CELTIC 3 INVERNESS CALEY THISTLE 0
TWO quickfire second-half goals from Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths helped to dump the dangerous Highlanders – and lift Celtic to a six-point advantage over Aberdeen.
Griffiths, with his 32nd strike of the season, made the scoreline look even more emphatic with a third in the fading moments.
Yet, despite the three-goal difference at the end, the champions had to scrap all the way for the points at Parkhead. John Hughes had his team playing very well, keeping possession and probing in and around Dedryck Boyata and Erik Sviatchencko.
But the contest turned on its head after the interval when the Hoops claimed two goals in a whirlwind five-minute period that ensured the points would remain in the east end of Glasgow. But it could have been quite a different story before Mackay-Steven broke the barrier in the 54th minute.
The nearest to a goal in the opening half came in the 17th minute and it must be admitted Craig Gordon’s goal lived a charmed life as the Highlanders squandered a clear-cut opportunity.
Greg Tansey, Thistle’s deadball expert, swung an inviting free-kick into the packed penalty area and the Hoops keeper appeared to collide with one of his own defenders as he attempted to fist the effort to safety. The ball arrived at the head of the unmarked Gary Warren and he was so surprised to be presented with the chance that he headed wide of the target. It was a let-off for the champions.
Worryingly, Celtic were not sparking on all cylinders and Hughes’ Scottish Cup winners looked extremely comfortable on the ball. They were moving it around with confidence for lengthy spells and Celtic’s midfielders were forced into chasing to cover vulnerable areas.
Boyata’s passing out of defence early in the game was a concern with his final ball often being intercepted as the visitors prepared to hit on the counter-attack. A simple enough tactic, but one that has proved so effective in the past.
Stuart Armstrong had a couple of chances that might have given the team some breathing space, but he lashed the first opportunity wide of the target and his second lacked the oomph to worry keeper Owain Fon Williams who gathered it with ease.
Gordon, apart from Warren’s misplaced header, had two more moments of concern when Ross Draper had an effort deflected wide and Miles Storey was too close for comfort with another drive.
Only moments into the second-half, the Highlanders should have taken the lead. Sviatchenko, booked in the first-half, was left for dead by the pacy Jordan Roberts as he raced in on goal. The Dane couldn’t run the risk of hauling back the speeding raider and suddenly it was a one-on-one situation with Gordon.
The experienced shotstopper refused to panic and cleared the danger as the Celtic players breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Mackay-Steven came up with the best possible response shortly afterwards when he fired in a left-foot effort from a central position that appeared to take a slight deflection before it nestled behind the helpless Williams low into the corner of the goal.
In the 59th minute, the Hoops struck again at breathtaking pace to knock the stuffing out of Hughes’ outfit. The ball was worked quickly upfield with Scott Brown involved and Griffiths, like every natural poacher, found a pocket of space in the rivals’ penalty area. He snapped up the pass before sending a well-drilled and accurate shot wide of the keeper at his right hand side.
At last the pressure was off and Ronny Deila took the opportunity to put on Scott Allan, Ryan Christie and Patrick Roberts as the second-half progressed. Off came Armstrong, Stefan Johansen and Mackay-Steven and the youngsters were given a warm welcome.
Allan and Roberts combined, with a little help from skipper Brown, a couple of minutes into stoppage time to free Griffiths to wallop in the third and his 32nd goal of a remarkable campaign.
Possibly for lengthy spells, mainly in the first-half, this was not a sparkling, champagne performance, but it could be one that will go a long way to a fifth successive Premier League championship victory at the end of the season.
Now there is Hamilton to take care of at New Douglas Park on Friday, so a win there will see Deila’s team move nine points ahead of the Dons before they play again. It’s looking good.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven (sub: Roberts 82), Johansen (sub: Christie 66), Armstrong (sub: 63); Griffiths.