IT was perhaps only appropriate that Celtic should choose the same venue where they became SPL champions so emphatically seven months ago to deliver the clearest signal yet that they are ready to retain their title with plenty to spare.
As an antidote to the post-Champions League disorder which had previously afflicted Neil Lennon’s side this season, Saturday’s ultimately dominant and occasionally stylish defeat of Kilmarnock at Rugby Park was just what the Celtic manager had ordered.
It left Celtic three points clear at the top of the SPL with a game in hand but, with all due respect to the remarkable efforts of Terry Butcher’s Inverness who are currently closest in their slipstream, the Parkhead men are effectively out of sight already.
“It’s not great for the league but Celtic are miles ahead of the rest,” was the brutally frank assessment of Kilmarnock striker Paul Heffernan in the wake of his team being overpowered and eventually outclassed.
“Celtic don’t play in Europe for a couple of months now, so they can concentrate on the league,” added the Irishman. “I think they can go on a good run now and blow teams away, to be honest.
“That’s just the way it is. There has always been a big gap between Celtic, Rangers and the rest anyway.
“We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully teams like ourselves can try to get as many points as possible and not let the gap get too big, try to push Celtic as much as we can. But they are going to kick on from here.
“I wasn’t surprised by how Celtic played. They are a very good side and that’s the best I’ve seen Celtic play against us since I came to Scotland. They were very good and we weren’t on top of our game.
“Celtic were even better than when they beat us 6-0 here last season to clinch the title. They were better than us in most departments of the pitch. It was a tough day for us.
“I know they hadn’t been having great domestic results immediately after European games but, when you look at their teamsheet before the game, you see there are some very good players in there.”
Gratifyingly for Lennon, many of those good players managed to transfer their Champions League form into domestic battle in the manner he has been seeking for some time.
A switch to a three-man central defence proved highly effective as Efe Ambrose, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew provided a solid base which allowed wing-backs Adam Matthews and Emilio Izaguirre all the attacking licence they needed.
Matthews was exceptional, the young Welsh international rightly being lauded by Lennon for his best performance yet in a Celtic jersey. There has been much talk of English Premier League clubs sniffing around Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama next month but it would be surprising if 20-year-old Matthews has not captured just as much attention.
Athletic, pacy and tactically aware, Matthews was a constant thorn in Kilmarnock’s side on Saturday as he thundered up and down Celtic’s right flank, setting up two of his team’s goals.
“Yes, I think it was my best game for Celtic so far,” agreed the former Cardiff City player. “The team were magnificent today and I was happy with my personal performance. I hope I can keep it going. I like to attack, so that formation with a back three suits me. It suits Emilio as well and we showed today that we can play that formation well.
“Beating Spartak Moscow last Wednesday night was a great experience for the club and we are looking forward to the last 16 of the Champions League but our minds are now fully focused on domestic league and cup. That’s how it has to be for the next couple of months.
“The Champions League games are big games, they are the ones you want to play in but we know we need a good run in the league. We haven’t been at our best in the league so that’s our main aim now, to put a run together.”
Most of Celtic’s domestic problems have been suffered at home this season and they found life on the road to their liking once more in Ayrshire. This was their third successive away SPL win, having scored nine goals and conceded just one in the process.
“The difference between the home and away form this season is just one of those things,” shrugged Matthews. “We proved last year we can play at home under pressure from the crowd and, hopefully, we’ll do it again.”
In a drab first half, all that separated the sides was Scott Brown’s 27th-minute goal. The Celtic captain scored for the first time in nine months when he met a Matthews cross with a first-time shot which beat Kilmarnock goalkeeper Cammy Bell low to his left.
After initially struggling in his central midfield joust with Liam Kelly, who found himself compromised by an early booking, Brown grew into the match and produced an energetic display which suggested he is winning his ongoing battle with a hip injury.
“Even with the injury he’s got, he is still one of our best players,” said Matthews. “Thank God he hasn’t had to have the surgery yet. He’s a great lad, he’s always up to something. He is the soul of the team, really. He’s the same behind the scenes as he is on the pitch. He’s great to have in the dressing room. He’s on Twitter now and has been in a bit of trouble already! I’m sure he’ll calm down when he gets used to it.”
The turning point of the match came a minute after the restart, Heffernan missing a glorious chance to equalise for Kilmarnock when he delayed his shot from Jeroen Tesselaar’s fine cross, giving Mulgrew time to make a brilliant block.
“It was a very good chance,” admitted Heffernan. “I remember when I saw the ball coming in, I was thinking ‘do I take a touch or do I hit it first time?’ I took a touch and the defender has got back in to block it.
“It was a big moment in the game. If we had equalised straight after half time, then it’s a different game. I got it down and got a shot off, but Charlie Mulgrew got in and made the block. I was disappointed not to score. Maybe the fact I’ve missed so much time because of injury was a factor but you don’t want to make any excuses. I should have scored, it’s as simple as that.”
Celtic took full advantage, doubling their lead in the 65th minute when Joe Ledley stole in ahead of Ryan O’Leary to convert a Brown cross from close range.
It was Ledley’s first league goal since he scored in the 6-0 title-clinching match on the same ground. It also left Lennon £40 out of pocket, the manager having struck a bet with both Brown and Ledley before kick-off that they would not score as he highlighted their poor recent return on that front.
“The gaffer isn’t struggling for money, so he should be okay!” grinned Matthews.
Celtic saved their best for last, making it 3-0 in the 74th minute when a sweeping move in excess of 20 passes ended with Georgios Samaras nodding home his seventh goal of the season with a firm header from a Matthews cross.
A clean sheet eluded Celtic, goalkeeper Fraser Forster beaten by Cillian Sheridan’s volley in stoppage time, but nothing could diminish the powerful statement of intent they had made to the rest of the SPL.