IF any venue was likely to make the minds of the Celtic players stray from the domestic job in hand on Saturday lunchtime to the flight of Champions League fantasy they will board to Barcelona this morning, it was St Mirren Park.
Celtic - Hooper (15), Ambrose (18), Wanyama (32, 38), Watt (86)
The stream of aircraft taking off from nearby Glasgow Airport can provide a constant distraction to the action at the trim Greenhill Road ground but any concerns Neil Lennon has harboured over his team’s focus on the defence of their SPL title were well and truly dispelled on this occasion.
With goals going into the St Mirren net almost as regularly as the planes roared into the sky, there was never the remotest prospect of Celtic suffering the kind of pre-Champions League defeat they experienced against St Johnstone in Perth the previous month.
Lennon’s squad now appear more than comfortable with the challenge of fighting on two fronts this season. Their early season inconsistency in the SPL, which may subconsciously have been a consequence of the absence of the traditional domestic challenge from Rangers, seems to have been addressed successfully by Lennon.
The Celtic manager was purring with satisfaction after his team achieved their biggest win of the campaign so far, despite the absence of key men Scott Brown, Kris Commons, James Forrest and Georgios Samaras through injury.
Superlatives peppered Lennon’s assessment of Celtic’s display, with recent Tunisian signing Lassad Nouioui and young striker Tony Watt among those singled out for praise on a day when the depth of the Scottish champions’ squad was underlined.
There was also a return to the starting line-up for Beram Kayal, the 24-year-old Israeli midfielder who has struggled to fulfil his initially rich promise as a Celtic player because of a series of injuries.
The unquestionably talented Kayal finds himself back in the fray at an exciting time in Celtic’s season as they seek to build on an unbeaten start to their Champions League group stage campaign when they face Barcelona in the Nou Camp tomorrow night.
“It was a good performance and result for us against St Mirren,” said Kayal. “We controlled the game. It’s not easy to win 5-0, but we made the game easy for ourselves. All of the players did their jobs very well. It is going to be a different game in Barcelona. The Champions League is totally different. But we are looking forward to the next game and we will also do the job in the Nou Camp.
“We always prepare to be professional, we are always looking to the next game. As soon as the St Mirren game was finished, we immediately started to prepare ourselves for Barcelona. We always believe we can do something in every game. The team has a lot of confidence now. Barcelona are the best team in the world but we are going there believing we can do something. It is a good feeling to play against the best players in the world – Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. It is a good chance for me, for every player at Celtic, to prove we are at that level.
“How do you play against Messi? I think eleven players will go to mark him! But seriously, we are not playing just against Messi, Xavi or Iniesta. We are playing against the best team in Europe and the world. They are going to have control of the game and it will be hard. But we are going to try to do the maximum we can and our manager will prepare us tactically. We will all do our job.
“We want to keep our good position in the Champions League group. After the draw at home to Benfica and win in Moscow, it will be good for us if we can continue by doing something in Barcelona. We believe we can qualify from the group, of course we do. We have a lot of confidence now and the result in Moscow proved we can do something in the Champions League.”
Celtic, of course, will not find the route to Barcelona’s goal as routinely as they did to St Mirren’s. Their slickness on Saturday was aided by some slapstick defending by the Paisley side.
The rout started in the 15th minute, Gary Hooper tapping in Lassad’s low cross from close range. Three minutes later, Saints goalkeeper Craig Samson inpexlicably spilled Charlie Mulgrew’s free-kick into the path of Efe Ambrose, the Nigerian defender blasting home his first goal for Celtic and celebrating in dramatically acrobatic fashion.
Victor Wanyama, a powerful midfield presence throughout, made it 3-0 in the 32nd minute when he shot home from six yards after more shocking defensive work by Saints at an Adam Matthews corner. But there was little the hapless home side could have done about Wanyama’s second goal six minutes later when he curled a magnificent right-foot shot from 22 yards into Samson’s top left-hand corner.
The second half was unsurprisingly lower key, Celtic having to wait until the 86th minute to add to their tally when Watt claimed the goal his overall display merited as he headed home an Emilio Izaguirre cross. It was not a flawless display by Celtic, with St Mirren having a handful of decent chances themselves throughout the match. Steven Thompson was the chief culprit in failing to convert them. But there was no doubting Celtic’s superiority on a day when the scoreline could have been 12-4 in their favour had every clear opportunity been taken.
“That was a sore one for us,” reflected St Mirren defender David Van Zanten. “We went into the game with a lot of confidence, thinking we could maybe get something from it, but Celtic were on top of their game today and we were well below par. Celtic were excellent on the day and deserved to win. Nobody can argue with that. But we are very disappointed with the performance we put in.
“You are hoping Celtic maybe have one eye on the Champions League, but Neil Lennon mentioned a couple of times during the week that they’d got caught out at St Johnstone earlier in the season before they played Benfica. So I’m sure he was drumming it into his players not to let it happen again. It was tough for us, they knocked the ball about very well. We were chasing shadows at times. There was a big gulf today which was very disappointing to see.
“I think it will be role reversal for Celtic on Tuesday. Chelsea went to the Nou Camp last season and basically defended in their own half. They got the result they needed. Celtic will maybe look at that as inspiration for them to go and do the same. But I can’t see them enjoying the amount of possession they had against us. It will be the other way round.”