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CELTIC ON A TIGHTROPE – BUT 68 IT’S AFTER LATE SCARE

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CELTIC stuttered rather than stormed to their 68th successive unbeaten domestic game against Hibs at Easter Road this afternoon.

But, oh, how close they came to spectacularly and dramatically shooting themselves in the foot.

Leading by two strikes by Scotty Sinclair with only 14 minutes to go, it took a breathtaking goal-line clearance from Mikael Lustig in stoppage time to extend the remarkable sequence.

Hibs were alowed back into the contest with some dire and sloppy defensive work by the Hoops.

Neil Lennon’s men struck two in the space of three remarkable minutes as the champions rocked and were on the ropes for a spell.

The first-half was not quite as pulsating as the second period. Brendan Rodgers decided to go with last week’s hat-trick hero Odsonne Edouard with Moussa Dembele, who later came on, and Leigh Griffiths on the bench.

In the first-half, the French teenager, on loan from PSG, rarely featured and was coming far too deep in search of the ball.

The opening 45 minutes will be remembered for all the wrong reasons – a remarkable miss from James Forrest when it looked as though it would be impossible not to hit the target at the very least.

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However, in the 19th minute, that’s what the winger managed to do much to the frustration of the manager, his team-mates and the travelling fans.

Ex-Celt Dylan McGeouch presented him with the ideal opportunity with a bizarre ball across his own penalty area from the right wing.

Forrest latched on to it, moved unchallenged into the box and, just when it looked as though keeper Ofir Marciano had given up all hope, the Scotland international wildly thumped the ball past the post.

It was a shocking miss, but, to be fair to Forrest, he didn’t hide and got straight back into the thick of the action and two minutes later was crowded out as he took too many touches in the box.

Lustig, who was surrendering possession with alarming frequency, also had a superb chance to break the barrier in the 37th minute.

Forrest cushioned a magnificent ball into his stride, but the Swede was wayward with his finishing and he, too, missed the target.

As expected, Hibs were contesting everything with a snap and a snarl and there was the usual Scott Brown v John McGinn confrontation all over the pitch.

Sinclair looked busy on the left, but last season’s 25-goal man, in the opening period, only displayed the rarest of glimpses of his dazzling footwork as he took on Steven Whittaker, who wasn’t fussy about how he challenged his direct opponent.

There was a scare for the champions in the 24th minute when a long diagonal ball from McGinn eliminated Kieran Tierney and the speedy Martin Boyle was allowed to race in behind the defender.

Thankfully, Craig Gordon’s concentration and his angles were both spot on and he got down at his near post to block the winger’s blistering drive.

There was the bizarre sight of Edouard being flagged for offside after starting his run from inside his own half. Time for the match officials to do a little homework on the laws of the game.

The second-half exploded into action when Sinclair was sent through on Marciano in the 54th minute and it looked as though a goal was on the way.

Alas, he didn’t get enough lift on his delivery and the keeper sprawled on the ground and deflected the shot way with an outstretched foot.

On the hour mark, Sinclair had better fortune when he claimed a crucial opportunistic effort.

He drove in from the left to zip a ball into the danger zone. It fell to Edouard at the far post and his left-foot drive from six yards clattered against the inside of the keeper’s left-hand post.

It rebounded across the penalty box and Sinclair was the first to react as he raced in to confidently sweep an unstoppable effort into the unguarded net.

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Four minutes later, the flamboyant Englishman repeated the feat and it looked as though the points were on the way to the east end of Glasgow.

Dedryck Boyata won a tussle with Boyle deep in his own half before knocking the ball to the elusive Callum McGregor who took off on a penetrating run towards enemy territory.

The midfielder ended his surging drive with a pass to Sinclair who drifted in from the left across the box before walloping in a ferocious right-foot effort. It took a touch off Marvin Bartley on its way beyond Marciano.

In the 73rd minute, Sinclair thought he had completed his hat-trick. So, too, did just about everyone inside Easter Road with the exception of the linesman.

Forrest slid in his team-mate with a neat pass and Sinclair’s finish flashed low past the keeper at his left-hand post. It looked good, but the assistant referee thought otherwise and flagged for offside. If it was off, it was certainly marginal.

Three minutes afterwards, Hibs were back in the game – with a goal accredited to Efe Ambrose, of all people.

The Celtic defence fell asleep at a right-wing corner-kick as Lennon’s men went through a training ground routine with McGregor the most culpable of the Hoops.

He let McGinn pick out a colleague at the edge of the box, then he allowed the midfielder to get beyond him and there was a melee in the box before the ball bounced to Ambrose and his shot was deflected past the helpless Gordon.

Astonishingly, Hibs levelled when Anthony Stokes released Lewis Stevenson deep inside the Celtic box and his cross picked out sub Oli Shaw.

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The youngster was allowed to turn and sweep a drive high into the net with Gordon once again totally exposed.

Hibs sensed they could create an upset and they took the game to a team that gave the ball away far too cheaply on too many occasions.

In the 89th minute, though, Boyata should have won it for the Hoops. Stuart Armstrong, on for Ntcham, swung in an inch-perfect free-kick from the right and the Belgian international only had the keeper to beat from six yards.

Unbelievably, he thundered a header high over the bar. It was a glorious opportunity to settle the encounter and he blew it big-time.

And Celtic almost paid dearly in the last minute of stoppage time when Ambrose hoisted a high and hopeful punt from the right into the box.

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Gordon, who had looked so calm and assured throughout the first 92 minutes, mishandled at the edge of the box and spilled the ball in front of Shaw.

The youngster immediately sidefooted it towards the empty net, but Lustig materialised from somewhere to hoof the ball to safety.

The action came to a halt seconds later when Sinclair was allowed to come in from the left, but his shot was wide.

One minute, it looked as though Rodgers’ men had blown it. And the next, they could have won it.

It was that sort of game. But there will be a steward’s enquiry into how Hibs were allowed to get back into the contest when they should have been dead and buried.

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CQN Man of the Match – Scotty Sinclair

TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Simunovic, Boyata, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham (sub: Armstrong 86); Forrest (sub: Hayes 80), McGregor, Sinclair; Edouard (sub: Dembele 71).

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