CELTIC pummelled Dundee United for the second time in three days as they kept their treble dream alive at Parkhead tonight.
Jason Denayer got the opener in the first-half and goals from Leigh Griffiths, Kris Commons and Virgil Van Dijk teed up a Scottish Cup semi-final appearance against Inverness Caley Thistle at Hampden next month.
The encounter ended in uproar when Anthony Stokes was sent off and, moments later, United’s Ryan McGowan was red-carded in another flashpoint incident.
This was the third meetings of the teams in 10 days and emotions were running high. Stokes was dismissed for a flare-up with Paul Paton. As he left the field, the Republic of Ireland striker claimed he had been elbowed by his opponent. Referee Calum Murray, replacing blundering Craig Thomson from the tie at Tannadice, wasn’t impressed by his pleas.
Minutes later, McGowan, who was never far away from controversy throughout the evening, sparked an angry melee among both sets of players when he booted Celtic sub Liam Henderson up in the air.
In fact, Jackie McNamara’s team escaped a genuine scare in only the third minute when keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak cleared out Griffiths just outside the box. Match official Murray went to his pocket and United must have feared red, but only a yellow card was produced. It was a real let-off for the visitors.
Once the smoke had cleared on a hectic, frantic confrontation Ronny Deila knows his side were only three hours away from another of the magical hat-trick of trophies in his debut season in the Hoops’ hot seat.
United welcomed Nadir Ciftci back into the starting line-up after the Turkish striker had been suspended for Sunday’s League Cup Final which the Parkhead side won 2-0.
Ciftci was caught on camera kicking Scott Brown on the head in the first game, but, remarkably, charges against him were found not proven by the SFA powers-that-be. The temperamental Tayside ace might have wanted to hit the headlines for a different reason on this occasion, but he made little impact.
The champions showed little hangover from their Cup celebrations and played with a verve and vigour that always suggested they would ease their way through to the next round. And so it proved.
Jason Denayer, who will return to Manchester City when his loan expires at the end of the season, got the breakthrough goal in the 20th minute when he sent in a looping header after a fine Stokes free-kick delivery.
United struggled to stem the green-and-white tide and Commons, Forrest, Stokes and Griffiths were combining well to keep the pressure on.
It was a similar story after the interval with the Celts looking sharp and United’s players toiling to get a foothold back into the Cup-tie.
They had their moments, though, and there was a degree of anxiety around the ground before Griffiths showed excellent technique to volley a lofted pass from Scott Brown past the helpless keeper for the killer goal in the 57th minute. The livewire raider was immediately replaced by John Guidetti.
In the 78th minute, the Swede set up Commons and he drove an effort high into the net from 10 yards for No.3. Van Dijk made the scoreline more comprehensive when he knocked in a fourth from close range in the fading moments after being set up by his central defensive partner Denayer.
It was a scoreline that did not flatter Deila’s side, whose momentum could carry them towards only their fourth treble in the club’s history.
The bad new for United is that they now face Celtic in the Premier League at the same setting on Saturday and Celtic will for the first time against the Tannadice outfit be able to select new bhoys Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven.
Throughout the second-half, the happy Hoops fans chanted: “We’re going to win the lot.”
On recent evidence, who would argue with that reasoning?
TEAM: Gordon; Ambrose (sub: Fisher 72), Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Bitton, Brown; Forrest, Commons (sub: Henderson 80), Stokes; Griffiths (sub: Guidetti 58).