IT may be a matter of debate as to how successful Celtic’s season has been following their cup competition failures, but no-one can dispute their complete mastery of the Scottish Premiership.
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes (16, 64, 66)
Their unrelenting march to the title resumed with as dominant a victory as they have enjoyed so far in their still
unbeaten league campaign. St Johnstone were able to offer little in the way of resistance as an Anthony Stokes hat-trick reinstated Celtic’s 21-point lead at the top of the table.
It was also another landmark afternoon for Fraser Forster as the Celtic goalkeeper equalled the all-time Scottish record of 12 successive league clean sheets set by Bobby Clark at Aberdeen back in 1970-71. The England international is now just 31 minutes away from eclipsing the total of 1,155 minutes Clark went without conceding during his sequence.
Forster’s run of Premiership shut-outs has been underpinned by the consistency of the back four in front of him. But they are far from immune to the type of individual lapses which saw Emilio Izaguirre inexplicably put the goalkeeper’s bid for further entries in the record books under threat after just seven minutes.
The Honduran left-back, who would last just another 14 minutes before limping off injured, played a square ball across the face of his own penalty area straight into the path of David Wotherspoon. The Saints midfielder is capable of hitting the target from distance but, to Forster’s relief, his shot from 22 yards flew just over the crossbar.
It proved a rare moment of threat to the home goal during a 90 minutes monopolised by Lennon’s men. Leigh Griffiths, full of energy and enthusiasm on his first starting appearance for Celtic, found a good position to engineer his team’s first attempt at goal but his netbound shot was blocked by Steven Anderson.
Griffiths then showed good movement to get on the end of a clever pass into the penalty area from Kris Commons, only to guide his header wide from close range. A marginal but correct offside call meant it would not have counted, but Griffiths should have hit the target.
His eagerness to be involved in the play was rewarded, however, when he played his part in Celtic’s 16th-minute breakthrough. The move was started by Virgil van Dijk, the Dutch defender making a meandering run from his own half which took him towards the heart of the St Johnstone backline.
Van Dijk played a short pass to Griffiths on the edge of the penalty area and he laid it off perfectly into the path of Stokes, wrong-footing the visitors’ defence. Stokes showed excellent footwork as he cut inside Lee Croft and steered a low right-foot shot beyond Alan Mannus’ right hand from around 14 yards.
Izaguirre’s enforced departure from the action caused a temporary lull in Celtic’s momentum, young Darnell Fisher coming on to replace him at left-back.
But they almost doubled their lead in spectacular fashion through Commons in the 26th minute. Pulling rank on team-mate Stefan Johansen to seize on a loose ball some 25 yards out, Commons thundered in a rising left foot shot which had Mannus beaten all ends up but rebounded from the crossbar.
It was was all pretty comfortable for Celtic as St Johnstone struggled to provide any worthwhile support or ammunition to their lone striker and top-scorer Stevie May.
Celtic had an optimistic penalty claim turned down by referee Steven McLean just before the interval when a Griffiths header struck Anderson’s arm, the close proximity of the players certainly making it the right call from the official.
The game was sadly lacking in dynamism, a factor attributable to the largely uncontested nature of Celtic’s control of possession. Wotherspoon saw a shot deflected behind off van Dijk for a corner, but Saints were generally making no more impact as an attacking force in the second half.
Wright attempted to bring his team to life in that department, introducing striker Nigel Hasselbaink for midfielder Chris Millar, but most of the traffic continued to flow in the direction of Mannus’ goal.
Celtic finally doubled their lead in the 64th minute with a well constructed and clinically finished goal. Adam Matthews surged down the right and found Scott Brown inside the penalty area. The Celtic captain held off a challenge and hooked a high pass towards Stokes at the far post. The striker brought the ball under control immediately and turned swiftly to smash home a right foot shot from around six yards.
If Mannus had no chance with that goal, the St Johnstone ‘keeper was badly at fault when Stokes completed his hat-trick two minutes later. Receiving a pass from Commons, the Dubliner cut in from the left and drove in a low shot which should have been comfortably saved by Mannus to his right. But he allowed the ball to squirm beyond his grasp, leaving Stokes to wheel away in delight and celebrate the third hat-trick of his Celtic career.
Brown was unfortunate to see a long- range shot strike Mannus’ right hand post and rebound to safety as Celtic looked to further emphasise their superiority.
It looked as if Forster was going to equal Clark’s record without having a save to make but he displayed his outstanding concentration levels when called into serious action for the first time with 11 minutes remaining. Hasselbaink jinked his way into the penalty area and his shot took a deflection off Efe Ambrose which looked like diverting the ball beyond Forster. But he reacted instinctively, using his left foot to make an unorthodox but effective save.
Griffiths was unfortunate to be denied his first Celtic goal by an offside decision which should have seen him given the benefit of the doubt, but this was a wholly satisfying day for Lennon as his team bounced back from the previous week’s Scottish Cup exit.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre (Fisher 21); Brown (Boerrigter 72), Biton, Johansen; Commons; Stokes (Pukki 88), Griffiths. Subs not used: Zaluska, Balde, Samaras, O’Connell.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Anderson, Scobbie, Easter; Croft (O’Halloran 67), Millar (Hasselbaink 60), Dunne (Cregg 78), McDonald, Wotherspoon; May. Subs not used: Banks, Iwelumo, Brown, Miller.