CELTIC guaranteed they will be Scottish football’s Christmas number one as they opened up a six-point lead at the top of the Premiership table with a dominant victory over St Mirren which leaves the managerless Paisley club at the bottom of the pile.
Scorers: Celtic - Brown (4, 18), Forrest (15), Stokes (67); St Mirren - Kelly (10)
Ronny Deila’s team are finally imposing themselves on the rest of the top flight in the manner expected of them. This was their eighth consecutive league victory since the shock defeat to Hamilton Accies back in October and they are now in a commanding position in pursuit of a fourth successive domestic title.
St Mirren’s first match since Tommy Craig’s departure was a predictably painful experience, although they did provide some initial resistance to the inevitable when Sean Kelly cancelled out Scott Brown’s early opener for Celtic.
But interim Saints boss Gary Teale ended the day grateful not to be on the end of an even heavier defeat than the final 4-1 scoreline as Celtic missed a hatful of opportunities to at least double that tally.
While it did not take Celtic long to gain firm control of the contest, those opening stages were not without elements of discomfort. The defensive vulnerability which contributed to their midweek Europa League defeat in Zagreb was again evident as they traded attacks with St Mirren during the frantic start to the match.
The visitors might even had gone in front after just 40 seconds, John McGinn beating Celtic right-back Adam Matthews all too easily down the left and whipping a low cross into the penalty area. It was perfectly weighted to pick out the run of Kenny McLean but his composure deserted him as he executed an embarrassing fresh-air swipe at the ball to let Celtic off the hook. The home side took full advantage, taking the lead in the fourth minute. Emilio Izaguirre and Anthony Stokes continue to develop their promising relationship on the left flank of Deila’s team and combined cleverly to create the opening. Marc McAusland could only slice his attempt to clear Stokes’ cross straight into the path of Brown, who drove a firm right-foot shot beyond Mark Ridgers’ left hand from the edge of the penalty area.
St Mirren remained determined to be progressive despite that setback and a tight offside call denied McLean four minutes later when he did beat Craig Gordon from another McGinn cross.
But the equaliser was only delayed until the tenth minute. Celtic were disjointed in the extreme once more as they failed to deal with McLean’s deep free-kick from the left.
McAusland nodded the ball back across the six-yard area where Kelly nipped in ahead of his captain Steven Thompson to force the ball beyond Gordon.
It was St Mirren’s first goal at Celtic Park for five years and provided their small band of travelling fans with a flicker of hope the day may just offer them something positive.
That notion was soon disabused, however, as Celtic were more than capable of compensating for their failings at the back with some high-tempo and imaginative attacking football which Saints were unable to resist.
The hosts regained the lead in the 15th minute from a move again initiated by excellent interplay down the left between Izaguirre and Stokes. The ball found its way to John Guidetti just outside the penalty area and his clever reverse pass played in James Forrest on the right. The winger drove a powerful right-foot shot across Ridgers into the far corner of the net to claim his first goal for Celtic since February.
Just three minutes later, there was little remaining doubt about who would be claiming all three points as Celtic made it 3-1. Efe Ambrose, looking far more valuable to the Celtic cause going forward than when confined to defensive duties, surged out from the back and fed Forrest on the right.
Driving into the penalty area, Forrest cut the ball back into the path of Brown who produced a near carbon copy of his earlier finish as he guided a right-foot shot beyond Ridgers’ left hand.
It was little wonder that Teale was already stealing several anxious glances at his stopwatch as he watched anxiously from the technical area.
But Saints somehow managed to avoid falling any further behind before half-time, which was as much due to Celtic’s profligacy in front of goal as any resilience from the visitors. Stefan Johansen and Nir Bitton both failed to make the most of close-range opportunities before Guidetti perpetrated the most glaring miss of all when he shot tamely straight at Ridgers from close range.
Celtic began the second half with Callum McGregor on for the injury-plagued Forrest, then Guidetti’s frustrating afternoon took another turn for the worse when he limped off in some discomfort to be replaced by Stefan Scepovic.
For St Mirren, it was now little more than a damage limitation exercise but Celtic were in no mood to settle for what they had.
Stokes curled a free-kick narrowly wide then Johansen shot straight at Ridgers before the fourth goal finally arrived in the 67th minute.
Seizing on a McAusland error, Izaguirre’s pass allowed Johansen to burst into the left-hand side of the penalty area and square the ball to Stokes, who clipped home a left foot shot which beat Ridgers via the inside of the ‘keeper’s left-hand post.
Celtic’s final tally remained at four, simply due to the remarkable wastefulness of Scepovic. The Serbian striker contrived to miss three simple close- range chances, hitting a post with the last of them from no more than a yard out.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Johansen, Biton (Henderson 59), Forrest (McGregor 45), Stokes, Guidetti (Scepovic 59). Subs not used: Zaluska, Commons, Fisher, Griffiths. Goals: Brown 4, 18; Forrest 15; Stokes 67.
St Mirren: Ridgers, Kelly, Tesselaar, McAusland, Naismith, McGinn, McLean, Goodwin, Osbourne (Mallan 83), Reilly (Marwood 71), Thompson (Ball 75). Subs not used: Kello, Caldwell, Morgan, Drury. Goals: Kelly 10.
Ref: C Thomson