Celtic graft out road victory

NEVER mind appearances … scorelines have every bit the capacity to deceive.

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Kris Commons is congratulated by his team-mates Stefan Johansen, Scott Brown, and Virgil van Dijk after scoring  his second and Celtic's fourth goal from the penalty spot in their 4-0 victory over  Hibernian at Easter Road
Kris Commons is congratulated by his team-mates Stefan Johansen, Scott Brown, and Virgil van Dijk after scoring his second and Celtic's fourth goal from the penalty spot in their 4-0 victory over Hibernian at Easter Road

While Celtic's unbeaten run in the SPFL Premiership has been extended to 22 games with the 4-0 win over Hibernian, their current winning streak in domestic football moves on to 12, and their clean sheet run reaches 10 matches, Neil Lennon's side are having to graft to avoid it all coming to a shuddering halt.

The good news for Hoops fans is the players are prepared to do precisely that, no one more so than keeper Fraser Forster, who made a handful of quality saves to deny Hibs any re-entry to a match in which they had trailed from the opening minutes.

It was the same story last week when they defeated Motherwell 3-0. Had Forster not been at his best to deny James McFadden at 2-0, the complexion of the game - and the final result - could have been very different.

Lennon recalls an excellent save against Partick Thistle in the first game of an all- winning month was equally significant.

But, Forster is just part of a Green Machine which is powering on without showing any genuine signs of grinding to a halt. The only two questions now are: How long can they go without conceding goals or points, and when will this title 'race' be officially deemed over?

The bookies are preparing to pay out, and the clubs who have done their best to delay the inevitable are cutting themselves up.

Lee McCulloch was slapped down by Lennon and Scott Brown for his assertion there is little difference between Scotland's divisions.

Perhaps his absence from the top flight has dulled his ability to judge.

The truth is, there is even a huge gulf between Celtic and the rest of the Premiership, as the table - which shows the champions now 15 points clear with two games in hand - confirms.

The fact nearest challengers, Aberdeen and Motherwell, played out a 2-2 draw at Fir Park on Saturday opened the door for Celtic to widen that gap - which they duly did.

Now, they can get over the line by winning 10 of their remaining 16 games, the first of which is against Kilmarnock on Wednesday.

It seems certain the third consecutive title will come with the suffix, OBE - Over By Easter.

While Celtic continue to reign, their goals continue to pour. "That's 11 in our last three games, which is good going," said Lennon with pride.

It was no surprise they took the lead against Hibs. Nor that they got their noses in front early on, after just seven minutes this time.

It was even less of a shock Kris Commons was the man on the mark, capitalising in the capital on a schoolboy mix-up between central defenders Michael Nelson and Jordan Forster to steal in for his 20th goal of the season.

Celtic are proud of their charitable status ... they really don't require hand-outs from an impoverished Hibs side.

Had Georgios Samaras - sporting a trimmed hairstyle for his return to the starting line-up - been so clinical after a great run through the centre midway through the half, the contest would have been over.

However, as is his wont, and to Lennon's obvious frustration, he tried to sidefoot home when a good, old-fashioned blast was required and his effort was blocked.

Which meant that, when Hibs did get their game together and found a route towards Forster's goal, the giant Geordie had to be at his very best. His tip over from an Abdellah Zoubir effort on 56 minutes, with a Hibs striker jumping into his line of sight, was top-drawer.

BUT Forster bettered that with a flying leap to push aside Sam Stanton's curler as Hibs mounted their second-half push.

Lennon admitted that, from his position on the sidelines, it looked an equaliser all the way.

Indeed, the first sector of the half did not make pleasant viewing for Lennon as his side did not display the flowing football of late, and looked mentally jaded, if not physically so. Perhaps they are just getting tired of scoring early, then running out winners?

Whatever the reason, Lennon was constantly active in his determination to re-ignite them, changing the system to get them firing on all cylinders again.

"We went with a diamond to start with, and just felt there was a lack of cohesion with the way we were playing," he reflected. "We changed it for 10 minutes before half-time, then at the break made the change with Temmu Pukki coming on for Nir Biton. At half-time we asked the players if they were happy with the shape, and they said yes, so we stuck with the diamond. Obviously it wasn't working again, so we changed it to a flat four."

Lennon explained this flexibility is no accident, but by design. He said: "That's something we work on in training. Wth no winger, as Derk Boerrigter is injured and James Forrest is not fully fit, we have no natural width at the minute.

"That's why we decided to go with the diamond. It has worked for us in the past. But we were not at our best in terms of our passing at times and our movement. Certainly, we were more comfortable when we changed it again for the last 20 minutes."

They had been in neutral for quite some time before Virgil van Dijk drove home their superiority with a stunning free-kick to make it 2-0.

His shot from 25 yards flew past a helpless Williams. And the keeper was clutching the same fresh air six minutes later when Pukki blasted a shot across the face of his goal and in at the far post.

The game safe, there was even time to give Amido Balde a short run and Stefan Johansen his debut.

But, when Pukki was pushed over by Alan Maybury to give Celtic a penalty with two minutes remaining, the thought of giving one of the new Bhoys the chance to take the kick never crossed the mind of Commons, who dispatched his 21st goal of the season to make the final score more emphatic than, for a long period, it had promised to be.

Football

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