IT WAS three cheers for champions Celtic as they powered back to the Premiership pinnacle with a well-earned victory over Livingston this afternoon.

Brendan Rodgers watched from the stand as his side hit three second-half goals for their third successive 3-0 win in West Lothian.

After a stuttering, unconvincing first-half, the visitors clicked into gear with the assistance of an own goal from Jamie Brandon four minutes after the turnaround and two others from substitute Paulo Bernardo and Matt O’Riley.

Rodgers’ men are now one point ahead with seven matches to play, but they made it difficult for themselves against a Livi team who performed exactly to script.

DELIGHT AND DESPAIR…Reo Hatate, Nicolas Kuhn and Matt O’Riley celebrate the breakthrough goal as Livi defender Ayo Obileye sits it out.

They chased and harried and Tete Yengi, a battering-ram of an old fashioned centre-forward, certainly let Cameron Carter-Vickers and Liam Scales know he was around.

Celtic had to wait until two minutes into stoppage-time of the opening half to get a shot on target which emphasised their lack of a cutting edge in a frustrating performance.

Shamal George was at last called into action when Kyogo Furuhashi latched onto a long pass from O’Riley, wriggled free of a challenge to whip in a low angled drive.

It was heading for the far corner until the Livi keeper dived full-length to his right to push the ball to safety.

Kyogo also figured in the main talking point in the first-half when he was sent crashing to the turf in the 37th minute following a robust challenge from behind by Mikey Devlin.

WATCHING BRIEF…Brendan Rodgers views the action from the Livingston stand with some members of the Celtic board.

The Japanese frontman was about to move onto a low right-wing cross from Alistair Johnston before he was sent spinning in the box.

There was definite contact and the visiting support immediately claimed for a penalty-kick, but referee Don Robertson wasn’t interested and VAR assistant Alan Muir backed his colleague’s judgement.

It was all carried out in the blink of an eye and, bizarrely, the onfield official wasn’t even instructed to review the coming-together on his touchline monitor.

No spot-kick. No surprise.

There had been an alarming lack of ingenuity about the champions as they tried to get to grips with the dodgy surface that looked bone dry.

Daizen Maeda had the pace to terrorise the home rearguard, but his finishing was wasteful and twice in quickfire succession he walloped the ball into the crowd when he should have done so much better.

Comeback Bhoy Reo Hatate had the Hoops’ first attempt on goal in the fifth minute when he was picked out by O’Riley with an astute right-wing corner-kick.

THE OPENING GOAL…Reo Hatate, Matt O’Riley , Nicolas Kuhn and Daizen Maeda look on as Livi keeper Shamal George is beaten by a rebound off team-mate Jamie Brandon.

The playmaker was unmarked as he whipped in a left-foot drive from 20 yards, but the ball carried just over the bar.

The Japanese ace tried again from 25 yards in the 40th minute, but his precision was lacking as his effort sailed wide of the far corner with George stranded.

After all the huffing and puffing of the opening period, the visitors claimed the breakthrough strike with an in-off from the unfortunate Brandon in the 49th minute.

Nicolas Kuhn did well to retrieve the situation on the right when it looked as a move had broken down. The German won possession and slipped a neat pass in front of the menacing Hatate.

The midfielder fired a close-range shot at goal only to be denied by a superb reflex save from George.

At last, the champions got a break and the ball ricocheted off Brandon and past the fallen keeper to give the Hoops advantage.

Seven minutes later, George foiled Kyogo with an outstanding save as he managed to get across his line to push away a 10-yard drive that was heading for the net.

In the 65th minute, Hatate, obviously tiring in his first start of 2024, was replaced by Bernardo.

Six minutes later, Adam Idah and Yang Hyun-jun were introduced to the action with Kyogo and Kuhn making way.

And the champions doubled their advantage in the 72nd minute with a brilliant goal from Portuguese ace Bernardo who proved persistence can play off.

The stylish midfielder rode two challenges before playing a swift one-two with O’Riley. He accepted the return and took a step forward before unleashing a low right-foot effort from 20 yards that zipped in low at the keeper’s right-hand post.

PORTUGUESE MAN OF ROAR…Paulo Bernardo yells in triumph as he celebrates his stunning strike for Celtic’s second goal.

Celtic were celebrating again in the 83rd minute after a wonderfully-worked move saw O’Riley nonchalantly sidefoot an effort past George at his left.

Tomoki Iwata, Yang and Idah were involved in the build-up before the ball arrived at the feet of the Danish international who swept in No.3.

In the 87th minute, James Forrest and Daniel Kelly came on for Maeda and O’Riley as the Hoops coasted to three crucial points.

Kelly should have had a fourth when a superb left-wing cross from Forrest found him unmarked at the far post, but the teen ace headed wide from six yards.

Now all eyes are on Ibrox a week today when the champions have the opportunity to move four points ahead in the race for their twelfth title in 13 years.

TEAM: Hart; Johnston, Carter-Vickers, Scales, Taylor; Iwata, O’Riley (sub: Kelly 87), Hatate (sub: Bernardo 65); Kuhn (sub: Yang 71), Kyogo (sub: Idah 71), Maeda (sub: Forrest 87).

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