THIS may have been a match where the scoreline failed to tell the whole story but the most salient point to emerge from it is that Aberdeen remain some way short of what is required to mount a genuine title challenge.
Scorers: Celtic - Denayer (37), Griffiths pen (63), Mackay-Steven (69), Johansen (80)
Derek McInnes’ side were unable to capitalise on their impressive start to the Scottish Premiership’s most eagerly anticipated fixture of the season so far and ultimately saw a collapse of their defensive discipline ruthlessly punished by Celtic.
The reigning champions are now six points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand, which they will play at home to St Johnstone on Wednesday, after a victory which was as much down to having a stronger mentality than the Dons as it was to possessing greater ability.
In ending Aberdeen’s 13-match unbeaten run in the league, Ronny Deila’s team have gathered a level of momentum which suggests the Celtic manager’s repeatedly-stated ambition to win the domestic treble this season is becoming more of a probability than a possibility.
Aberdeen’s sense of regret will be fuelled by their failure to score when they were by far the more purposeful and energetic side in the opening stages with Celtic showing a degree of lethargy which suggested the noon kick-off time may prove a problem to them in the wake of their exertions in Milan on Thursday night.
Although it was the hosts who managed to engineer the first attempt at goal of the afternoon, Leigh Griffiths drilling a low right-foot shot narrowly wide of Aberdeen ‘keeper Scott Brown’s right-hand post, it was the visitors who soon appeared the likelier to score first.
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Craig Gordon was called into action for the first time in the ninth minute when his defence were caught out by a quickly taken Aberdeen free-kick. Jonny Hayes worked the ball to Niall McGinn whose dipping shot from 20 yards was touched over by Gordon. From the subsequent corner, Celtic appeared vulnerable at the back again and Andrew Considine should have done better than head over from close range.
Celtic were forced into a change after just 11 minutes, Kris Commons limping off in frustration to be replaced by Stuart Armstrong. With Deila’s men struggling to find any rhythm, Aberdeen threatened again when Hayes beat stand-in left-back Efe Ambrose with ease. The Irishman’s cross picked out his compatriot Adam Rooney but the striker’s header lacked power and was comfortably gathered by Gordon.
Hayes’ inclusion in the starting line-up had been a surprise and he looked capable of causing real problems for the home defence. But in the 32nd minute, he succumbed again to injury and was replaced by Peter Pawlett.
Celtic were a side badly in need of a spark to get them onto the front foot and when it arrived, it came from an error by the visiting goalkeeper. Under pressure from Gary Mackay-Steven, Brown horribly miscued a kick-out straight into the path of Stefan Johansen.
The Norwegian midfielder fed the ball to Griffiths whose shot was turned behind for a corner by Brown. But there was to be no redemption for Brown who was at fault again as he failed to impose himself when Armstrong curled over the corner from the left for Denayer to head home from inside the six-yard box.
Brown claimed he had been illegally impeded by Griffiths but it looked more like a case of the goalkeeper lacking the strength and conviction to deal with the situation.
Aberdeen did not immediately look likely to crumble because of that setback and Kenny McLean came close to an equaliser just before the interval when his swerving free-kick was touched over by Gordon.
But Celtic were energised by taking the lead and began to play with a combination of pace and poise which promised further goals. They should have doubled their lead in the 51st minute when a dreadful mix-up between Jack and Willo Flood allowed Johansen to lead a three-against-two counter attack. With Griffiths waiting for a simple tap-in, Johansen overhit his pass out of play.
It left the outcome in the balance for just a little longer, Aberdeen passing up a couple of decent chances as Considine headed off target from close range, then Jack blazed a shot over from the edge of the penalty area. They also had a penalty claim of handball against Nir Bitton turned down by referee John Beaton.
The tide turned irrevocably in Celtic’s favour, however, when they made it 2-0 from the spot in the 63rd minute. There was no doubt about the award, Mark Reynolds needlessly tripping Johansen from behind when the Celtic player was heading away from goal. Griffiths, in his final contribution before being replaced by John Guidetti, coolly sent Brown the wrong way with a powerfully struck penalty.
Suddenly, it was all so easy for Celtic to slice their way through a dispirited Aberdeen side. Mackay-Steven made it 3-0 six minutes later, latching onto a pass from Adam Matthews and surging through the middle to steer home a left foot shot which beat Brown via the inside of his left hand post.
Matthews was the provider once again for Celtic’s fourth goal ten minutes from time. The Welsh full-back charged into space down the right and cut the ball back for Johansen to sweep his effort beyond Brown’s right hand into the corner of the net.
Celtic could and perhaps should have scored more in the second half but they had done more than enough to quieten any talk that their status as Scotland’s pre-eminent team is under any immediate threat.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Ambrose; Brown, Bitton; Commons (Armstrong 11) (Stokes 73), Johansen, Mackay-Steven; Griffiths (Guidetti 64). Subs not used: Zaluska, Wakaso, Forrest, Henderson.
Aberdeen: Brown, Logan, Daniels, Reynolds, Considine; Jack, Flood; Hayes (Pawlett 33), McLean, McGinn (Goodwillie 70); Rooney (Taylor 85). Subs not used: Langfield, Smith, Robson, Shaughnessy.