A SUPPORTING cast of characters stood in ably for their A-list colleagues yesterday as Celtic collected a fifth straight league victory.
Scorers: Inverness - Ross (9); Celtic - Commons (20), Gershon (48), Miku (82)
It was hard to describe Neil Lennon’s personnel shake-up as a gamble in the circumstances, since the visitors have room to manoeuvre given their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League.
Still, a shadow-side fully justified Lennon’s decision to rest the majority of his first-team regulars, coming from behind to negotiate a difficult trip to the Highlands, and doing so with a degree of comfort in the end, much to the manager’s evident delight. Those such as Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama could sit back and relax as Celtic’s championship ambitions were shown to lie in secure hands. The fringe players proved more than up to the task of defeating the second-placed team, moving Celtic 18 points clear of their opponents in the process.
A good time or a bad time to play Celtic? That had been the question prior to kick-off. The morning mist had rolled back out into the Moray Firth but still the visitors were recognisable only by their hooped shirts. Lennon had been completely open on the eve of the game. There will be changes, he promised, and he was true to his word, with nine members of the starting XI for last weekend’s Scottish Cup victory over Raith Rovers left out. Of those who started the match for Celtic, only two are likely to go straight from SPL duty in the Highlands to the Champions League hot-house on Tuesday, when Celtic host Juventus.
Fraser Forster returned in goal and took the captain’s armband, while Kris Commons lined up wide on the left, but was withdrawn at half-time. Of the others, Anthony Stokes might see action at some stage on Tuesday. Adam Matthews, meanwhile, saw action in the last 25 minutes, and he is likely to start in midweek.
Having been left out of their Champions League squad, Paddy McCourt won’t be asked to perform against the Italian champions, but it was gladdening to see the mercurial Irishman again yesterday. Such a bit-part player for Celtic in recent times, he is playing out his time at the club and exhibited some of his wiles in an often-congested midfield. There will be players in action on Tuesday with only half of his talent, but, sadly, it appears a lack of application has harmed his career at Parkhead.
Others, too, caught the eye, including the elegant Tomas Rogic and Rami Gershon, who both had significant parts to play on their debuts. But Celtic clicked only after Inverness had taken an early lead. Just nine minutes had elapsed when Aaron Doran’s cross gave Forster something to think about. The keeper did not distinguish himself and he succeeded only in kneeing the ball into the path of Nick Ross, who steered a shot into the corner of the net from 12 yards. Cue a
perhaps-inevitable burst of song from the home supporters: “Champions League, you’re having a laugh”.
The opportunity to mock lasted only ten minutes. Rogic was the architect as he strode into the box and, with a change of pace, managed to lose those attempting to jockey him. A cut-back was met by a ferocious shot by Commons and the ball exploded into the rigging behind Esson. Lennon recently despaired about Charlie Mulgrew’s failure to “put his laces through” a penalty. Commons’ strike was the definition of this phrase. The Inverness keeper did not have an earthly.
Celtic strove to establish a lead prior to half-time but were denied when Josh Meekings dived in to make a tremendous block from a Stokes shot. Just after the interval, however, the visitors struck again, with Gershon claiming a goal on his first appearance following a loan move from Standard Liege last month. He had Dylan McGeouch to thank for a perfect cross. All the defender had to do was beat his marker in the air and direct the ball into the net, which he did with aplomb, before later making way for Matthews.
Inverness were not out of it. It showed how momentum lay with the home side when, midway through the second-half, even McCourt was forced into an agricultural boot up the park. Inverness sensed that their opponents might be beginning to suffer for their recent lack of playing-time and raised the intensity level, and they could have drawn level just before Celtic grabbed their game-sealing third.
Matthews cleared off the line from McKay in a frantic period of play that also saw Forster hack the ball away with his foot. A lightning-quick break up the park by the visitors saw Stokes play an intelligent ball to the back post, where Miku was on hand to score his second goal for the club and stake a claim for a place among the substitutes on Tuesday.