CHAMPIONS Celtic had to scrap at times, but, at the end of an exciting encounter at chilly Rugby Park, they had won by a Stuart Armstrong strike – and moved THIRTEEN points ahead of Aberdeen at the top of the Premiership.

It’s an amazing runaway feat by the Parkhead men after only 12 games and they could have their sixth successive crown wrapped up long before the end of the campaign.

However, there is just no way you can keep Moussa Dembele out of the headlines – and he was smack in the middle of the action against a battling Kilmarnock side tonight.

Celtic were probing and prodding away at Jamie MacDonald’s goal without success as half-time neared.

And then the French Under-21 striker was transformed from goal-taker to goal-maker when he set up Armstrong for an exquisite finish in the 44th minute.

James Forrest, who was lively right from the start, set up the mighty hitman to use his strength to force a pass into the stride of Armstrong.

The hard-working midfielder didn’t break stride as he came in at an angle to strike an unstoppable right-foot drive that saw the ball fly across the helpless MacDonald into the far corner.

It was no more than the Hoops deserved after dominating position, but the Ayrshire side did create a moment or two of consternation when they broke forward.

In fact, Brendan Rodgers’ team thought they had taken the lead in the 38th minute with a well-worked goal.

Armstrong nodded a right-wing cross onto Scott Brown who stabbed a pass back to Dembele. He did the expected as he lashed the ball into the roof of the net.

However, referee Don Robertson ruled it out with the Celtic skipper marginally offside in the build-up.

There was a surprise when Dedryck Boyata lined up alongside Erik Sviatchenko in the middle of the rearguard with Kolo Toure on the bench.

It was the Belgian’s first start since April and he looked a little short of match practice until he settled into the flow of the game.

Callum McGregor took over from Emilio Izaguirre at left-back with the Honduran on international duty during the week. Tom Rogic and Nir Bitton were also left on the bench until late in the second-half.

Dembele came close to the opening goal in the seventh minute when Armstrong and Forrest combined to set up a chance with a low cross from the right. The in-form frontman just prodded the ball wide of the target with MacDonald scrambling.

In the 14th minute, Scott Sinclair whipped in an inviting right-wing corner-kick and Erik Sviatchenko outjumped Scott Boyd, but, unfortunately, headed wide.

Forrest then brought out a fabulous high-flying save from MacDonald in the 25th minute as he cut into the box to thump in an effort that looked netbound. The Killie keeper, who lost six goals when the teams met in Glasgow earlier in the term, threw himself to his right to touch the ball away.

He should have had no chance, though, right at the start of the second-half when a neat flick from Dembele sent McGregor clean through.

It looked as though he couldn’t miss, but he lost his compsure at the vital moment and blasted the ball off the keeper. Sinclair fizzed the rebound over the bar.

It looked as though Celtic, wearing an unusual pink top, must get another goal, but they squandered chances as they came along.

Patrick Roberts had a cheeky effort clawed away by MacDonald and Sinclair sent one wide after good work from Forrest.

It took the home side until the 70th minute to get an effort on target when a Jordan Jones 25-yard free-kick was well held by Craig Gordon.

Forrest had an effort sclaffed off the line by the desperate Boyd and then in the 80th minute Mikael Lustig hit the outside of the post with a superb first-time drive from the edge of the box after being set up by Forrest.

Kilmarnock refused to make it easy for the visitors and put in a powerful shift, but at the end the points were heading for the east end of Glasgow.

A word, too, about the 8,000 Hoops fans who took over both parts of the ground behind the goals. They were immense and went through their full repertoire on this occasion.

We can only hope they are still signing when Barcelona come to town on Wednesday. There will be great odds on a Celtic win, worth a look and don’t forget to use a betfred promo code – Barca? We can’t wait!

TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Sviatchenko, McGregor; Brown, Roberts (sub: Rogic 66); Forrest (sub: Bittton 85), Armstrong, Sinclair; Dembele.

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