IT HAS been both completely predictable and utterly inevitable ever since they kicked off their campaign at the beginning of August. But nothing could diminish either the joy or the sense of satisfaction experienced by Neil Lennon, his players and the Celtic supporters as they clinched the inaugural SPFL Premiership title last night.
SCORERS: Partick: Elliott (85); Celtic: Stokes (3, 90); Henderson (49), Johansen (53), Commons (90)
Champions of Scotland for the 45th time, they have passed the finishing line with seven games to spare. It is the quickest the title has been secured since 1929, when Rangers wrapped it up with eight games remaining.
With a third consecutive championship under Lennon’s guidance, Celtic are currently the undisputed and largely unchallenged superpower of Scottish football. As their fans struck up chants asking for “ten in a row”, it is certainly difficult to envisage their dominance being threatened any time soon.
Against a Partick Thistle side who remain just two points above the relegation play-off spot, Celtic were set on their way to victory by Anthony Stokes’ third-minute opener. It was not until the second half that the champions fully hit their stride, 17-year-old substitute Liam Henderson and Stefan Johansen scoring to put them firmly in command.
Christie Elliott pulled one back for Thistle with five minutes remaining, but Celtic added flourish to their coronation with two goals in stoppage time by Stokes and Kris Commons. The only sour note came after the final whistle when a pitch invasion by around 200 of their fans led to a planned players’ lap of honour being cancelled.
Celtic’s rapid retention of the title had appeared assured when Stokes provided them with their early breakthrough. Thistle were simply caught cold by the pace and urgency of Celtic’s start to the match, their defending at the goal far too ponderous. Emilio Izaguirre galloped into space down the left, the Honduran full-back cutting inside to loft over a cross with his notionally weaker right foot towards the far post. With the home defence caught flat-footed, Stokes barely had to raise himself off the ground to guide a looping header beyond Paul Gallacher from close range.
So dominant was Celtic’s opening to the match, there was an immediate expectation they would waste little time in increasing their lead. But they gradually lost that fluency, while in contrast their hosts began to grow into the contest.
There was encouragement for the Thistle fans when, in a better spell of play by their favourites, Prince Buaben managed their first attempt on target, his shot charged down by the Celtic defence. With full-backs Stephen O’Donnell and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair both willing to surge forward at every opportunity, it was Thistle who started to enjoy some attacking momentum.
They lacked the incisiveness in and around the penalty area to test Fraser Forster, but they were unsettling the Celtic defenders. When Efe Ambrose was dispossessed by Lyle Taylor while dwelling on the ball, Charlie Mulgrew had little option but to bring the striker down on the edge of the penalty area, earning a booking in the process. Kallum Higginbotham stepped forward to take the free kick, but his low effort went wide of Forster’s right-hand post.
Thistle continued to press eagerly in search of an equaliser. A lack of composure led to Chris Erskine passing up a good opportunity in the 30th minute. Gary Fraser and Taylor combined neatly on the right to engineer space for Erskine on the edge of the penalty area. The on-loan Dundee United midfielder pushed the ball beyond Ambrose’s challenge but his touch was just too heavy, denying him a clear shooting chance.
Izaguirre was extremely fortunate to escape a caution from referee Steven McLean a minute later when he cynically halted Erskine’s run just outside the penalty area. Thistle were unable to make anything of the resulting free kick.
Celtic were offering far less than might be expected in response. They had a promising set-piece situation of their own when Commons was fouled by Gabriel Piccolo on the edge of the 18-yard box. Commons took it himself but sent the ball sailing way over the top of Gallacher’s crossbar.
Lennon made a change at the start of the second half, introducing Henderson for Adam Matthews. It necessitated a reshuffle, Ambrose moving to right-back while Mulgrew dropped back into central defence. But it was Henderson’s presence in midfield which quickly provided the fresh impetus Celtic required.
The teenager, in only his fourth first-team appearance, grabbed himself a slice of title-clinching history at the club when he made it 2-0 in the 49th minute to spark wild celebrations among the visiting support behind the goal Celtic were now attacking. Izaguirre’s cross from the left was dummied by both Commons and Griffiths as the ball travelled across the face of the Thistle penalty area. It was collected by Henderson, who had made a well-timed run on the right, and he showed admirable composure to guide a low right-foot shot across Gallacher into the corner of the net. The party could now start in earnest as far as the Celtic fans were concerned and even the remotest prospect of a Thistle recovery was extinguished when the champions made it 3-0 four minutes later.
O’Donnell misjudged his attempt to cut out a long forward pass from Mulgrew and his error was seized upon by Johansen. The Norwegian burst down the left, playing an exchange of passes with Griffiths before slamming a low, left-foot shot beyond the helpless Gallacher from around eight yards. Thistle offered what proved futile resistance when substitute Elliott beat Forster with a fine right-foot shot in the 85th minute. Celtic’s response was very much in the manner of champions. Substitute Georgios Samaras provided two piercing passes in stoppage time, the first slammed home by Stokes, the second driven under Gallacher by Commons.
Referee: S McLean