A SCOTTISH Premiership campaign which has been a model of consistency from Celtic was rounded off in suitably emphatic fashion on the day they collected the trophy for a third successive year.
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes (64), Samaras (pen 76), Commons (82); Dundee United - F Twardzik (og 78)
Against a Dundee United side with more than half an eye on next Saturday’s Scottish Cup final, second-half goals from Anthony Stokes, Georgios Samaras and Kris Commons eased Neil Lennon’s men to yet another victory.
Stokes’ opener was Celtic’s 100th league goal of a season which has seen them finish on 99 points, 29 clear of their notional nearest rivals Motherwell. For Samaras, meanwhile, it was a tearful finale to what seems certain to be his last appearance for the club as he struggled to control his emotions when he found the net.
United’s return to this stadium next Saturday was clearly, and understandably, at the forefront of manager Jackie McNamara’s mind. The presence of Andrew Robertson, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and Nadir Ciftci among his substitutes underlined his desire to try and avoid injuries to any of his key players ahead of the cup final.
There was also a slightly experimental look to the Celtic line-up with Czech youngster Filip Twardzik deployed at left-back, although it was otherwise as strong a team selection as Lennon could pick on the day his players received the tangible reward for their efforts since last August.
There was a real end of season feel to proceedings in the first half, both sides producing some cohesive work in the middle of the pitch but lacking in any dynamism or incisiveness in and around the penalty area.
Farid El Alagui, handed a rare start up front for the visitors as leading striker Ciftci was left on the sidelines, was unable to capitalise on the first glimpse of goal when he narrowly failed to connect with a dangerous cross from the right from Paul Paton.
Celtic’s response saw captain Scott Brown play a well judged through ball over the top of the United defence but Leigh Griffiths, sneaking in behind Gavin Gunning, couldn’t time an effort on goal properly.
John Rankin, playing in a more advanced role than he normally does in the United midfield, was the first to record a genuine attempt on goal but his low shot from 20 yards slithered harmlessly wide of Fraser Forster’s left hand post.
Ryan Gauld then showed excellent poise and vision to pick out Ryan Dow’s run into the Celtic penalty area, only for Virgil van Dijk to make up ground and complete a fine interception to snuff out the threat. Twardzik, making his first start since September 2012, has been beset by serious injury but he showed glimpses here of genuine quality. He picked out Griffiths with a terrific pass down the left flank and the striker’s shot was turned behind by United ’keeper Radoslaw Cierzniak.
A mistake from United captain Sean Dillon presented Griffiths with another opportunity but he snatched at it from close range and could only steer the ball straight to Cierzniak. With Stokes unusually subdued at this stage, Griffiths continued to look the most likely source of a breakthrough for the champions. He forced Cierzniak into action again in the 32nd minute, seizing on Mikael Lustig’s through ball and firing in a shot from a tight angle which the ’keeper diverted wide.
United finished the first half well, Paton curling a shot narrowly off target at the end of an impressive flowing move, but the stalemate was an accurate reflection of proceedings.
But McNamara’s men should made the breakthrough six minutes into the second half. Mark Wilson and Dow took a quick short corner on the left, with the former Celtic player driving onto the penalty area and firing in a low shot which Forster could only parry into the path of El Alagui. With the goal at his mercy, the Frenchman blazed over from inside the six-yard box.
With both teams now displaying a little more urgency, Celtic then had the ball in the net when Griffiths latched onto Stefan Johansen’s pass and lashed a shot beyond Cierzniak, only for his celebrations to be halted by the offside flag.
But it heralded a spell when Celtic enjoyed as much attacking momentum as they had all afternoon and they duly went ahead in the 64th minute. Lustig found Commons in space on the right and his cross was headed home from close range by Stokes to bring up Celtic’s century of league goals for the campaign. It was Stokes’ 21st goal of the season, matching his best-ever tally for the club.
United, with Mackay-Steven and Armstrong both introduced to the action, tried to respond and it was the latter substitute who came close with a fine run and shot which forced Forster into a good save low to his right.
It was a Celtic replacement, however, who got on the scoresheet next. Samaras, who replaced Griffiths to a huge ovation from the home fans, was taken down inside the penalty area by Cierzniak as he was set to round the ’keeper. It was a clear spot-kick and Cierzniak was fortunate only to be booked for the offence.
On what is anticipated to be his final appearance for Celtic, Samaras was handed the ball and made no mistake as he sent Cierzniak the wrong way with a well struck penalty.
To their credit, United hit back quickly and cut the deficit to 2-1 with 12 minutes remaining. Armstrong set Mackay-Steven free on the right and his low cutback ricocheted off the unfortunate Twardzik to send the ball spinning beyond Forster.
But in a season when they have been so dominant for so long, Celtic had the last word.
It was appropriate that it came from Scotland’s Player of the Year, Commons receiving a pass from Stokes after a slip from Keith Watson and clipping home his 32nd goal of the season from close range.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig (Kayal 78), Ambrose, Van Dijk, F.Twardzik (Pukki 84); Brown, Mulgrew, Johansen, Commons; Stokes, Griffiths (Samaras 61). Subs not used: Zaluska, Mouyokolo, Boerrigter, Henderson..
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Wilson, Watson, Gunning, Dillon; Gomis, Paton; Dow (Armstrong 68), Gauld (Mackay-Steven 60), Rankin (Fraser 83); El Alagui. Subs not used: McCallum, Robertson, Graham, Ciftci.