Not all friendlies are meaningless. Celtic’s pummelling of a desperate Sunderland may also serve as a problem-solving exercise.
The afternoon may have seemed to belong to hat-trick plunderer Callum McGregor. With the Wearside contest sandwiched between the third round Champions League qualifier against Rosenborg, Brendan Rodgers’ decision to start with James Forrest through the middle appeared of greater significance.
Celtic have a hazardous assignment awaiting them in Trondheim on Wednesday through failing to break down the Norwegian league leaders within their own environs last week. The absence of a striker hindered their cause with Moussa Dembele lost to a long-term injury and Leigh Griffiths both banned and unfit as the result of a calf strain.
If the Scotland striker fails to recover sufficiently to lead the line in midweek then Rodgers gave every indication he would have no qualms about deploying Forrest in a role that Tom Rogic never looked at ease in during the first leg. Mind you, the defensive discipline and industry of Rosenborg were in marked contrast to Sunderland’s utter disarray at the back that demanded the conclusion Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes wasn’t daft in politely declining the offer to take over a team that could sink further after dropping out of the English top flight.
“James was outstanding,” Rodgers offered up when it was put to him his team had coped without strikers. “He has played there as a young player and he gave the team great fluency. You are always having to try things, especially if you don’t have someone obvious who can go and play. During the week we played Tom there and it wasn’t quite as fluent.
“For James it was a lot more natural, for him to spin in behind and come underneath. He was very good at turning in tight spaces and he can do that naturally as he has played there as a youngster and even occasionally in the first team for Celtic. I would have no hesitation in playing him there but it was nice to see it in a good level game.”
Rodgers enthused too about the excellence of McGregor, the 23-year-old bagging his triple after failing to make it off the bench in the first leg with Rosenborg. Yesterday did not enhance his chances of winning a start in the return, though, maintained the Irishman. “Callum is always in my thoughts”, the Celtic manager said. “He was outstanding today. His touches, his quality and his finishing. He has really grown within this squad, particularly in the last seven months, to be a real important member of the squad.”
There was a candy-from-a-baby aspect to McGregor’s plundering. A hash of a take from his keeper by Lamine Kone let in McGregor to slam the ball into the corner from the edge of the box. That was in five minutes. In 14 minutes, smart interplay involving Jonny Hayes, Kouassi, McGregor, James Forrest and Scott Sinclair ended with Scotland’s player of year slotting the ball to McGregor, who steadied himself and despatched a low shot into goal. He completed his hat-trick by sending Jason Steele the wrong way from the penalty spot after Aiden McGeady had tripped Anthony Ralston. Hayes chipped in a goal with a drilled-in effort to make it 3-0 just after the half hour mark. That came only minutes after Dorus de Vries had saved a spot-kick from James Vaughan, and his subsequent follow-up. The luckless Vaughan was instrumental in Stuart Armstrong adding a fifth 20 minutes from time when he took a pop from 22 yards that took a wicked deflection off the striker.
Celtic’s class on the pitch was in marked contrast to classless behaviour from a number of those among the 9,000 travelling support.
They did little to win friends among the home denizens by giving full vent to the IRA songbook and indulging in a smokebomb-fest. One smoke bomb was propelled on to the pitch and resulted in the game being temporarily held up in order that it was removed. There is an unsocial element of the Celtic support that appears to be on the rise.