GEORGIOS Samaras grabbed a hat-trick as Celtic warmed up for the visit of Barcelona in midweek with a 5-2 win over Kilmarnock in their Scottish Premiership clash at Rugby Park.
SCORERS: Kilmarnock - Clingan 35, Clohessey 42; Celtic - Commons 20, Samaras 24, 27, 88, Balde 90
The visitors raced into a three-goal lead in 26 minutes through a Kris Commons strike and a Samaras double but Killie midfielder Sammy Clingan, playing his first game of the season after recovering from a knee injury, reduced the deficit with a great free-kick before defender Sean Clohessy made it 3-2 just before the break.
The second half by comparison was an anticlimax with the home side never really threatening to draw level before Samaras sealed the win in the 87th minute with a header and substitute Amido Balde, on for Teemu Pukki, scoring a fifth two minutes later.
Celtic will be tested more in their Champions League Group H clash with the Catalan giants at Parkhead on Tuesday night but manager Neil Lennon will be glad that his side are back among the goals, following the 1-0 Scottish League Cup defeat by Championship Morton in midweek.
Kilmarnock boss Allan Johnston, still looking for his first win of the season, will be heartened by his side’s spirit in a match that took place against the background of some rancour amid the home support.
Killie chairman Michael Johnston had upset the club’s fans by giving Celtic season ticket holders - but not their own supporters - the chance to buy cut-price tickets for the game.
There was a small protest outside the ground before the game but those supporters who turned up were treated to a thrilling five-goal first half.
With one eye on Tuesday’s match, Lennon brought back Commons, Samaras, Fraser Forster, Adam Matthews, Emilio Izaguirre and Anthony Stokes into the starting line-up but it was the home side who started more impressively.
Former Rangers striker Kris Boyd took stick from the Hoops fans behind the goal at the start of the game but he had a header saved by Hoops goalkeeper Forster in the third minute after he got on the end of a cross by Clohessy.
Minutes later, Boyd headed a Michael Gardyne cross from the left wide of the target.
However, all that good work was undone in the 19th minute when Killie keeper Craig Samson dealt poorly with a speculative Samaras cross from the left by punching it straight to the feet of Commons, who knocked it back into the turf and into the empty net.
The second goal came in the 24th minute when a Matthews cross from the right arrived at Samaras at the left-hand side of the box and he guided it powerfully past Samson and into the far corner of the net.
Two minutes later, the Greece striker carved open the Killie defence by playing a one-two with Commons before sliding the ball past Samson with some confidence.
The Ayrshire looked demoralised but in the 35th minute, after Hoops defender Virgil van Dijk was adjudged to have fouled Gardyne 25 yards out, Clingan sent a wonderful free-kick high past the helpless Forster.
Moments later, as the home fans pondered the possibility of an unlikely comeback, Celtic skipper Scott Brown drove wide of the post from 12 yards when a goal might have dampened Killie enthusiasm.
The injured Matthews was replaced by Mikael Lustig before the Rugby Park men got themselves right back in the game three minutes from the interval when Clohessy worked a one-two with Clingan and guided the ball low past Forster and into the far corner of the net for his first goal since signing in the summer after leaving Southend.
There were few clear-cut chances created at the start of the second half although in the 66th minute Celtic striker Pukki clipped the bar with a powerful drive from the edge of the box.
David Silva, who returned to the club for a second time in midweek, replaced Rabiu Ibrahim in the 78th minute before Balde came on for Pukki.
But it was Samaras who won the matchball three minutes from time when he headed in a Charlie Mulgrew free-kick from six yards out, with Balde driving in from an angle in the 89th minute with his first competitive goal for the Hoops.
More to follow