TWO goals in two blistering second-half minutes from Leigh Griffiths made certain a Celtic triumph wasn’t gone with the wind in Dingwall tonight.
The wet and wild conditions in the Highlands were hardly conducive to sparkling, entertaining, free-flowing football, but the SPFL champions maintained their concentration to remain six points ahead of Hearts at the top of the table.
Ronny Deila knew it was imperative the Hoops came straight back from the dreadful disappointment of the Molde defeat on Thursday night.
And Dingwall, against a fired-up Highland outfit, could have emerged as a banana skin. Thankfully, the Parkhead avoided it with a rousing display after the break.
It was slow to start, but the game burst to life in the 38th minute with an outstanding goal from Tom Rogic who scored with a ferocious drive that almost took the net away from behind keeper Garry Woods.
Up until that defining moment, the Hoops had been fairly pedestrian and too predictable as they brought the ball forward. The link-up play lacked pace and precision and was laced with wayward passing in the swirling wind and rain.
However, Mikael Lustig embarked on an adventurous quick burst as he came in from the right and slid a pass to the lurking Rogic on his left.
The Aussie midfielder cleverly allowed the ball to run across his body before lashing an unstoppable left-foot drive from just outside the box that zoomed high into the top right-hand corner with Woods utterly helpless.
It was a welcome gem amid the mediocrity of an opening half that failed to ignite.
In fact, the nearest thing to a goal came at the other end in the 11th minute when Liam Boyce, the former Celtic trialist who has been so deadly for the Highlanders this season, missed from a superb position.
The lively Tony Dingwall wriggled clear on the left before firing over a peach of a cross. Boyce timed his run to perfection as he nipped in front of the dithering Dedryck Boyata.
With the goal at his mercy, the striker met the ball from close range, but, amazingly, steered a header wide of the upright with a thankful Craig Gordon, motionless while rooted to his line, breathing a massive sigh of relief.
Celtic’s reply to that scare was instantaneous and Efe Ambrose and Rogic combined to set up an opportunity for the roaming James Forrest, but he slashed his drive wide of the post.
Emilio Izaguirre, preferred to Kieran Tierney with the teenager missing the start after his stamina-sapping display against Molde, was busy on the left wing, but his crosses were coming to nil.
Then came the explosive intervention from Rogic that was almost matched a minute later by Stefan Johansen who tried his luck from distance, but Woods dived full-length to gather the attempt.
A courageous save from Gordon prevented an almost certain equaliser inside the first minute of the second-half.
Boyce cleverly held off Boyata and slipped a pass inside Efe Ambrose for Ian McShane to run onto. The striker’s first touch was heavy and that was all the keeper required to throw himself at his opponent’s feet to deny him a first-class opportunity.
Griffiths was always lively along the frontline, but, once again, Johansen was worryingly anonymous and contributed very little before he made way for Gary Mackay-Steven.
But Griffiths then made an impact to make certain the points were heading back to the east end of Glasgow with his quickfire two-goal salvo.
In the 54th minute, Nir Bitton played in a cute ball that wasn’t dealt with by a slipping Scott Boyd and the frontman seized on the chance. He brought the ball under control, drifted left and then struck a composed and deliberate effort wide of Woods’ outstretched right hand.
And he wasn’t finished. While Ross County’s defenders tried to catch their breath, Bitton sent Forrest scampering on his way down the right. He carried it to the bye-line before picking out Griffiths, unmarked at the back post six yards out, and his pass was neatly tucked away with the aplomb of a marksman bang in form.
Amazingly, the Hoops almost claimed another within 60 seconds, but Forrest’s low left-foot attempt sneaked past the left-hand post with Woods toiling to get across his line to deal with the danger.
In the 59th minute, the resolute Highlanders hauled one back. Lustig’s challenge was insipid as he attempted to deal with a cross from the right. Dingwall made the most of the Swede’s clumsiness as he charged in to take control of the situation before burying a 12-yard drive beyond the exposed Gordon.
Shortly afterwards, the shotstopper was required to make an excellent flying save to his right to touch away a Michael Gardyne piledriver and that stung the visitors into claiming a fourth goal.
Stuart Armstrong drove over a right-footed corner-kick from the left and Bitton, at an angle, leapt to glance a brilliant header high past Woods into his top left-hand corner of the net.
Gordon, though, was called upon again before the end to show his international class. A right-wing free-kick was curled into a packed penalty area and Martin Woods jumped highest to thump in a vicious header. The keeper had to take off in spectacular fashion to turn the bullet-like effort over the bar.
With 10 minutes to go, Nadir Ciftci replaced two-goal Griffiths while Callum McGregor came on for Rogic.
Celtic finished with 10 men when Forrest, after sustaining a knock, went off just before the end with the Hoops in cruise control.
This was the final game before the international break and most of the Celtic players can take a rest before coming back refreshed and re-invigorated for the challenges that lie ahead.
TEAM: Gordon; Lustig, Boyata, Ambrose, Izaguirre; Johansen (sub: Mackay-Steven 71), Bitton; Forrest, Rogic (sub: McGregor 80), Armstrong; Griffiths (sub: Ciftci 80).