IT HAS taken them longer than anyone would have predicted last August but Celtic ultimately became Scottish champions for the 44th time with considerable style and four games to spare.
Scorers: Celtic - Hooper 61, 73, Ledley 66, Samaras 88; ICT - Doran 90
Their title party took some time to warm up yesterday, a laboured opening 45 minutes giving little hint of the second-half demolition which was inflicted on Inverness. A Gary Hooper double, taking his tally for the season to 28, was complemented by goals by Joe Ledley and Georgios Samaras in a compelling spell of incisive, attacking football.
Neil Lennon’s second successive championship win may have been regarded as a formality by most observers but that did nothing to diminish the manager’s sense of elation and satisfaction last night.
The absence of Rangers this season has given Scottish football’s top flight a totally different dimension but although Celtic have not consistently reached the standards Lennon demands, no-one can doubt their status as the country’s outstanding team.
With the SPL title race having been stripped of any sense of uncertainty of outcome for so long, the atmosphere inside Celtic Park was initially somewhat less than fevered. The nature of the home team’s first-half performance matched the mood, Lennon’s players perhaps understandably lacking the kind of urgency normally associated with a team so close to clinching a championship.
While they dominated possession and territory, most of their attacking work in that period was subdued with relative comfort by a compact and diligent Inverness outfit. It took Celtic a quarter of an hour to post their first real threat on Antonio Reguero’s goal with the Spanish goalkeeper relieved to see Victor Wanyama head wastefully over from close range after Inverness defender David Raven’s attempt to clear a Mikael Lustig cross had merely diverted the ball into the path of the big Kenyan midfielder.
When the decibel level of the crowd did rise significantly in the 19th minute, it had nothing to do with events on the pitch. Stiliyan Petrov’s former squad number of 19 at Celtic was marked by a loud and sustained burst of applause around the stadium as the Aston Villa club captain’s ongoing battle against leukemia was recognised.
Lennon, who joined in the ovation from his seat in the directors’ box, saw his team continue to probe patiently for the breakthrough. James Forrest flashed a shot wide from around 20 yards, then Hooper latched on to Wanyama’s pass to send a lob over the advancing Reguero only to be denied by Gary Warren’s covering clearance.
Celtic then found themselves on the wrong end of a marginal offside decision by assistant referee Charlie Smith in the 33rd minute, Anthony Stokes’ celebrations cut short after he had got on the end of Hooper’s flick to race clear and beat Reguero from close range.
Inverness struggled to make much of an impact at the other end of the pitch, often conceding possession cheaply in promising situations, but they came close to snatching an opener seven minutes before the interval when Graeme Shinnie’s corner was flicked on by Owain Tudur Jones and then nodded wide from close range by Warren as the Celtic defence switched off.
But the home side ended the first half in the ascendancy, Stokes shooting narrowly wide after fastening on to a poor passback and then Hooper being denied a clear scoring opportunity by a tremendous tackle by Josh Meekings just inside the penalty area,
Celtic were forced into a change at the start of the second half, the injured Forrest being replaced by Emilio Izaguirre with the Honduran going to left-back while Charlie Mulgrew was shuttled forward into midfield.
As much as there seemed little threat of Celtic losing the match, they would not have wished to secure the crown with a goalless draw. There were frustrated groans among the home fans when Efe Ambrose perpetrated what was far from his first headed aberration in front of an open goal this season, nodding a Kris Commons corner over from close range.
But the party was finally started when Hooper produced his first fine finish of the afternoon. Receiving a perfectly angled and weighted pass from the outstanding Commons, the striker held off Graeme Shinnie’s challenge and guided a low left-foot shot beyond Reguero’s left hand into the corner of the net.
Everything Celtic did now seemed far more fluent and relaxed with Inverness unable to handle the sudden change in tempo. Five minutes later, it was 2-0 as the visitors’ defence was carved open with some ease. Commons and
Ledley began the move, combining to set Lustig free on the right. The Swedish defender’s low cross picked out Ledley’s supporting run and the Welshman beat Reguero with a precise low right-foot shot from 14 yards.
It was exhibition stuff at times from Celtic now and they grabbed the third in 73 minutes, Commons the instigator again as he drove in a low cross from the left which Hooper brilliantly flicked home with the instep of his left boot at the near post.
With Inverness reeling, substitute Samaras added to their misery two minutes from time when he lashed home number four from a tight angle via the underside of the crossbar. Even Aaron Doran’s stoppage-time consolation goal for the visitors, coming when he burst through some sloppy defending to stab a shot beyond Fraser Forster, could not take the shine off an impressive second-half display by the champions.
CELTIC: Forster, Ambrose, Wilson, Mulgrew, Lustig, Commons, Ledley, Forrest, Wanyama, Stokes, Hooper. Subs: Zaluska, Izaguirre, Rogic, McCourt, Kayal, Samaras, Watt.
ICT: Reguero, Raven, Shinnie, Warren, Meekings, Tudur-Jones, Draper, Shinnie, McKay, Foran, Doran. Subs: Mathieson, Hogg, Devine, Taylor, Ross, Polworth.
Referee: K Clancy