CELTIC have declared they want to clock up a century but at one stage yesterday, Inverness Caledonian Thistle must have feared that was goals, not points.
SCORERS: Celtic - Stokes 34, 45, 53 (pen), Griffiths 68, Ambrose 78, Puuki
John Hughes’ side were swept away by the season’s biggest Scottish Premiership scoreline, drowning in the deluge of an Anthony Stokes hat-trick, complemented by equally fine finishes from Leigh Griffiths, Efe Ambrose and substitute Teemu Puuki.
It was football perfection for the champions. Indeed, the result was all the more remarkable for the fact that Celtic’s top scorer, Kris Commons, a worthy PFA Scotland’s Player of the Year winner, did not find the net.
Neil Lennon’s side remain firmly on target for 101 points and three more wins from their final three matches would ensure that total. The Celtic manager must be glad of his decision to reward Stokes with a new contract recently because Stokes has now netted 19 times this season.
However, Lennon must be hoping that his other former Hibernian forward could simply allow his football to do the talking. Griffiths must have been the target of the banner unfurled by the Green Brigade before kick off, stating: “A man must be a Celt on and off the field otherwise he is of no value to this club.”
There was also a minute’s applause for Sandy Jardine and Tito Vilanova, who both last week and it was incredible to think that just 18 months ago Vilanova stood there with his Barcelona team on a famous Champions League night.
Celtic’s crisp passing was evident from the outset and Inverness goalkeeper Dean Brill was forced to produce a fine save to deny Commons giving the champions the lead in the 14th minutes. Commons had profited from Leigh Griffiths’ shot breaking into his path but Brill superbly pushed the ball wide of the post.
However, Celtic eventually made the breakthrough in the 33rd minute. Play had been held up to allow treatment to Aaron Doran and perhaps that was responsible for a collective Inverness switch off because when Griffiths finally delivered his corner, Anthony Stokes was able to rise unmarked and plant a downward header beyond Brill.
Danny Williams might have thrown the visitors an immediate way back into the contest but his volley was acrobatically deflected over the bar by Efe Ambrose.
However, the champions were a joy to watch, illustrated by Scott Brown’s diagonal ball to Stokes, whose 25 yard shot was well saved by Brill.
Stokes, though, would not be denied. He doubled Celtic’s lead in the 44th minute, with Stefan Johansen’s sublime pass being brought down by an equally deft touch from Griffiths to sit up for Commons who miskicked but the ball rolled to Stokes and his right foot shot went under Brill’s dive.
Ten minutes into the second half Stokes claimed his hat-trick when Inverness foolishly gave away a penalty. Hughes’ side over-passed around the edge of their own area and that allowed Johansen to seize on the ball and be brought down by a combination of Gary Warren and Ross Draper. Stokes was given the ball by Commons – who had missed last week at Motherwell – and the Irishman sent Brill the wrong way.
Perhaps referee Craig Charleston felt a tinge of sympathy for Caledonian Thistle because he gave them a penalty of their own just two minutes later, when Billy McKay went down under pressure from Virgil van Dijk.
The award seem so soft that even Hughes looked at Lennon with a touch of embarrassment. However, justice was done when Fraser Forster guessed Aaron Doran’s intention and dived to his left to beat away the kick.
McKay was soon given another chance to reduce the deficit but again Forster pawed the striker’s shot wide of the target.
Celtic, though, had no intention of easing up. They struck the frame of the goal twice within a matter of seconds, first from Stokes, whose fierce shot hit the bar, and then van Dijk saw his header from Griffiths’ cross hit the post.
However, Griffiths produced an unerring piece of finishing for the fourth goal in the 69th minute, gathering a set-up from Stokes and curling a left foot shot in off the post.
Ambrose netted the fifth in the 77th minute when he rose to head Commons’ fine cross past Brill and just 60 seconds later substitute Puuki scored the sixth, profiting from another piece of unselfish play by Commons and burying an angled right foot finish past the goalkeeper.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews (Lustig 69), Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Johansen, Mulgrew (Henderson 72), Commons, Stokes (Pukki 71), Griffiths. Subs not used: Samaras, Balde, Zaluska, Kayal.
Inverness CT: Brill, Shinnie, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco, Doran, Ross Draper (Polworth 79), Tansey, Williams, Ross (Christie 69), McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Devine.