FROM day one this season, it has realistically been a case of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Celtic will retain their Scottish Premier League title.
Scorers: Celtic - Ambrose (11), Commons (22, pen 55), Ledley (37), Stokes (70, 82); Dundee United - Armstrong (10), Russell (90)
Referee: B Madden
Even during their less than consistent start to the defence of their crown, undoubtedly caused by the distraction of their Champions League campaign, no-one seriously entertained the prospect of any other side posting a credible and sustained challenge to their domestic supremacy.
As Neil Lennon’s men moved 18 points clear at the top of the table with just 12 games remaining after this occasionally scintillating rout of Dundee United on Saturday, Celtic supporters can now start planning for a title party as early as the middle of March.
Having now racked up six successive SPL wins since their last setback in losing at Hibs on 29 December, there is certainly no question of Celtic easing up with the finishing line in sight, for Lennon is already preparing for next season’s Champions League quest which, because of Scotland’s tumbling Uefa co-efficient ranking, will see Celtic start out in the second qualifying round on 16 July. That’s two weeks and an extra round earlier than they did this season, prompting the intention of giving key players additional time off once the title is secured.
“We’ve looked at the possibility of some players finishing early if we can win the league quickly,” confirmed midfielder Joe Ledley.
“We’re only going to have a short break as it stands, about three weeks I think, and it’s important as professional footballers to have rest.
“It’s not ideal just to have three weeks and then get right back into it again with crucial qualifiers early in the next season. We’ve played 45 games already, so I think it would be a good idea to rest people.
“Rest is key with the amount of games we’ll have played in this campaign. We proved it again on Saturday with a couple of players rested, the manager changed the team around and we were fresh and that is key in football now.
“We want to wrap the league up as soon as possible and we have to work as hard as we can, go out there and play football. We proved it on Saturday with a fantastic performance and attacking wise we were brilliant.
“We conceded a couple of sloppy goals, but that couldn’t take anything away from the all-round display of the team. It was fantastic and hopefully we can get as many points as we can.”
Ledley returned to the Celtic starting line-up as captain against Dundee United, in place of the rested Scott Brown, after the disappointment of being left on the bench by Lennon for last Tuesday night’s Champions League last-16 showdown with Juventus.
“It would have been one of the biggest games of my career,” reflected the Welsh international, “and obviously it hurts when you are not playing.
“You’ve just got to bounce back and I was glad to get out there and perform against United. It was good to wear the armband, it’s a great honour to captain a club like Celtic.”
On a day when many felt a United side rejuvenated by new manager Jackie McNamara may be able to expose any post-Juventus hangover experienced by Celtic, the visitors’ tenth-minute opening goal certainly asked a serious question of Lennon’s team.
Charlie Mulgrew was cheaply dispossessed by Gary Mackay-Steven, whose pace and directness down the left helped him find the excellent supporting run of Stuart Armstrong, who beat Fraser Forster with a smart low finish.
But United barely held on to their lead for a minute, undone by woefully weak defending which would consistently undermine an otherwise enterprising contribution to a highly- entertaining match. Efe Ambrose rose unchallenged to power home a header from Kris Commons’ corner.
It was a sweet moment for Ambrose, the subject of so much criticism for his wretched display in the 3-0 defeat by Juventus just 48 hours after playing for Nigeria in the Africa Cup of Nations Final. Some of that criticism, of course, had come from his team-mate Commons, but the pair were united in their delight on Saturday.
“Efe and Kris have been fine,” added Ledley. “That’s just part and parcel of football, they just got on with it and turned in two fantastic performances. I don’t think Kris meant to criticise him like that, it was just one of those things.”
Commons made it 2-1 for Celtic in the 21st minute, slamming home an Emilio Izaguirre cross from close range, before a pivotal moment in the game saw United squander the chance to equalise from the spot five minutes later. Referee Bobby Madden blundered badly in awarding the penalty kick, Adam Matthews winning the ball in a challenge on Mackay-Steven, but justice was served for Celtic when Forster made yet another penalty save, diving to his right to keep out Jon Daly’s effort.
Celtic moved through the gears after that, Ledley making it 3-1 eight minutes before half-time when his shot was deflected off Sean Dillon to beat United ‘keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak.
The home side were more efficient from 12 yards than their visitors in the 56th minute, Commons converting from the spot after Barry Douglas had fouled Anthony Stokes. The Irish striker had wanted to take the penalty, only to be ordered to hand the ball to Commons by an animated Lennon.
But Stokes got in on the scoring act in the closing stages, sealing an impressive individual display as he looks to earn a new deal at the club. He took advantage of lazy United defending to smash home a fine right-foot shot from 20 yards in the 71st minute, then netted from close range with eight minutes remaining after James Forrest’s header had been blocked by Cierzniak.
Jonny Russell’s 90th-minute goal made some reparation for United but nothing could soothe McNamara’s dismay at the standard of his team’s defensive work.
Brian McLean, who deputised in the heart of the back four for the badly missed Gavin Gunning, confirmed the manager had not spared them in the dressing-room afterwards.
“Everyone knows the manager is a nice guy but, of course, we saw the other side of the coin with him today,” said McLean. “He’s a passionate guy and wasn’t happy.
“I hold my hands up for Celtic’s first goal, it was my job to mark Ambrose. We’ll need to do better. We gave away some cheap goals and some things we’ll need to work on.”