The gap between Celtic and Ross County wasn’t as sizeable as the final scoreline at the Global Energy Stadium last night may have suggested.
In a pulsating second half, Brendan Rodgers’ men were pushed as they rarely have been in domestic football this season before Stuart Armstrong produced a composed finish to sweep in a low shot from 20 yards to give the visitors a two-goal advantage they were never going to give up.
Scott Sinclair added a sheen to the win by volleying high into the net from inside the six-yard box in added time, before Moussa Dembele provided more polish courtesy of a tap-in with the last kick.
That nine-minute three-goal flurry ensured that series of missed chances that followed Patrick Roberts giving Celtic an opening minutes’ lead did not prove costly.
Against a valiant County side, for a half-hour spell in the second period it took commanding goalkeeping from Craig Gordon, and home wastefulness, to prevent the outcome being placed in the balance.
Rodgers had stated earlier in the week that he would utilise his squad to ensure the players coped with the schedule of Dingwall, Aberdeen on Saturday and the Champions League jaunt to Monchengladbach three days later.
No-one quite expected that he would do this by fielding what was largely a second string against Jim McIntyre’s side. It wasn’t simply that there were eight personnel changes from the team which accounted for Rangers in Sunday’s Betfred Cup semi-final. Mikael Lustig may have been one of three players retained, but the armband wearing Swede – Scott Brown was rested entirely – was moved into centre-back from his more usual right-back slot.
There may have been an expectation that a starting XI featuring peripheral figures such as Emilio Izaguirre and Ryan Christie might have taken time to settle, to develop any sort of fluency.
With such as Cristiano Gamboa at right-back and Liam Henderson in an attacking area, all over the pitch there were individuals playing together for the first time.
Yet, right from the first whistle, Rodgers’ side exhibited a zip and a zest. Those elements were encapsulated in the scintillating slaloming run that allowed Patrick Roberts to provide an instant goal return.
Only 134 seconds had elapsed when he raced 30 yards down the right channel and drove into the penalty box, wrapped his foot around the ball and steered a precise effort inches inside Scott Fox’s right-hand post.
Celtic then seemed to want to play exhibition football, with flicks and slick get-and-gos allowing them to move County around and force them on to the back foot.
Yet, Celtic’s willingness to pour forward left them open to the counter and County showed a lick all of their own in being able to construct such attacks. Their assurance in doing so belying recent form that left them winless in the seven games leading up to last night. Within eight minutes, they would have fashioned an equaliser but for the telescopic limbs of Craig Gordon.
Liam Boyce exchanged passes with Ryan Dow, with Lustig losing the Northern Irishman after he failed to cut out a return, and as he looked to curl the ball past the Celtic keeper Boyce was thwarted by a fully extended left foot.
There was always the feeling that County could score and that Celtic probably would score.
That neither did find the net was down to Christie smacking the ball almost straight at Fox from point-blank range midway through the half, after County had been opened up, and the home keeper pushing away a flashing drive from Griffiths after another break down the left.
In between, Gardyne looked to have capitalised on uncertain defending when he slipped the ball past Gamboa and looked to have curled the ball in at the far corner only for it to drift the wrong side of the upright.
After another powerful start following the interval from Rodgers’ men, County again forced their way into the encounter to leave Celtic looking the more vulnerable of the two teams.
Burke slipped when clean through, then had Gordon scrambling to prevent the ball bouncing over the line after battering the ball against the keeper from a couple of yards. Agonisingly for the home support, Davies also clipped the post with a header from a corner, that forced Gordon again to block from Burke.
Rodgers’ concerns over this momentum shift were reflected in his committing big hitters Dembele, Sinclair and Nir Bitton to teh fray, the Israeli replacing Griffiths – the Scotland striker at the centre of a controversial moment early in the second period when he appeared to kick-out at Davies after a heavy challenge from the defender. Already on a booking, referee Alan Muir elected to take no action
McIntyre was also left mouthing “shocking” to the fourth official after Gordon was only booked for taking out Boyce on sprinting outside his box to meet the striker 18 minutes from time.
There was no shock, though, that Celtic prevailed, but surprise that the Dingwall side could have almost run them close.