IT WAS  case of three cheers for the champions as Brendan Rodgers’ men raced four points clear at the Premiership pinnacle this afternoon.

Celtic failed to make the breakthrough in a frustrating opening 45 minutes as they struggled to find a rhythm against a stubborn Saints side at Parkhead.

However, an eye-catching strike from Reo Hatate six minutes after the turnaround broke the deadlock, Kyogo Furuhashi nodded in a trademark effort for the second and Adam Idah brought down the curtain with another header in the 88th minute.

Nearest challengers Rangers go into action in Dingwall at noon tomorrow when they take on Ross County.

ONE…Reo Hatate was on target with Celtic’s breakthrough goal.

The gusting wind was proving to be unpredictable and troublesome as the hosts attempted to get into their stride.

The nearest to a goal inside the opening 20 minutes was a drive from Hatate from just outside the box that was blocked by an eager defender.

It was then noticed the standside official had his flag raised for offside with Matt O’Riley possibly in an illegal position when he crossed from the bye-line after working a one-two with Nicolas Kuhn on the left.

Ryan Strain was booked in the 25th minute after crudely scything Yang Hyun-jun on the left touchline.

Kuhn then set up a shooting opportunity for O’Riley, but the midfielder’s drive was blocked and the chance was gone.

Worryingly, Saints keeper Zach Hemming had not been required to get his knees dirty in the opening half-hour as the Hoops failed to click as an attacking force.

As anticipated, Saints wasted as much time as possible at throw-ins and deadballs and infuriated the home support who had to hope the fourth official was taking note.

Joe Hart was brought into action when he made a smart punch away from a dangerous left-wing cross from Scott Tanser with Keanu Baccus lurking at the back post.

In the 37th minute, Kyogo Furuhashi was flattened in an off-the-ball incident with Alex Gogic who earned an immediate yellow card. It could so easily have been red.

TWO…Kyogo Furuhashi gets on the scoresheet again.

A good break from Kuhn set up O’Riley to pick out Hatate, but the playmaker couldn’t sort out his feet in the penalty box and the danger was cleared by Marcus Fraser.

The hosts enjoyed the bulk of possession, but were never in total control and couldn’t set a high tempo to threaten Stephen Robinson’s side.

Yang was wayward with a pass inside and the Paisley side pounced on the loose ball to break forward and Toyosi Olusanya was presented with a half-chance, but he blazed an angled drive high over Hart’s crossbar.

Referee Steven McLean’s whistle brought a fairly tepid opening half to a close with much work to do for Brendan Rodgers at the interval with his players failing to ignite.

Last weekend, the Hoops gaffer saw his team lead 2-0 at Ibrox at the midway stage. On this occasion, the Irishman’s team hadn’t even managed two efforts on target.

Six minutes after the turnaround, Hatate broke the deadlock with a brilliant piece of footwork and an outstanding finish that thundered into Hemmings’ top right-hand corner of the net.

Alistair Johnston delivered a ball to the Japanese ace on the edge of the box. The gifted midfielder took one touch to ease away from a defender and then flashed a first-time drive bang on target.

The strike was greeted with as much relief as delight by the joyous fans.

THREE…scorer Adam Idah is congratulated by Matt O’Riley.

Only moments later, Johnston again set up a chance with a whiplash low ball from the right, but Yang completely missed the ball after being presented with the ball 10 yards from goal.

A solid connection would almost certainly have resulted in a second goal.

In the 57th minute, the South Korean set up Kyogo, but the frontman’s drive was blocked as the visitors tried desperately to prevent the hosts taking complete charge.

However, the prolific international attacker had better fortune on the hour mark when he doubled the champions’ advantage.

Johnston was yet again the provider with an inviting ball from the right and Kyogo’s timing was absolutely perfect as he got in behind a defender to head the ball past the helpless Hemming.

In the 64th minute, Rodgers made his first change when he sent on Stephen Welsh for the tiring Nawrocki who has been troubled with injury for a large percentage of his debut term in Glasgow.

Two minutes later, the Saints netminder defied Hatate with a top-class save as he clawed away a certain scorer in acrobatic fashion.

In the 72nd minute, Rodgers made a quadruple change as he sent on skipper Callum McGregor, Paulo Bernardo, Idah and Luis Palma for Tomoki Iwata, Hatate, Kyogo and Yang.

WATCHING BRIEF…Brendan Rodgers looks on from the touchline.

James Forrest joined the action eight minutes later to take over from Kuhn. The substitution raised a few eyebrows as the Hoops’ sixth of the game, but the reasoning was explained with the news Strain had left the field due to concussion. That allows BOTH teams to put on six subs.

Idah headed in No.3 from close range after a bout on ping-pong in the penalty box as the ball bounced around with Bernardo and Forrest involved.

When the ball spun into the air, the Republic of Ireland international was there to nod past the flummoxed Saints keeper.

Now all eyes are focused on the fixtures when the SPFL announce the line-up for the split as the season goes all the way to the wire with the finale scheduled for Saturday May 18.

Before the Premiership resumes, though, the holders will face Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden a week today.

TEAM: Hart; Johnston, Carter-Vickers, Nawrocki (sub: Welsh 64), Taylor; Iwata (sub: McGregor 72), O’Riley, Hatate (sub: Bernardo 72); Kuhn (sub: Forrest 80), Kyogo (sub: Idah 72) and Yang (sub: Palma 72).

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