NOT only are Celtic still on course for a domestic treble, they are starting to look like a team worthy of the honour. Goals by Leigh Griffiths and Stefan Johansen in yesterday’s Scottish Cup fifth-round tie at Dens Park underlined their potential to win three trophies for the first time since 2001.
Scorers: Celtic - Griffiths 7; Johansen 47
This was their sixth consecutive victory, a sequence in which they have conceded not a single goal. All over the pitch, it was professional, it was committed and, more than anything, it was comfortable, just as it had been against Rangers last week, against Ross County the week before, and so on.
The Celtic players had been woken by a 2am fire alarm at their hotel, but it did not prevent them producing a performance that Ronny Deila, their manager, ranked up there with any since his arrival. Inspired by Johansen, they had urgency, tempo and a determination to defend from the front.
Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, the new signings who were cup-tied, will not break into this team easily. Now that Deila is through his transitional period, the side are settled, confident and improving all the time. “The team that develops most during the season is the team that’s going to win,” said the manager. “My teams always have developed. It’s much easier to talk with you now because you can see what we’re doing. We’re working every day to get the small things better.”
Deila admitted that Celtic were in far better shape for their forthcoming Europa League knockout tie against Inter Milan than they had been for the group stage. “I’m really looking forward to those matches,” he said. “I am much more confident now that we are together in how we want to play.”
In the Celtic end, Deila’s name was being belted out like never before, especially after an early goal that gave them immediate control of the match. Mikael Lustig’s perfect cross simplified the task for Griffiths, whose glancing header disappeared into the far corner of the net.
Thereafter, Celtic zipped the ball about, with James Forrest – starting in place of Anthony Stokes – and Emilio Izaguirre seeing plenty of it down the left. A second goal looked inevitable, not least when a quick break allowed Johansen to set up Forrest, but the winger’s shot came back off Scott Bain.
The Dundee goalkeeper was busy. When Johansen’s square ball picked out Commons, who in turn moved it across to Griffiths, the latter’s poked shot rebounded from Bain’s chest. His save also denied Johansen after James McPake had failed to deal with a bouncing ball.
An injury, which forced Greg Stewart off before half-time, prompted a reshuffle in the Dundee ranks. Instead of having two, sometimes three, up front, they left Luka Tankulic in a lone role, which made them more competitive in midfield. Their one significant attempt on goal came just before half-time. After Tankulic chested it down, Paul McGowan’s shot was scruffy, but the spinning ball had to be pawed away by Craig Gordon.
At half-time, Stokes replaced Commons, who had pulled a hamstring, but it was not a striker who extended Celtic’s lead.
When Griffiths peeled away at the back post, Bain had to push away the header. Johansen was first to react, slotting it into the empty goal with his right foot.
By now, Celtic’s only concerns were injury-related. Lustig, who recently returned from a lengthy absence, went the same way as Commons after twisting his ankle. Although neither problem is serious, they could keep both players out of Celtic’s next match, against Partick Thistle in midweek.
Stokes, meanwhile, was booked for diving as Celtic camped themselves in the Dundee half and allowed their opponents not a glimmer of hope. Stokes and Griffiths each shot wide after an unusual effort by Johansen. His cross with the outside of his boot almost deceived Bain, who had to reach back and turn it against the woodwork.
On a day when John Beaton, the referee, became the first in Scotland to use vanishing spray at a free kick, Dundee performed something of a disappearing act. “We didn’t perform,” said Paul Hartley, their manager. “It was a poor performance. We were second best. I’m not going to dress it up. We just didn’t play well.”
Dundee: Bain; Irvine, McPake, Gadzhalov, Dyer; Stewart (McGinn 36), McGowan, McGinn, McAlister; Tankulic (A Black 90), Wighton (Clarkson 57). Subs not used: Letheren, Konrad, Black, Allan, K McBride, P McBride.
Celtic: Gordon; Lustig, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons (Stokes 46), Johansen, Forrest (Guidetti 74); Griffiths. Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, McGregor, Henderson.
Referee: John Beaton. Attendance: 7,525.