when he deemed Haksabanovic had fouled an opponent when it was clearly the other way around.
Moments later, the ropey ref booked the Montenegro international for a challenge on Callum Johnson. The visiting defender did the usual dying swan act while he was given treatment by two of the backroom staff. The player then got to his feet and continued playing without having to go off which is normal protocol.
Sadly, it appeared as though the whistler and the plot had parted company at this stage.
FOCUSED…Ange Postecoglou watches the action unfold from the touchline.
In the second-half, with the visitors again refusing to come out and make a game of it, Carter-Vickers ambled forward before firing over the bar from long range.
In the 50th minute, County were granted a VAR-assisted penalty-kick when the ball struck O’Riley on the hand. He made no motion of the hand to the ball, but it was enough for a spot-kick to be awarded by technical assistant Euan Anderson.
A grateful David Cancola rolled the award past Joe Hart as the keeper took off in the opposite direction.
Daizen Maeda was sent clear moments later by O’Riley, but the Japanese forward wasted the move by firing the ball high out of play. A giraffe on step ladder wouldn’t have got anywhere near it.
In the 54th minute, Laidlaw threw himself to his left to punch away a David Turnbull shot.
Munro and VAR refused the Hoops a penalty-kick when Anthony Ralston was clearly pushed in the back by an opponent. There was a check before it was dismissed.
No-one in the ground was even remotely surprised.
HANDS UP IF YOU’RE HAPPY…goalscorer Sead Haksabanovic.
Laidlaw was then booked for time-wasting and the keeper couldn’t complain.
Celtic were getting down the wings, but the deliveries were mainly well off as Ralston emphasised with a right-wing ball that flew out for a shy on the opposite wing.
It looked as though frustration was setting in and Kyogo then ballooned a 16-yarder well over the bar.
In the 62nd minute, the Hoops at last got the ball into the County net and it was all down to the exquisite close control of Hatate.
The sprightly midfielder skipped away from two challenges on the left-hand side of the box, refused to rush his final pass, picked out David Turnbull and the Scotland international did the rest with a calm finish into the corner of the net from six yards.
In the 68th minute, the Hoops took a deserved lead after a moment of inspiration from Haksabanovic.
The wily raider worked a one-two with Hatate, took the cushioned return and curled a low effort wide of the grasping fingers of Laidlaw down at his left-hand post. A superb effort!
It was also the last contribution by the Sweden-born Montenegro international as he came off along with Kyogo and Maeda with Ange Postecoglou introducing Liel Abada, Giorgos Giakoumakis and Filipe Jota to proceedings.
Celtic continued to go forward in waves as they searched for the elusive third goal to get some breathing space.
With four minutes to go, Greg Taylor came on for Bernabei and two minutes later, Giakoumakis spun past a defender, but his low shot was smuggled past the post by Laidlaw.
Giakoumakis went down after an accidental clash with a swinging elbow. Blood spurted from the injury as Munro halted play. Thankfully, the Greek frontman recovered.
Celtic kept their focus right to the final shrill from the referee’s whistle to pick up three well-deserved points.
It wasn’t pretty, but the champions were not to be denied.
They deserve to be at the summit, no arguments.
TEAM: Hart; Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Jenz (sub: Starfelt 38), Bernabei (sub: Taylor 86); Turnbull, O’Riley, Hatate; Maeda (sub: Jota 69), Kyogo (sub: Giakoumakis 69), Haksabanovic (sub: Abada 69).