ROSS COUNTY 0 CELTIC 4
PATRICK ROBERTS was the hero in the Highlands as he scored the first goal and was highly instrumental in the three others as Celtic triumphed in Dingwall.
Three goals in the last 10 minutes from Stuart Armstrong, Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembele made it look like a runaway triumph, but Brendan Rodgers’ side had to work hard for their three points.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon was their saviour when he was needed most to pull off a couple of remarkable saves to deny County while the game was still in the balance.
The Hoops couldn’t have asked for a better start with the tricky Roberts scoring in exactly two minutes and nine seconds after some tantalising footwork as he carved open an opportunity for himself.
But, uncannily like the last visit to the Highlands when they dropped two points against Inverness Caley Thistle, the champions didn’t nail their advantage with a second goal. Instead, Jim McIntyre’s outfit were allowed back into the contest and troubled Gordon’s goal more often than was comfortable.
Boss Rodgers, with an eye to the game against Aberdeen on Saturday and Borussia Monchengladbach on Tuesday, made eight changes from the side that beat Sevco Rangers 1-0 in the Betfred League Cup semi-final on Sunday.
Goal hero Dembele was left on the bench with Leigh Griffiths leading the line while skipper Scott Brown got the night off.
The Parkhead men began aggressively and it was no surprise when snake-hipped Roberts, in for James Forrest, got the breakthrough goal in the opening minutes.
He collected a pass from Armstrong and jinked inside County’s man mountain left-back Kenny van der Weg. Suddenly there was an opening and the on-loan Manchester City winger skilfully curled a left-foot effort low past the stranded Scott Fox to his right.
The travelling fans sat back and waited for the onslaught, but, worringly, the Highlanders could have equalised in the seventh minute and were denied only by a brilliant save by Gordon.
Mikael Lustig, playing in central defence, was caught out with a neat chip that let in Liam Boyce. The Irishman drilled a low drive for the far corner, but Gordon was alert to the danger and spread out a foot to divert the ball to safety.
In the 20th minute Griffiths had a reasonable chance on his weaker right foot and Paul Quinn blocked his 12-yard effort that spun for a corner-kick.
Four minutes later, Emilio Izaguirre and Liam Henderson combined on the left to set up an opportunity for Ryan Christie, but Fox denied him with an excellent reaction save.
In the 33rd minute, there was a scare for the Hoops when Michael Gardyne gave Cristian Gamboa the slip far too easily just inside the box, but his left-foot drive swept just wide Gordon’s far upright.
But six minutes later, Griffiths came within inches of giving Celtic a second goal when he latched onto a clever flick from Henderson. He drilled in a left-foot shot from the edge of the box, but was foiled by Fox he somersaulted full length across his line to touch the ball for a corner-kick.
Eight minutes after the interval, Gordon produced an exhilarating stop to thwart Martin Woods after his defenders fell asleep at a left-wing throw-in from Paul Quinn. Boyce nodded it back and Woods fired through a wall of bodies, but the athletic Gordon was equal to the task with a dive to his left to repel the danger.
Rodgers made two changes around the hour mark with Dembele and Sinclair coming on for Christie and Henderson and Nir Bitton later replaced Griffiths to join them as the Hoops boss reorganised his formation.
In the 66th minute it was Gordon to the rescue again when a header from Andrew Davies following a Martin Woods left-wing corner-kick thundered against the base of the left-hand post.
The shotstopper managed to juggle the ball clear and then get down smartly to save from the follow-up attempt from Chris Burke.
It is now 405 minutes since Gordon conceded a goal in domestic competition and he will be looking to extend that at Pittodrie on Saturday.
The Highlanders poured forward in their determined bid to get an equaliser and they were caught out in the 83rd minute when the Hoops grabbed a second when that man Roberts set up Armstrong to send a disguised shot from the edge of the box low past Fox at his right hand.
Three minutes later, Sinclair had a horrendous moment when he missed the target after being sent clean through, but he atoned in the second minute of stoppage time when Roberts’ deflected effort fell to him to thump home from close range.
And it was Roberts who raced down the right to cut the ball back for Dembele to crack in his his 15th of the season in the fading moments.
In truth, the four-goal margin flattered the champions on this occasion, but it set up Rodgers’ men for an intriguing game against Aberdeen at the weekend.
Anyone know how Comedy Club Sevco Rangers got on?
Team: Gordon; Gamboa, Lustig, Sviatchenko, Izaguirre; Armstrong, Griffiths (sub: Bitton 69); Roberts, Christie (sub: Dembele 58), Henderson (sub: Sinclair 62); Griffiths.