KRIS Commons underlined his value to Celtic in emphatic terms last night with a second-half hat-trick which leaves them just seven points away from clinching their third successive championship triumph.
Scorers: Celtic - Commons (57, 59, 86)
Still awaiting clarification on his contract situation at the club, with Celtic yet to take up their option to extend his current deal, which expires this summer, Commons took his goals tally for the season to 26 as Neil Lennon’s men turned up the heat after the break at Rugby Park.
After a tepid first-half display, they were worthy winners in the end, going 24 points clear of Aberdeen at the top of the table. On current projections, they could be crowned champions at home to Ross County on 29 March.
Defeat for Kilmarnock leaves them still firmly embroiled in the battle to avoid the relegation play-off place. On the night the Rugby Park club announced boardroom changes which will address their debt, uncertainty remains over which division they will be in next season.
Celtic were denied the perfect start inside the opening moments when Anthony Stokes strayed offside after Commons had flicked a Leigh Griffiths cross from the right into his path. The Irish striker finished smartly from close range at the far post but his celebrations were cut short by the assistant referee’s flag.
That might have been expected to set the tone for a dominant, attacking display from
Lennon’s men. Instead, they found it difficult to find any sustained rhythm against their well organised and tactically disciplined opponents.
Kilmarnock steadily grew into the contest and matched the champions in the crucial midfield battle for long periods. There was a first competitive starting appearance in that department for Celtic’s highly-regarded 17-year-old Liam Henderson who began on the right of a diamond formation.
Commons was deployed in the most advanced role, behind Stokes and Griffiths, but Celtic were struggling to find the necessary fluency to allow that trio to exploit any space behind the Kilmarnock defence.
While much of the home team’s gameplan was focused on restricting the time and space available to Celtic, they did not completely lack attacking ambition of their own. Michael Gardyne, playing in a supporting role to Kris Boyd up front, drove in Kilmarnock’s first effort of the night which flew just wide of Fraser Forster’s right-hand post.
The Celtic defence, with
Charlie Mulgrew partnering Efe Ambrose at the heart of it in the absence of the suspended Virgil van Dijk, looked less than convincing when Killie right-back Sean Clohessy surged forward and fired over a low cross. That caused mild panic among the visitors’ back line, but Boyd was unable to take advantage at
the back post and the danger evaporated.
Celtic’s efforts to impose themselves on the contest were less than menacing, Griffiths and Commons both making life easy for Craig Samson with shots from distance which the
Kilmarnock goalkeeper held comfortably.
Kilmarnock had a penalty claim flatly turned down by referee Willie Collum in the 21st minute and, while it would have been a soft award, Ambrose seemed to be taking a needless risk with a nudge in the back of Boyd, which sent the striker sprawling. To compound
Kilmarnock’s sense of frustration, captain Manuel Pascali
collected the first booking of the night when he hauled back
Griffiths as Celtic launched a counter-attack afterwards.
Celtic wasted a decent set-piece opportunity nine minutes before the interval when Commons was fouled by Jeroen Tesselaar on the right side of the penalty area. Commons cleverly played the free-kick back across goal to the unmarked Scott Brown but the Celtic captain could not get a clean shot away despite having all the time and space he could have wished for.
The final threat to Kilmarnock’s goal in the first half came from one of their own players, defender Lee Ashcroft a relieved man when his miscued attempt to cut out a cross from Adam Matthews saw the ball loop straight into the grasp of
Celtic attempted to inject fresh pace and urgency into their work at the start of the second half and Stefan Johansen forced Samson into his first testing save of the night immediately after the restart, the Norwegian midfielder’s powerful left-foot shot from 25 yards diverted behind for a corner.
Lennon’s men were now passing the ball quicker and with greater accuracy, leading to a growing sense that the breakthrough was coming their way. It duly arrived in the 57th minute from their best move of the night.
Mulgrew started it with a pass to Commons who played an
incisive one-two with Griffiths to carve open the Kilmarnock defence on the right side of the penalty area. Commons took the return pass in his stride to stab a low shot beyond the helpless Samson from around 12 yards.
Having finally broken Kilmarnock’s stout resistance, Celtic took just another two minutes to double their lead and put themselves firmly in control. It was another example of the invention which Commons at his best brings to the champions. He picked out Matthews on the right before running into space inside the box to get on the end of the Welshman’s low cross for a simple close-range tap-in.
Kilmarnock substitute Chris Johnston passed up a decent chance to pull the home side back into contention, dragging a close-range shot wide after being set up by Boyd. But Celtic were firmly in the ascendancy now and Commons was denied his first attempt at a hat-trick goal when his close-range conversion of an Emilio Izaguirre cross was ruled offside.
He was not to be denied, however, wrapping up his outstanding night’s work with four minutes remaining as he guided a firm left-foot shot beyond
Samson’s left hand from around 22 yards.
Kilmarnock: Samson, Clohessy, Pascali, Ashcroft, Tesselaar; Karlsson (Johnston 66), O’Hara, Slater, McKenzie (Muirhead 87); Gardyne (Eremenko 62); Boyd. Subs not used: Reguero, Nicholson, Gros, Maksimenko.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, Mulgrew, Izaguirre; Henderson (Kayal 82), Brown, Johansen (Boerrigter 88), Commons; Stokes, Griffiths (Pukki 75). Subs not used: Zaluska, Samaras, Balde, O’Connell.
Referee: W Collum
P W D L F A Pts
Celtic 29 25 3 1 71 14 78
Aberdeen 28 17 3 8 40 26 54
Motherwell 28 16 3 9 46 43 51
Inverness CT 27 13 6 8 34 26 45
Dundee Utd 28 12 8 8 49 33 44
St Johnstone 28 11 5 12 35 31 38
Hibernian 29 8 10 11 28 35 34
Kilmarnock 30 8 6 16 37 52 30
St Mirren 28 7 6 15 27 44 27
Partick Th 28 5 11 12 29 45 26
Ross County 28 7 5 16 33 50 26
Hearts 29 5 6 18 25 54 6