CELTIC have become unaccustomed to facing a genuine title challenge in the past couple of years but they showed last night that they have not forgotten how to respond to one when it does come along.
Scorers: Celtic - Izaguirre (36) Scepovic (72)
Aberdeen may have thrown down the gauntlet to Celtic with an impressive run of victories which has taken the Pittodrie club to the top of the Premiership table, but the champions kept them firmly in their sights with a win over Kilmarnock far more convincing than the
Ronny Deila’s men remain one point behind Aberdeen, with a game in hand, but he and his players will fly out for some winter break sunshine in Gran Canaria today feeling far better about themselves after halting the mini-slump which had seen them drop five points in their previous two league games.
Emilio Izaguirre’s first-half volley put Celtic on course for a victory which was wrapped up after the break by Stefan Scepovic’s first goal for the club in three months.
Celtic may have been irked by Kilmarnock’s refusal to allow them a preparatory training session on the synthetic surface at Rugby Park, but Deila’s men had little trouble in quickly adapting to the surroundings as they made a bright and dominant start to the match.
Kris Commons, a hat-trick hero for the champions on their last visit to the stadium in March when it still had real grass, was at the hub of some eye-catching work for the visitors which should have provided them with a comfortable advantage long before Izaguirre made the breakthrough nine minutes before the interval.
Back in the starting line-up after being among the substitutes in Celtic’s previous three outings, the playmaker looked eager to make a statement at a time when a renewal of his contract, which expires at the end of the season, remains uncertain.
Commons survived a couple of hefty early challenges from Lee Ashcroft and Jamie Hamill to start pulling the strings as part of a lively attacking midfield trio completed by Stefan Johansen and Liam Henderson.
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With John Guidetti dropped to the bench after failing to score in his last five appearances, the central striking duties were handed to Scepovic. The Serbian international, starting a league fixture for the first time since October, created Celtic’s first opening with a smart lay-off to Johansen whose firm shot was blocked by Mark Connolly.
Henderson was next to threaten for the visitors, the 18-year-old unfortunate to see his shot deflected wide off Ross Barbour as Celtic maintained a steady flow of action towards Craig Samson’s goal.
The pattern was briefly interrupted when a slip by Efe Ambrose allowed Alexei Eremenko the opportunity to pick out Josh Magennis with a sharp through ball, but the big striker dragged a poor shot wide of Craig
Gordon’s right-hand post.
Normal service was quickly resumed by Celtic as Commons’ influence became more pronounced. In the 16th minute, he rattled Samson’s crossbar with a thunderous left-foot shot from around 20 yards. If that was unlucky from Commons’ perspective, he was wasteful with his next sight of goal when he blazed over from eight yards after being set up by Johansen’s excellent pass.
Celtic then produced a sweeping move from one end of the pitch to the other, involving Nir Bitton and Liam Henderson, which finished with Commons hitting the crossbar with a first time shot.
The home side made a change which appeared to be purely tactical ten minutes before half-time, replacing Chris Johnston with Robbie Muirhead. But before the alteration could have any positive effect, Celtic finally took a deserved lead.
Izaguirre won the ball on the left and exchanged passes with Johansen before guiding a fine left-footed volley beyond the helpless Samson with the outside of his boot from around 12 yards.
Deila’s only cause for dissatisfaction at half-time would be the slender nature of his team’s lead.
There was a glimmer of encouragement for the subdued home supporters early in the second half when Hamill cracked a low shot narrowly wide of the target from 22 yards after Celtic had failed to properly clear a corner from Eremenko.
But although Kilmarnock were beginning to secure some sustained bouts of possession for the first time, Celtic remained far more menacing in the attacking third. Henderson should have done better than flash the ball across the face of goal when a more considered pass would have provided Scepovic with a tap-in. As long as the finishing touch deserted them, Celtic’s advantage remained vulnerable and Kilmarnock came close to an equaliser in the 62nd minute when Muirhead seized on loose play by Scott Brown and fired in a dipping shot which had
Gordon at full stretch to keep out one-handed.
That seemed to serve as a reminder to Celtic that there was still work to be done and their revitalised efforts duly brought them the insurance of a second goal in the 72nd minute.
Johansen’s corner from the right was headed towards goal by
Ambrose and helped over the line from little more than a yard out by Scepovic.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Barbour, Connolly, Ashcroft, Chantler, Johnston (Muirhead 35), Hamill (Pascali 80), Eremenko, O’Hara, McKenzie, Magennis. Subs not used: Brennan, Cairney, Syme, Splaine, Hawkshaw.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews (Fisher 74), Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Bitton, Commons, Johansen, Henderson (McGregor 85), Scepovic (Guidetti 82). Subs not used: Zaluska, Griffiths, O’Connell, Thomson.
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