St Johnstone - 2
Swanson 83 pen, MacLean 89
Celtic - 4
Griffiths 28, Sinclair 40, Forrest 44, Christie 90
The nascent Scottish Premiership table may currently show them sitting in second place but in the eyes of many observers, Celtic are already miles in front under Brendan Rodgers.
With six points secured from fixtures at Tynecastle and McDiarmid Park which appeared to present their new manager with the trickiest of starts to their title defence, the champions are producing an eye-catching blend of high tempo, high pressing football.
The pace and attacking options throughout the side being moulded by Rodgers simply overwhelmed St Johnstone on Saturday as Celtic romped into a 3-0 half-time lead.
The biggest issue still facing the former Liverpool boss is the frailty of a defence which, for the second time in four days, inexplicably lost concentration to see that lead cut to 3-2.
Just as in the first leg of the Champions League qualifier against Hapoel Beer-Sheva last Wednesday night, Celtic staved off the threat and scored again to earn the result they merited.
Assuming Rodgers can bring greater solidity to his backline, Celtic look a safe bet for a sixth consecutive title win even at this early stage of the campaign.
“Celtic were certainly as good as they’ve been against us in the last couple of years,” said impressed St Johnstone midfielder Murray Davidson, who spent the afternoon gamely chasing down the slick movement of his opponents.
“Offensively, their movement and passing was very good. In my opinion, no-one will beat them to the title this season. You saw Rangers beating them on penalties in the Scottish Cup semi-final last season and 99 per cent of people would have said deservedly so. But over a season, I think Celtic will be too strong.”
The key figure for Rodgers’ team in Perth was undoubtedly Tom Rogic, who looks ready to thrive in the ‘No 10’ role he filled with assurance, intelligence and outstanding technique.
The 23-year-old’s Celtic career has been a slow-burner due to injury and fitness issues but it is easy to see why Rodgers sanctioned the new extended contract which the Australian international recently signed. “I’m feeling good and the manager has given me a lot of confidence,” said Rogic. “I’m enjoying my role there. We have a good squad and a number of players who can play multiple positions. Hopefully it keeps going and we keep winning.
“We played well for the most part against St Johnstone and were comfortable. We got a bit sloppy towards the end but some of the football we played was really good.
“We let ourselves down towards the end and possibly some of the effects of Wednesday night were coming through. But it shouldn’t take away from the majority of the performance.
“In particular, some of the football in the first half was very exciting and the team looked really good. Most times we were breaking, we looked really dangerous and as if we were going to score. We had three in the first half and could have had a couple more. We still have a lot of things to work on but it is looking very positive to start with. As a team, everyone is looking exciting and positive. As a collective, we look dangerous and threatening. But it’s early, so we can’t get carried away.
“We were disappointed to let them back into it. It’s something we need to fix. Once we fix these small errors, we will become even better.
“We got more goals and responded well in our last two games. I guess that shows the resilience and character of the team. As long as we do that, we will be fine.”
The defining moment of Rodgers’ first season will come in the Turner Stadium in Beer-Sheva tomorrow night when Celtic seek to complete their passage into the group stage of the Champions League.
For Rogic, who experienced just ten minutes of group stage football when Celtic last qualified three years ago, it is a highly significant assignment.
“Of course it would be up there with the most important games of my career so far,” he added. “I was here when we qualified in 2013, although I didn’t play as much or have as much of an influence for the team at that time.
“But I understand what it’s like and I’ve been around at Celtic long enough to know what this means to everyone inside and outside the club. It’s our job to get it done and we will be looking to do that.”
With a 5-2 first leg lead, Celtic’s confidence for the task was already high and it was enhanced by Saturday’s display.
Leigh Griffiths marked his 26th birthday by giving them a 28th-minute lead with a deflected shot in off the crossbar, Scott Sinclair doubled it with a 40th-minute tap-in, then James Forrest curled home a superb third just before the interval.
Saints’ unlikely late comeback attempt began when Danny Swanson converted a penalty cheaply conceded by Liam Henderson, before Steven MacLean bundled home from close range amid shambolic defending by Celtic.
Substitute Ryan Christie settled the issue firmly in Celtic’s favour with a stoppage-time strike, leaving much of the post-match chat dominated by Griffiths’ booking for simulation when he had a penalty claim rejected by ref Craig Thomson when he went down under a Richard Foster challenge.
“It all happened so quick and when you’re playing, you only get to see it in real time,” said Davidson. “There are times a player can go down and it’s not a dive but for me it looked like Leigh was looking for it.”