Celtic in middle of a game reaction to blast away cup blues

THE reaction wasn't of the nuclear variety.

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Stokes fires in his third of the afternoon to take his tally for the season to 11 goals
Stokes fires in his third of the afternoon to take his tally for the season to 11 goals

But it was more than enough to blow apart St Johnstone's aspirations of becoming the first club to shatter Celtic's unbeaten league record this term.

And it confirmed Neil Lennon's Bhoys are still ticking down towards the day the champagne corks explode to mark the club's 45th championship.

Aberdeen had shown what was possible by getting through the Hoops' seemingly-invincible defence to knock them out of the William Hill Scottish Cup the previous weekend.

In the wake of that, the Celtic manager had gathered his crestfallen players around him at their Lennoxtown bunker to emphasise that performance - poor as it was - was gone, and it is what they do from now on that matters.

The response was all he asked for, and a bit more, as they denied St Jonhstone even the opportunity to gain a foothold in a game which they won 3-0.

The hat-trick from Anthony Stokes and a record-equalling league shut out for Fraser Forster provided the sparkle on the day.

But the main ingredient that lit the fuse on the win which took them to 69 points - just 10 short of their entire tally for last season - was the grit and determination which lit up the entire team.

Make no mistake, the cup exit hurt and still stings. The league title may be the priority, but the other competitions are not just incidentals.

Now they have completed two-thirds of their league campaign, and could ­freewheel to the finishing line in the final 13 games.

The smile on Lennon's face told its own story, but the manager added a few appreciative words of his own. "It was a brilliant performance, more or less from start to finish," he reflected.

"I couldn't be happier with the reaction I got from the players. We have to put the cup defeat behind us and move on.

"We are still unbeaten in the league, and have extended the clean-sheet run, and they are incentives for the players.

"We want to be relentless in our pursuit of the title, and I think the players made that pretty clear."

Indeed they did, and almost from the very first whistle as they knew all eyes would be on them following last weekend's fall from grace.

The opening goal was a quick indicator of how lethal the Leigh Griffiths/Stokes combo could be.

Virgil van Dijk was allowed to step forward from his defensive position - remembering the goal he scored at McDiarmid Park earlier in the season, it was negligent of Saints to afford him this option - and pinged a ball into the feet of the new Bhoy.

With his back to goal, Griffiths sent a pass first time to Stokes, who jinked away from three opponents trying to close him down to make room for a shot from 20 yards which bounced once before going in at Alan Mannus's right-hand post.

The finish for his second of the day was even better.

Adam Matthews had intelligently picked out Scott Brown in the box with a lob, and the skipper spotted Stokes at the back post.

The striker took the ball with his back to goal and a defender muscling in behind, but wheeled and shot in at the post before Mannus could get across to cover.

The keeper did look a tad slow a minute later, however, getting down to Stokes' third of the day and 11th of the term.

Fed by Kris Commons as he drifted out of the centre into a position wide left, Stokes cut back in across Dave Mackay in the area to make room for his shot, which flew in low at the upright.

It was the kind of ruthless streak Lennon has been calling for as he has watched too many games drift dangerously towards their conclusion without his side having turned their advantage into a definitive lead. That did not ­happen on this occasion, and that is ominous for the teams Celtic will play on the run-in.

The cup exit appears to have re-ignited one or two who had previously shown signs of battle fatigue, and Lennon can see old and new players hitting their stride at an important time.

"Commons and Matthews looked back to their best, and Griffiths worked tirelessly for the team," he said.

"Stokes got his hat-trick, and he has been playing really well for the last month or so.

"Overall this season he has been excellent, and he is now getting the goals his performances deserve."

With James Forrest out again, and Georgios Samaras and Derk Boerrigter not in the form which would send them straight into the starting XI, there was a lack of genuine width, however, which is a real problem for a club built on the stories of wingers.

The onus was on the full- backs to get beyond the midfield and deliver crosses.

But the early departure of Emilio Izaguirre with a thigh strain damaged that plan as his replacement, Darnell Fisher, wanted to cut back on to his favoured right foot, something Saints' defence recognised.

The Green Brigade found their way back into the ground - albeit in another area - after a large proportion of them had been excluded for misbehaviour back in November.

"I thought the supporters were brilliant and created a great atmosphere," said Lennon, who sent his men to applaud the group afterwards.

While there is no denying they did fill in some of the gaps and added significantly to the atmosphere, their return brings as much apprehension as is does appreciation as their reputation for embarrassing the club goes before them.

Football

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