CAVALIER Celtic went on the rampage as they overwhelmed Caley Thistle with a power show at Celtic Park.
The visitors made the scoreline more respectable with two goals late on as Celtic took their feet off the gas with Wednesday in mind. Despite the late scares this was a good and pleasing work-out for the Hoops.
Ronny Deila’s men were stung against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park when they carelessly threw away the lead twice to allow the Ayrshire side to come off the ropes and get an unlikely point.
However, they were in no mood this afternoon to be unwitting benfactors to John Hughes’ Highlanders. There were celebrations even before the kick-off when new signing Scott Allan, last night’s signing from Hibs, was introduced to the Hoops supporters. The midfielder was “honoured” to sign a four-year deal and the fans gave him a rousing welcome.
And the cheers continued in the eighth minute when the SPFL champions, searching for five titles in a row, took the lead with a swift and lightning strike.
Stefan Johansen, always industrious in the beating heart of the team, sent over an inviting cross and raiding right-back Mikael Lustig was deadly with a close-range header that zipped past helpless Welsh keeper Owain Fon Williams low down at the post.
It was all about high intensity after that as Deila’s outfit swarmed all over the visitors who were finding it difficult to draw breath such was the pulverising procession of their opponents’ pressing game.
And it was no surprise when Celtic doubled their advantage in the 12th minute and once again it was all down to some nice work on the flank. Nir Bitton wriggled free on the left before sweeping over a cross to the far post.
Inverness were playing the price for Celtic’s dropped midweek points at Kilmarnock. If you didn’t recall what happened in last season’s Scottish Cup semi final, you could have almost felt sorry for them at this stage in the match.
Leigh Griffiths’ timing was impeccable as he got up to meet the ball perfectly to power an effort low past the Caley keeper. As the ball nestled in the net behind Williams, he stared at his defenders who had been undone by the speed and accuracy of the champions’ clinical movement. He knew he was in for a hectic afternoon.
There was a scare for Celtic when skipper Scott Brown was clattered by the aggressive, agricultural Ross Draper with a late challenge. Referee Craig Thomson had little option but to flash a yellow card at the Caley Thistle culprit. Brown, returning after missing a couple of games, had to have onfield treatment before he resumed.
Boss Deila looked on anxiously from the touchline – the last thing he needed was his captain being crocked before the visit of Malmo for the first leg of their Champions League play-off on Wednesday.
It was still all one-way traffic as Johansen manoeuvred into a position, but his finishing effort was just too high as it sizzled over the crossbar with Williams breathing a sigh of relief.
And the £10Million rated Johansen was out of luck again shortly afterwards when Griffiths set up the Norwegian midfielder and he pummelled a drive against the bar. The ball rebounded to Stuart Armstrong and his effort was bundled off the line by Draper.
Carl Tremarco was the next of the Thistle players to be booked by the match official as Hughes’ outfit struggled to stem the relentless tide.
Griffiths, who scored inside two minutes against Killie on Wednesday and then failed to register with another six attempts, tried to nail the contest as he made some space in a packed penalty area to get a clear sight at goal. He hit the ball with commendable power, but, unfortunately, it flashed over the bar.
However, Celtic’s back lot were given a wake-up call in stoppage time with the break looming as Craig Gordon was brought into action for the first time in the afternoon.
Dedryck Boyata, normally so precise, misplaced a ball forward from defence and it was worked to Andrea Mbuyi-Mutombo who blasted in a ferocious drive from the edge of the box. Gordon emphasised his levels of concentration with remarkable reflexes to stretch and touch the attempt over the bar.
Ten minutes after the interval, Celtic scored their third goal, the first time they have gone above two strikes at the fourth attempt. And the Highlanders could have no complaints as any hopes of a sensational comeback were well and truly smashed to smithereens.
The overworked Williams could only palm away an effort and the situation was retrieved by Griffiths. The ball was moved to Stuart Armstrong who took one touch before lashing an unstoppable drive into the roof of the net for his first goal of the season.
It was almost a fourth only minutes later when Griffiths chased down a wayward passback and the keeper was forced to race from his line and scramble the ball to safety.
Brown and Lustig, with an eye to the Malmo tie, made way in the 62nd minute to be replaced by Saidy Janko and Charlie Mulgrew.
Seven minutes later, Armstrong scored his second of the match and the season and in doing so put Celtic four goals clear courtesy of some sloppy play by the Caley Thistle defenders. They attempted to play the ball out of the danger zone, but it was intercepted and Armstrong made no mistake with a blistering right-foot drive across the gallent Williams and into the net.
The midfielder left the action a minute later with Callum McGregor taking his place. Within seconds of being on the pitch, the substitute had a marvellous opportunity to mark his introduction when he was sent clear on the keeper, but he lost control at the crucial moment and the chance was lost. Possibly, if the youngster had picked up the pace of the game, he would have been better placed to bury the effort.
Celtic Park was silenced in the 71st minute when the Highlanders netted completely against the run of play. The Celtic rearguard clocked off for an instant and Ryan Christie took advantage when he sprung the offside trap, bore down on Gordon and zipped the ball beyond the exposed keeper.
Amazingly, in the 78th minute, Gordon was beaten again as Hughes’ team sneaked a second. This time Dani Lopez was the man who did the damage with a low drive that whistled past the keeper’s right hand and low into the net.
Bitton picked up a yellow card following a heavy challenge as the champions lost their shape following the hat-trick of substitutions. To be fair, Caley Thistle suddenly came alive as they chased everything to try to unsettle their opponents. Gary Mackay-Steven joined Bitton in referee Thomson’s black book.
Celtic were given a timely warning that the game is never over until that full-time whistle, even when you are four goals ahead. There is no doubt that the withdrawal of the captain Scott Brown signaled a drop through the gears with Wednesday in mind.
No doubt the manager will stress the importance of playing until the final whistle to the players before Malmo come to town on Wednesday.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig (sub: Janko 62), Boyata, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown (sub: Mulgrew 62), Bitton; Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Armstrong (sub: McGregor 70); Griffiths.
* Geo’s match photographs to follow. This is the CQN Match report for today. Paul will post his observations on the match tomorrow. 
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