CELTIC continue to play the numbers game with ruthless efficiency as they stroll towards another title triumph.
A comprehensive swatting aside of Kilmarnock saw Neil Lennon’s team match a club record of 10 consecutive league clean sheets, previously achieved back in 1914 and 1922, as they eased themselves 18 points clear at the top of the Premiership.
Joe Ledley and Charlie Mulgrew struck either side of a Lee Ashcroft own goal, with substitute Amido Balde netting in injury time to complete a facile victory which extends Celtic’s unbeaten record in the SPFL this season.
Goalkeeper Fraser Forster kept his 90th career shut-out for the club and was seldom threatened by a Killie side who opted to leave top scorer Kris Boyd on the bench for the duration of the evening.
Celtic began exactly as might be expected of a team carrying such momentum with them, immediately forcing Kilmarnock onto the back foot. James Forrest, back in the champions’ starting line-up, was at the heart of much of the early pressure, which culminated in Ledley’s 11th-minute breakthrough.
Had Teemu Pukki’s first touch been a little sharper, Celtic might have been ahead even earlier. The Finnish striker could not get the ball under control quickly enough after being set up in the penalty area by smart combination work from Forrest and Darnell Fisher down the right and he was eventually crowded out by the Kilmarnock defence.
Celtic should have been awarded a penalty in the ninth minute when Kilmarnock captain Manuel Pascali clearly tugged Kris Commons back by his shirt as the prolific attacking midfielder latched onto a Fisher pass. Referee Brian Colvin had a clear view of the incident but saw nothing amiss.
Lennon and his players did not have to nurse a sense of injustice for long, as they took the lead two minutes later.
Forrest, although ostensibly deployed on the wide right of midfield, was roaming all across the central area. He completely disorientated the visitors when he received possession on the left, cut inside Sean Clohessy with delightful footwork and played a precise pass to Ledley.
From the corner of the six-yard box, the Welsh midfielder drilled a first-time shot low across Craig Samson and into the far side of the net for his fifth goal of the season. Kilmarnock were struggling to present themselves as an attacking force but they did produce a response to falling behind which caused some concern for the home side.
A sharp counter-attack allowed William Gros to burst through the middle and there were loud appeals for a penalty from the visitors when he went down under Virgil van Dijk’s challenge on the edge of the box. Again, Colvin was unmoved.
Celtic quickly reasserted themselves and, in the 20th minute, doubled their lead through a combination of more sterling work from Forrest and a dose of misfortune for Ashcroft.
Kilmarnock were exposed down their left flank by a dynamic run from Forrest who drove an inviting low cross into the six-yard box. Young defender Ashcroft got there ahead of any Celtic player at the near post but merely succeeded in turning the ball into his own net.
Utterly dominant in possession, Celtic continued to set a brisk tempo as they searched for more goals. Captain Scott Brown almost added to the tally with a sweetly struck, rising right-foot shot from 20 yards but it was kept out by Samson’s fine diving save to his right.
Every Celtic player was keen to get in on the act in the attacking third and van Dijk was next to try his luck from distance, driving a low right-foot shot narrowly wide of Samson’s left-hand post.
Such was Celtic’s control of the contest that slackness or complacency appeared the only danger to their ever-lengthening clean sheet sequence. Such a scenario presented itself six minutes into the second half when Commons was uncharacteristically caught in possession by Rory McKenzie, who was able to force a corner on the right.
When the Celtic defence were unable to clear their lines at the set piece, Sammy Clingan lofted the ball back into the six-yard area where Pascali looked certain to score from close range. But Forster, showing great alertness after so much inactivity, made a brilliant reaction save.
Kilmarnock had introduced the experienced Barry Nicholson in place of teenager Greg Kiltie at the start of the second half and the substitute did at least improve their standard of ball retention. But Celtic, while not as consistently fluent as they had been before the break, still carried all the attacking menace. The overdue third goal arrived in the 67th minute. Mulgrew, who moments earlier had struck Samson’s right-hand post with a low shot, made no mistake when he was picked out by a cute lofted pass from Ledley, stabbing home from six yards.
In stoppage time, Balde added a final flourish, latching onto a Commons pass and sending in a tame shot which Samson fumbled into the net.
Celtic: Forster, Fisher, Izaguirre, Mulgrew (Johansen, 82), Ambrose, van Dijk, Brown, Ledley, Pukki (Balde, 71), Forrest (Boerrigter, 77), Commons.
Subs not used: Zaluska, Biton, Samaras, O’Connell.
Goals: J Ledley, 11; L Ashcroft, 21 (OG); C Mulgrew, 68; A Balde, 90.
Booked: A Balde.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Clohessy (O’Hara, 53), Tesselaar, Clingan, Ashcroft, Pascali, McKenzie, Slater, Gros, Muirhead (Gardyne, 76), Kiltie (Nicholson, 45).
Subs not used: Reguero, Boyd, Johnston, Maksimenko.
Booked: J Tesselaar, M Pascali
Referee: B Colvin