Celtic have return ticket as under-par champs flex muscles

CELTIC yesterday opened applications for 2014-15 season tickets.

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Hat-trick hero Kris Commons collects the match ball at Rugby Park
Hat-trick hero Kris Commons collects the match ball at Rugby Park

They would have been as well advertising it as an invitation to see four-in-a-row delivered.

A few hours after their sales pitch was initiated, they took another huge step towards ensuring those who subscribe will be watching the champions defend their title.

They didn't even need to be anywhere near their best to beat Kilmarnock 3-0, with a Kris Commons' second-half hat-trick.

On the face of it, convincing fans to part with their hard-earned cash when the outcome is known in advance might appear a hard sell, given that the Hoops are already well odds-on to make it four consecutive coronations for the first time since the start of nine-in-a-row in the mid-Sixties.

However, Neil Lennon remains very much of the mind that, if he builds it, they will come - as they did in huge numbers to swell the 7495 crowd for their second helping of Friday night football.

He may not have put together a dream team. Far from it.

But he is determined to ensure there is enough entertainment served up to go a long way towards negating the fact that anything less than victory is worthy of recording on the Richter Scale.

That's why last night's stuttering first-half performance did not give him much satisfaction.

Taking part in the Champions League is, of course, the big target, both in terms of raising profile and capital to strengthen.

Becoming Scottish champions remains the only pathway to the qualifiers, therefore that will always be the club's priority.

They are on course to achieve that goal in record time this season, and now

require only another seven points to get over the line.

But, while it has been more of a hack canter than a Cheltenham Gold Cup charge, Lennon is not prepared to allow anyone to drop the bridle, as some did for long periods last night.

Despite initially being off the pace set by themselves, the win took them to within one point of their total for last season. Breaking the ton barrier, then setting a new league record of 105 points is very much the carrot he is dangling.

Managing his players over the final few weeks of the season will be a challenge for Lennon, mindful as he is of those who still need games to qualify for a medal, matches to show what they can do after months on the fringes of a settled side, and rest for those who have carried the main burden for the past nine months.

Lennon is also very keen to reward the youngsters at the club who have shown promise in the Development Squad, but now need to have their progress assessed in competitive situations.

Liam Henderson got just such an opportunity at Rugby Park, the 17-year-old midfielder starting for the first time.

He was on the right of the diamond, with Charlie Mulgrew slotting in at the back for the suspended Virgil van Dijk.

Killie fans voted with their feet, presumably many opting for the live TV view.

Perhaps news of a long-awaited power shift in the boardroom, which filtered through as the game was about to kick off, will entice them back to see if their team can avoid the play-off spot.

As hard as they battled, they will be glad they don't have to face Celtic again in that task.

Killie had lost nine goals in their two previous meetings with the Hoops, and could have been behind before a minute had elapsed this time, had Anthony Stokes not strayed into an offside position before ramming the ball beyond Craig Samson.

It appeared to be an indication of Celtic's intent, but the lack of precision with their passing quickly blunted their attacking edge.

In truth, the first half yielded very few genuine scoring chances for the Hoops. That meant trepidation was replaced by inspiration in the Killie ranks.

They had come close in the early stages when Kris Boyd just failed to connect with a Sean Clohessy cross.

The striker was again frustrated when he was bundled to the ground by Efe Ambrose as the ball came into the area, but ref Willie Collum waved aside his appeals for a penalty.

The booking for Manuel Pascali for a foul on Leigh Griffiths seconds after served only to fuel the home side's feeling of injustice.

But they were even more aggrieved when Celtic finally awoke from their torpor 12 minutes after the break. And it was that man Commons who made the points safe.

Mulgrew broke out from the back, found Commons, who played it onto Griffiths, then ran into the box to collect the return and shoot across Samson.

Three minutes later, with the smoke hardly cleared, he played a 1-2 with Adam Matthews and had only to tap the return into the net.

The hat-trick came five minutes from time when Commons nonchalantly strolled towards the Killie box, then let fly from 25 yards into Samson's bottom left-hand corner.

So, it was job done for Celtic. Now, who's for a season ticket?

Kilmarnock: Samson, Clohessy, Ashcroft, Pascali, Tesselaar, O'Hara, Slater, McKenzie (Muirhead 87), Gardyne (Eremenko 62), Moberg Karlsson (Johnston 66), Boyd. Subs not used: Nicholson, Gros, Reguero, Maksimenko. Booked: Pascali.

Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, Mulgrew, Izaguirre, Johansen (Boerrigter 87), Brown, Henderson (Kayal 82), Commons, Griffiths (Pukki 75), Stokes. Subs not used: Samaras, Balde, Zaluska, O'Connell. Goals: Commons 57, 59, 86.

ATTENDANCE: 7,495

Football

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