Their scintillating 3-0 victory over Dundee United was hallmarked by all manner of excellence. So much so, it would have been the perfect set-up for the acid test of Saturday’s derby trip to Ibrox where they dare not be burned if they are to retain any hopes of clawing back a 16-point deficit. But, that is, for the loss of Christopher Jullien to a nasty-looking knee injury in the 49th minute that was caused by him colliding with the upright when sliding in to knock off the line a goalbound effort from Mark McNulty.
Neil Lennon turned to Nir Bitton to replace the Frenchman, who received treatment for a full three minutes before being carried off the field to be given further lengthy attention before being removed on a stretcher. Jullien’s participation in the derby must then be placed in serious doubt. A makeshift defence – with auxiliary centre-back Bitton appearing to be preferred to Shane Duffy – is not what Lennon would want to field in so crucial an encounter.
Yet, the Celtic manager will draw a degree of comfort from a fourth straight clean sheet, which briefly looked under threat when Jullien was lost. And more than that, he will believe that Rangers can be themselves placed under defensive pressure because of the energy and vitality produced by his men from middle to front once more.
With the win a sixth straight success for Celtic, the Scottish champions’ form going into a clash where they need it most is as sound as it has been in this troubled ten-in-a-row campaign. They are unrecognisable from the side that squeaked a draw at home to St Johnstone only a month ago, a result that then had them plumbing the depths in establishing a sequence of only two wins in 12 outings.They will feel that their Rangers assignment is coming at the right time since they have rarely displayed as relentless a period of energy and enterprise as they crafted in the opening period against the Tannadice men.
Ismaila Soro and David Turnbull were once more the driving forces that provided the core of their command as the diamond midfield once more sparkled. And, with the crowding out of strikers Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths, also demonstrated their ability to puncture massed defences. Across the 90 minutes, Celtic must have fashioned a dozen stonking goalscoring opportunities. The two strikes they served up in the first half weren’t among the most obvious, but showed they have many means to make teams suffer.
Soro has served up just about everything since becoming his team’s scavenging metronome. A goal had been the only absentee, but he corrected that in the 23rd minute when, 25 yards out and with the visitors retreating, he unleashed in a bending biff that seemed to bedazzle Benjamin Siegrist.
The advantage was doubled in similar fashion though there was far less unexpected about Turnbull successfully taking aim, with his edge of the box low drive that found the target in off the far post his third goal in as many matches. Celtic should have had a hat-load, and Edouard should have been donning the marksman role. The ball didn’t stick for the Frenchman, though, until his dovetailing with Griffiths paid dividends in the 73rd minute with the Scotland international sending him in on goal with a delightful lob to allow Edouard to provide a chipped finish.
Barkas is back
It was the end of an afternoon that began in time-honoured fashion for Celtic’s online community. As is wont to happen with any decision that Lennon makes, this faction were all of a froth when the team was announced on account of the inclusion of Vasilis Barkas. Or, more pointedly, the decision to drop Conor Hazard to restore the jittery Greek goalkeeper.
Barkas has endured a desperate first five months at the club following his £4.5million move from AEK Athens. Unable to fashion crucial saves, there appeared a capacity for calamity around him – more so than by him – in his two spells in the side that both ended with Lennon deciding he required to take him out of the firing line.
He restored him against United with the admission that, despite 22-year-old keeping goal for five successes – which included his pivotal shoot-out saves in the quadruple-treble sealing Scottish Cup final triumph – and three straight clean sheets, he wasn’t ready to be Celtic’s No.1. The role he said that Barkas had been bought for.
Such was the keep-ball that the Parkhead side were able play in a vibrant open period, frankly Lennon would have been able to play himself in goal without any problems ensuing. United did though have a flurry in the second period with two glaring opportunities. And it was wastefulness from McNulty and Jullien’s courage, and a wild skier from Lawrence Shankland, rather than any Barkas endeavours, that allowed the Greek to enjoy a rare clean sheet to his name. The Celtic manager is certain to select Barkas for the trip to Ibrox. It will surely be a very different afternoon for him, but he is now playing behind a very different proposition of a Celtic team.
Celtic: Barkas; Frimpong, Ajer, Jullien (Bitton 51), Laxalt; Christie, Soro (Brown 80), McGregor; Turnbull (Rogic 77); Edouard (Elyounoussi 80), Griffiths (Ajeti 77). Substitutes: Hazard, Taylor, Duffy, Johnston.
Dundee Utd: Siegrist, Smith (Robson 83), Connolly, Reynolds, Robson (Sproule 83), Clark, Edwards, Harkes, Pawlett (Powers 73); Shankland (McMullan 68), McNulty. Substitutes: Deniz, Fotheringham, Appere, Neilson, Hutchinson.