CELTIC extended their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League night in front of a distinguished guest in Sir Alex Ferguson.
Scorers: Celtic: Hooper (19) (80) Wanyama (33) Brown (84)
It turned into a showcase for two of Neil Lennon’s most prized talents. Gary Hooper was first to shine when nervelessly finishing to put Celtic ahead after just 19 minutes and he scored again in the second-half with a stylish back-flick as the hosts established a firm grip on the proceedings.
Victor Wanyama also shone and scored Celtic’s second goal with a header after 33 minutes. He, too, is the focus of transfer speculation but it was Hooper who stole the show on the day he turned down Celtic’s latest offer to extend his contract. There is no hard feelings; the Celtic fans chanted his name throughout. Hooper was then named man of the match after making it 22 goals for the season.
Scott Brown, who came on as a second-half substitute, completed the scoring six minutes from the end as Celtic scored four goals for the second successive occasion in the league. It was a comfortable victory in the end, although United had indicated that they might prove awkward customers in the early stages.
The pre-match intrigue was split between the news Ferguson was in the building and that Hooper has rejected a latest contract offer from Celtic. Ferguson’s presence is likely to be attributed to an interest in Wanyama, who ensured it was not a wasted journey for the Manchester United manager by scoring. In addition, Ferguson cannot fail to have been impressed with Hooper, who put his side ahead after 19 minutes and might have had a couple of goals even prior to slotting home the opener.
It had been far from plain-sailing for the home team, however. They might easily have been behind in only four minutes when Gary Mackay-Steven was left in a one-on-one situation with Celtic goalkeeper Lukasz Zaluska. Perhaps it was all just a bit too straightforward for the trick-loving winger, whose outrageous flick on Saturday against Kilmarnock has become a YouTube favourite in recent days. Here, however, he proved less adept at finding the net from a slightly angled position after being played in by Johnny Russell. Instead, he rolled the ball wide of the far post.
It was an enjoyable match for Ferguson; United, clearly, had not come to sit back. Jon Daly joined Russell in attack, and it was an end-to-end affair in the opening stages. This particular fixture was a long time coming. Postponed from the second weekend of the season due to Celtic’s friendly appointment with Real Madrid, it was then moved from its next scheduled date to facilitate the Glasgow side’s Scottish Cup replay against Arbroath, thus providing a delicious, and possibly unique, reason to include the teams from the Bernebeu and Gayfield in the same sentence.
With Celtic 2-0 inside 35 minutes, those not present inside the stadium might well have presumed a gulf in class. This wasn’t the case, however. Although they already looked out of contention in terms of salvaging a result, United had looked bright. Willo Flood shot just wide as the teams traded missed chances. Zaluska then put his side under unnecessary pressure when rifling a clearance against Daly, although the ball eventually ran out of play.
Hooper then twice had chances to open the scoring, heading a Samaras cross just over and then hitting the bar with another effort. Finally, the deadlock was broken. Again Hooper applied the finishing touch, although it was a goal that stemmed from a sweeping move after Lassad carried the ball into the United half, before laying-off an intelligent ball into Georgios Samaras’ path. The Greek striker proved just as alert, playing a first-time pass to the back post, where Hooper was on hand to tuck the ball beneath Radoslaw Cierzniak. He did
immediately flash a look that betrayed some concern towards the near-side assistant referee, whose flag stayed down. Few would have been surprised had it been raised.
Hooper was free to celebrate his 21st strike of a season that has again proved remarkably productive, after a slow start. He might have turned down a new contract, but Celtic can surely expect to hold-out for something substantially more than the
£5 million offered by Norwich City when he departs, whether it is this month or later in the year. And what about Wanyama? The Kenyan maintained his status as Celtic’s most valuable asset with his eighth goal of the season after 33 minutes. A short-corner was played by Mulgrew to Mikael Lustig, whose cross to the far post was headed into the far corner of Cierzniak’s goal by Wanyama. It looked remarkably easy; indeed, it bore all the hallmarks of a move devised on the training pitches at Lennoxtown.
It had proved an ultimately disappointing half for United, who had started brightly and could easily have taken the lead. Manager Peter Houston changed things shortly into the second-half in an attempt to liven his side up again. Stuart Armstrong replaced Mark Millar. Daly came close with a powerful header that had to be hacked clear from the Celtic six-yard box.
In truth, the contest had become a lot less engrossing since those opening stages, when United looked capable of causing the hosts some significant problems. Brown came on for Celtic to help shore things up further for Celtic, replacing Kayal. Illustrating the extent of the Scottish midfielder’s authority at the club, Samaras was tugging the armband from his arm before Brown had even entered the fray. He slipped it on to his team-mate’s arm; Celtic, meanwhile, were barely in trouble again. Indeed, they extended their lead when Hooper flicked in at the near post from Samaras’ cross after 80 minutes. It was the finish of a man in form.
Anthony Stokes then emerged from the bench to begin his attempt to revive his Celtic career. It was the striker’s first appearance since injuring himself during the warm-up before the Real Madrid game in August. It was Brown, however, who rounded the night off in style, curling a shot into the far corner after being set-up by man-of-moment Hooper.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to
Lennon’s side is that Ferguson was still present to see the late brace of goals.
Celtic: Zaluska, Lustig (Matthews 73), Rogne, Mulgrew, Izaguirre, Kayal (Brown 61), Wanyama, Ledley, Samaras, Hooper, Nouioui (Stokes 82). Subs not used: Thomson, Gershon, Watt, McGeouch.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Watson,Dillon, Gunning, Douglas, Flood, Millar (Armstrong 51), Rankin, Mackay-Steven (Skacel 71), Russell, Daly. Subs not used: Banks, McLean, Ryan, Gardyne, Dow.