LETHAL Leigh Griffiths was the hat-trick hitman who shot Celtic a remarkable SIXTEEN points clear at the Premiership pinnacle with an irresistible performance against St Mirren at Parkhead this afternoon.

The lively frontman, handed a starting place by Neil Lennon, responded with a lively display that pulverised the Paisley outfit as the champions edged to within five wins of nine in a row.

This was the Griffiths the Hoops fans have grown to know, love and appreciate. He was a darting menace as he terrorised the visitors and looked to be back to the self-confidence that sometimes may even border on arrogance. But it is a belief that emphasised his worth to the team as he thumped in a terrific trio.

Celtic, as anticipated, started on the front foot and Saints keeper Vaclav Hladky was brought into action to save a fourth-minute effort from Nir Bitton.

They continued to probe as they rolled forward and the only time Fraser Forster was called into action was to deal with a free-kick from Cameron MacPherson which he managed with a fair degree of comfort.

POINT TO PROVE…Leigh Griffiths is a delighted Bhoy after his first hat-trick of the season.

At the other end, Hladky had to scramble to repel a long-drive lob from Scott Brown after the Hoops skipper had latched onto a poor clearance from the shotstopper.

But the barrier was broken in the 18th minute and it was a trademark goal from Griffiths that combined composure and timing.

Greg Taylor fed a pass in to Odsonne Edouard on the left and the Frenchman sent a teasing cross across the goalmouth. Calum Waters, the Saints left-back, switched off for a fatal moment and that was all the 29-year-old comeback Bhoy required to dart in front of him and slide the ball into the net. As easy as that!

The opposition called for offside, but it was just excellent awareness from Edoaurd wit the pass and Griffiths that allowed him space and referee Gavin Duncan ignored their claims.

The Hoops were eager to double their advantage and Brown, working hard as ever, sent over a deep cross that saw James Forrest rise unchallenged to guide in a header. However, once again the keeper displayed his agility as he leapt to turn the ball wide of the left-hand post for a corner.

Forrest then had a shot saved while Tom Rogic drifted in to hit a clever effort that saw Hladky paw the attempt away and Lee Hodson completed the clearance.

A second goal had to come and once again it was Griffiths who supplied the killer touch just a minute before the interval

He worked a quick one-two with Rogic that sliced open the opponents’ rearguard and sent him through on goal, one v one with the goalie.

There was only going to be one outcome and the on-fire hitman nonchalantly clipped the ball beyond the helpless Hladky for his tenth goal of the campaign, seven arriving since the turn of the year.

HAPPY DAZE…Leigh Griffiths celebrates a goal.

The second-half kicked off with the usual procession and Griffiths was first to test the custodian with a snap shot that was turned round the post.

However. Hladky had no answer when Edouard rolled in No.3 in the 54th minute with his usual aplomb from the edge of the box. The French ace performed a mesmerising swift spin to send Sam Foley in the wrong direction to carve open the opportunity.

He did not hesitate as the rattled the net for his 28th goal of a prolific campaign.

In the 73rd minute Ryan Christie entered the fray to take the place of Rogic – and a minute later Griffiths celebrated his first hat-trick of the campaign.

The masterful marksman collected the ball on the edge of the penalty area and drilled a low drive past the keeper to his left. It looked like an action replay of so many goals from the player over the glory years and signalled he was back for good.

DEADLY DUO…Leigh Griffiths and Odsonne Edouard celebrate.

Mohamed Elyounoussi came on for Edouard in the 76th minute and the club’s talisman left to a rousing reception from the appreciative fans.

And, equally, Hatem Abd Elhamed, missing since injuring a groin in the historic 2-1 win over Lazio in Rome in November, was welcomed five minutes later as he replaced Kristoffer Ajer.

Near the end, Callum McGregor got on the scoresheet with a well-taken penalty-kick whuch was awarded after a foul by Foley on the rampaging Elhamed.

The rain cascaded down on Paradise at full-time that saw them 16 points ahead at the top – and also, importantly, the team now possess a massive TWENTY-SIX superiority in goal difference.

TEAM: Forster; Bitton, Jullien, Ajer (sub: Elhamed 81); Forrest, Brown, McGregor, Rogic (sub: Christie 73), Taylor; Edouard (sub: Elyounoussi 76), Griffiths.

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