THERE is something ominous about Celtic’s progress at present – four successive league wins and a run of five victories in total. Neil Lennon’s side now appear to be firmly remedying some faltering early-season form.
Celtic 4 - 0 Ross County
Scorers: Celtic - Brown (46), Hooper (53, 64), Forrest (70)
Perhaps only the torrential rain and a lower-than-hoped-for attendance could serve to dampen the home team’s enthusiasm. However, there was still plenty of festive cheer to be found. Looking further ahead, the prospect of a Champions League clash against Juventus in February is already gripping the imagination. Even during a first half when Celtic toiled somewhat, the fans started to chant “bring on the Juve”.
It was as though they recognise that doughty domestic opponents such as Ross County can often pose more of a danger to Celtic than European aristocrats such as Juventus, where the motivating properties will be taken as read. Alex Cooper, the Ross County midfielder who passed up his side’s best opportunity of the match when the scoreline was 0-0, later said, “I don’t think the fans were particularly excited with us coming to town when you consider some of the recent games they have had.”
And, of course, those that are coming up.
Celtic needed a kick-start against opponents whom home manager Neil Lennon praised for “having a good go at us”.
The Highlanders’ game plan had seemed to be working almost to perfection. Ross County were sent out with the specific orders to avoid losing an early goal and then hope the home team struggle to find fluency against a backdrop of growing frustration in the stands.
Derek Adams’ side felt their way into the game and then looked to strike in the period just before the interval. Indeed, the only disappointment when half-time came had been their own failure to score when given the opportunity.
Had Ross County been able to count on a striker such as Gary Hooper, they may well have earned something tangible from the afternoon. As it was, their inability to take a pair of first-half chances – former Celtic player Rocco Quinn was guilty of missing the other – meant that the first-half interval was spent wondering whether they would regret this profligacy.
Most agreed they would. This contention was quickly borne out when Celtic scored within a minute of the re-start through a goal by Scott Brown.
They rarely looked in trouble again, hence the predicted rueful nature of the comments from the visitors when asked for their reflections later.
Cooper’s miss, just a minute before half-time, was perhaps the most glaring of the spurned opportunities. Quinn’s weighted through ball meant Cooper barely had to adjust his stride as he bore down on goal. He appeared to hesitate slightly as he assessed his options – he could have dinked the ball over the goalkeeper, he might have gone round him or he could shoot towards the goal – in the hope that it might somehow evade Fraser Forster’s body. He went for the last of these and Forster blocked. Credit had to go to the keeper but it proved the defining moment of the game, something Cooper seemed to accept.
“I am disappointed, it was a good chance,” admitted Cooper afterwards. “It could have maybe changed the game a bit.
“I wasn’t thinking much. I was just through on goal. I am gutted I missed it really. I can’t really remember what I was thinking.”
What everyone watching was thinking was this – Ross County will likely come to regret that. And so it proved. Celtic struck a minute into the second half when a powerful Brown run down the right side of the box ended with him driving beneath Mark Brown’s body.
The Celtic skipper looked fit and ready for the challenges ahead, though it will be interesting to see whether he is employed in each of the next three festive fixtures. Seven minutes later, Celtic went further ahead after a good move involving Victor Wanyama and Lassad Nouioui. Hooper supplied the finish it deserved with a neat header into the corner and then repeated the trick after a corner by Charlie Mulgrew in the 64th minute. Indeed, Hooper might have had an unusual hat-trick of headers had he managed to apply better direction to a chance he had in the opening half. He also hit the bar with an effort after debutant John Herron, who came on as a second-half substitute, unfortunately miskicked in front of goal.
At this time of year it is all about the trimmings and James Forrest, making his first appearance since October after replacing Beram Kayal, provided some garnish with a well-received goal after cutting in from the right.
There was, though, an almost audible intake of breath when he clutched the back of his leg as he sought to play a ball through from midfield a few minutes later. Given that his recent absence has been due to a hamstring strain, there was serious concern for the winger, who was told by Lennon to lie on the turf and get treatment after he attempted to run the pain off. Lennon described the prospect of losing the winger again as “devastating”, though he was happy to report it does not appear to be a recurrence of the previous ailment. “He knows that if he has any extra niggles or anything like that he has to report them straight away,” said the manager, who thinks Hooper “comes alive” when Forrest plays.
The English striker has not fared so badly without him, but it is a further indication that Celtic are slipping into gear at the right time.