Celtic ahead of the curve

CHAMPIONS of their country - and by a country mile.

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Celtic manager Neil Lennon punches the air in delight on a night he emulated Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan
Celtic manager Neil Lennon punches the air in delight on a night he emulated Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan

Celtic are home and hosed in the 2013-14 title 'race' after a 5-1 win against Partick Thistle, a result and performance which underlined the gulf that exists between the Hoops and the rest.

Trophy back in the cabinet. Money in the bank. Quality on the field. Another Champions League qualifying ticket booked.

The worrying fact for those who have to work out how to formulate some kind of genuine challenge to Neil Lennon's team over a league campaign is that the Parkhead boss believes they are only going to get better after what he feared would be a difficult season due to the loss of key men last summer

Those concerns were never allowed house room in Paradise, as the stats confirm.

They are already six points ahead of where they finished after last season's 38 games.

That left them 16 points clear of runners-up, Motherwell. Already they are 26 ahead of second-placed Aberdeen.

It took Celtic until April 21 to clinch the championship last year. They have bettered that by a full 26 days this time around.

That's the quickest since three points for a win was introduced, and the fastest since Rangers were crowned champs on March 16 in 1929.

Celtic are now shooting for a magnificent seven more victories to take them to 105 points - a new record for Scotland's top division.

There are sundry other records to aim at, including most shut-outs and most wins.

But, for now, everyone at Celtic will luxuriate in the fact they have made it three-in-a-row and brought league title No.45 to Parkhead.

It was Lennon's 153rd league game as manager - and his side have won 118 of them, losing only 17.

It was fitting for the man who has made Glasgow his home for the past 14 years that if title night couldn't be at Paradise, this Glasgow derby should be staged just round the corner from his west end abode.

Lennon summed up his overwhelming feeling of pride at delivering yet another trophy when he said: "It's always a special moment. That's what Celtic are about.

"We have only lost one game this season. Our consistency in the league has been amazing this year."

Lennon is only the sixth manager in the club's 126-year history to win the title three times.

More significantly and satisfying for Lennon, he has now emulated his mentors, Martin O'Neill and Gordon Strachan, in doing so.

And, after a stodgy first half, they did it in style to provide another memorable chapter in Lennon's memoirs.

His team did get off to the best possible start, taking the lead after just three minutes to convince the excited support - chanting for 10-in-a-row before the third was in the bag - that this would be a stroll, as so many games have been this season.

Emilio Izaguirre delivered another peach of an assist from wide on to the head of Anthony Stokes, and the striker headed well out of the reach of Paul Gallacher.

That should have settled any nerves which existed, though, given their advantage over the rest of the pack, there was little reason for anyone to be anxious.

If the title hadn't been won last night, it was not exactly going to be the signal for a miraculous late surge by Aberdeen or Motherwell to deny them.

The party would just have rolled along to Parkhead on Saturday, when Ross County are the visitors.

As it is, that will now be a celebration of a job well done.

Lennon will, of course, want those who attend to be royally entertained again by his newly-crowned Hoops heroes.

For him it is, and always will be, about standards. So, it will require a repeat of their second-half performance, not the first 45 minutes, at Firhill.

Thistle, fighting to avoid being sucked down into the play-off place, recovered well from their early loss of a goal to take the game towards Fraser Forster for the remainder of the first half.

The running and trickery of Lyle Taylor and Kallum Higginbotham, plus the raiding from deep of Stephen O'Donnell asked questions of Celtic's defence, in which Efe Ambrose had returned to partner Virgil van Dijk.

That, and a few unforced errors, lead to a booking for Charlie Mulgrew midway through the first half when he was forced to pull down Taylor as he menaced towards their penalty box.

Like so many other opponents Celtic face, however, there was a lack of cutting edge.

However, they did get some reward for their endeavour five minutes from time when sub Christie Elliot found time and space in the box to shoot past Forster - much to the keeper's chagrin.

By then, the points were long gone. Lennon made the changes that mattered at the interval, taking Adam Matthews off, with Liam Henderson coming on in midfield, Ambrose moving to right-back and Mulgrew dropping into central defence.

The result was almost immediate as the 17-year-old got his first goal for the club four minutes after coming on.

A low cross from the left from Stefan Johansen was dummied by Kris Commons, then Leigh Griffiths, who had spotted Henderson's intelligent run into space on the right of the box.

He took a touch to control it, then another to despatch it low past Gallacher to spark scenes of jubilation among the Hoops support.

That was cranked up to delirium four minutes later when Johansen drove powerfully into the Thistle box and drilled a low shot across the keeper and into the net to make it 3-0. Joining the supporters at the front of the stand cost Johansen a booking, but it is a price the Norwegian was happy to pay.

After Thistle got in on the scoring act, the final word was left to Stokes and Commons in the closing minutes.

Fed by sub Georgios Samaras, Stokes rattled home his second of the night and Celtic's fourth, followed a minute later by Commons who shot through Gallacher's leg to make it 5-1 and set the corks-a-popping.

However, they were denied the lap of honour they were entitled to after the final whistle by the idiocy of their own support, who came on to the field at full-time.

Football

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