CELTIC 3 PARTICK THISTLE 2
IRRESISTIBLE James Forrest fired in a sublime hat-trick as holders Celtic saw off a never-say-die Firhill outfit to claim a place in the Scottish Cup quarter-final.
However, this win was not without some anxiety at Parkhead this afternoon just when it looked as though the tie was done and dusted.
The run-in to the final whistle was a lot more nervy than it should have been and the unconvincing defending from the back lot will not be lost on Brendan Rodgers as he prepares for the visit of Zenit St Petersburg for the first leg of their Europa League encounter on Thursday.
But at the start it appeared as though the most overworked man in the east end of Glasgow today was certain to be Thistle keeper Tomas Cerny.
The eager Forrest declared war on the visiting rearguard and the jinking winger was in breathtaking form as he netted two inside the opening 10 minutes and came within a fingertip of a 16-minute hat-trick.
There was no stopping him, though, in this mood and the threesome – his first for the club – was duly delivered nine minutes after the turnaround.
Forrest was unstoppable as he raced at the Firhill defenders and it looked as though the game would be put to bed before the half-time whistle.
However, an absolutely horrendous passback from the appallingly lackadaisical Jozo Simunoc threw the Jags a lifeline in the 20th minute to change the complexion of the confrontation.
However, before the defender’s howler, the Hoops were well into their stride and were a threat every time they surged determinedly towards Cerny.
It took Forrest a mere one minute and 18 seconds to breach the barrier and leave Thistle gasping for breath.
Scott Brown snapped onto a slack ball out of defence from Baily Cargill and the skipper swiftly and astutely swept a pass forward into the direction of Moussa Dembele, lurking with menace on the edge of the box.
The French Under-21 international striker exercised a sublime touch with his right foot to take out two defenders as he set himself up for a left-foot effort.
He made a good connection, but it took a deflection before spinning in front of Forrest.
The mesmerising attacker didn’t hesitate as he struck it first-time from close range and knocked in his 14th goal of his most prolific campaign.
In the sixth minute Kieran Tierney, putting in his usual exhausting shift, flashed over a cross from the left touchline, but Dembele’s header lacked precision as the ball carried over the crossbar.
But the Hoops did manage to double their advantage in the 10th minute and it was a Goal of the Season contender from the flying Forrest.
The Scotland international picked up the ball just inside the Thistle half and put his head down as he raced straight for goal.
He sidestepped Adam Barton with some aplomb as he carried towards the box, sidestepping two challenges as he reached the danger area.
Forrest could have slipped in the unmarked Scott Sinclair, but decided to go on his own and smashed an 18-yarder wide of the helpless Cerny at his right-hand post.
Four minutes later, Charly Musonda set up Forrest who curled a low effort towards the bottom corner of the net, but this time the shotstopper threw himself full-length to get the merest of touches to edge it wide of the upright.
Celtic’s good work was undone, though, in the 20th minute with Simunovic’s careless blind passback. He presented Kris Doolan with the easiest chance of his entire career and he hit it first time over the shoulder of the startled and exposed Dorus De Vries.
Five minutes from the interval, Mikael Lustig, who appeared to be operating at half-pace, was left writhing in a heap after an over-the-top challenge from Callum Booth who, remarkably, escaped a booking from referee Steven McLean for his reckless tackle.
Danny Devine had been yellow-carded only moments earlier for a foul on Tierney and, after Lustig had resumed action, Ryan Edwards clattered into the left-back to floor him in the penalty area.
Thistle’s resistance took a knock in the 54th minute when Forrest claimed his hat-trick to hoist his goals tally to 16 – just one behind leading scorer Sinclair.
Tierney slid a pass to the rampaging Sinclair who first-timed a ball across the box to Forrest.
He took two touches to set himself before drilling a powerful effort beyond Cerny. It was a brilliant way to celebrate his personal first.
Olivier Ntcham was displaying only rare glimpses of his recent dynamic form and Rodgers freshened up the midfield when he replaced Musonda with Callum McGregor.
Scott Brown set up Sinclair with a genuine opportunity in the 78th minute, but, frustratingly, the attacker slammed the ball straight into the chest of the relieved Cerny.
A minute later, Sinclair made way for Odsonne Edouard as the Hoops looked for the goal that would finally seal the contest.
Amazingly, however, it came at the other end in the 84th minute and, unfortunately, Simunovic once again looked more than a shade culpable.
Chris Erskine threaded a pass through the centre of the defence and the Bosnian international was far too easily outmuscled by substitute Connor Sammon who shrugged him aside before walloping a low drive beyond the diving De Vries.
Thistle threw everything at the their opponents in the vain hope of forcing a replay at Firhill. There was a jittery moment in the last minute of stoppage time when Erskine beat McGregor in a 50/50 race for the ball on the touchline.
He slung it towards the back post where Edwards and Tierney both went for the cross and, thankfully, it dropped for De Vries to smother the ball and the chance was gone.
FOOTNOTE: Could there be a double Cup celebration in the Forrest family this weekend? James’ brother Alan plays for Ayr United against Sevco Rangers at Somerset Park tomorrow afternoon!
CQN Man of the Match James Forrest
TEAM: De Vries; Lustig, Simunovic, Ajer, Tierney; Brown, Ntcham; Forrest (sub: Kouassi 88), Musonda (sub: McGregor 65), Sinclair (sub: Edouard 79; Dembele.