Scorer: Commons (3)
If THIS Celtic juggernaut was to come to grief anywhere, then many might have picked the Inverness Caledonian stadium in midwinter as a likely venue. However, Neil Lennon’s side struck quickly through their linchpin Kris Commons and then absorbed what Inverness could muster in terms of a response to record a seventh successive league victory.
It seems nothing can knock them off their stride at present, not even an assignment that has given Celtic plenty of problems in the past. The early goal means Celtic have scored in every league game they have played in 2013, while they remain unbeaten in the league in the current campaign. Such details help explain why they hold an unassailable lead at the top of the Premiership. In saying that, this latest victory hinged on another resolute performance in defence from the champions.
Celtic were reduced to desperate measures in the final minutes as Inverness continued to search for an equaliser. This had been the hosts’ mission since as early as the third minute, when Commons struck. Inverness could not complain that there was not enough time in which to try and retrieve the situation.
In the last frantic few minutes Celtic skipper Scott Brown was fortunate to escape a caution – or a more severe punishment – as he clattered into Carl Tremarco by a corner flag. Further energised by this perceived injustice, Inverness threw everything at the visitors. One opening is all they wanted and you sensed it would come. When it did, in injury time, they were unable to take advantage.
Ross Draper’s header when unmarked at the back post should at least have forced Fraser Forster into making a save. The midfielder’s effort was hit into the ground and bounced up at the far post, where substitute Ryan Christie was erroneously flagged off-side, although he missed the ball in any case. “We are going to have to teach the wee man how to head a ball,” smiled Inverness manager John Hughes grimly at the end, with reference to Christie. The same could be said for Draper, though he is not a wee man and has less excuse for failing to make better contact with the ball. Having found space for himself, he should really have hit the equaliser. His failure to do so means Celtic have now gone 585 minutes without conceding a goal in domestic football.
Many sensed that their defensive record would be tested yesterday, against a side including the highest goalscorer in the league in Billy McKay. However, the rutted turf would have proved problematic for anyone – even Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose apparent desire to finish his career at Celtic Park emerged via a newspaper report on the morning of the game.
This was not an afternoon for ball players though both sides deserve some credit for staging something worth watching. The game was no way as bad as had been feared upon first viewing the bumpy pitch. Inverness certainly know how to make life difficult for themselves. Having conceded four times in the opening half against Aberdeen in their previous home outing, their resolve to keep it tight at the back lasted all of a couple of minutes yesterday.
A poor clearance from Graeme Shinnie at right back helped create the opening for Celtic. Still, there was still much to do as Commons picked the ball up and played a one-two with Samaras. Upon receiving the return ball in his stride Commons took a touch before steadying himself and drilling a shot past Dean Brill into the far corner of the net for his 15th goal of the season.
The home fans again dreaded the prospect of a collapse. Even though they so nearly rectified the first half damage v Aberdeen with a storming second 45 minutes, it was difficult to see how they might recover from going even two goals behind against the champions. Perhaps because of this Inverness looked nervy in the period following Commons’ opener. They clearly feared the consequences of the loss of another goal.
While the play was often ragged, it was almost always engaging. Both sides sought to play the ball into feet when perhaps this was one occasion to utilise the long ball. Conditions were surprisingly still – a case of the calm before the storm, possibly. The greatest hazard for the players was the low-lying sun that caused many to squint into the sky as they looked to locate the ball.
Inverness’ efforts to get back into the game in the first-half came to naught, with their best chance coming just before half-time. Marley Watkins dispossessed Joe Ledley in the corner and Shinnie fastened onto the ball before rifling an angled shot towards the corner of Forster’s goal. The goalkeeper was able to palm the ball clear but it was his first real test of the afternoon. He had been less stretched when stopping an earlier effort from Draper and a header from McKay.
In truth, Celtic should really have suppressed Inverness’ anguished search for an equaliser by scoring a game-sealing second goal.
A canny Commons chip just after the hour mark hit the top of the bar and bounced over while the same player was also denied by a fine stop by Brill after a flowing move involving Anthony Stokes and Samaras. In contrast, Inverness were restricted to mostly long-range efforts that were comfortably dealt with by Forster.
Inverness coach Duncan Shearer prowled along the sidelines and looked to be heading every ball, as well as kicking every (half) chance. How Inverness could have done with him. However, it was sorely apparent that the home side were simply not making enough clear cut opportunities – a consequence, perhaps, of playing with just one striker in McKay for the majority of the game. Even Shearer might have struggled in these circumstances.
Time quickly became the enemy for Inverness, although they also knew that just one glimpse of goal was all they needed. But when it fell for Draper at the far post during time added on the player was found wanting.
Celtic can now target a seventh consecutive domestic clean sheet against Partick Thistle on Wednesday. This run of results seems to support Lennon’s assurance that motivation is not an issue for his players as they home in on another title success.
Inverness: Brill, Shinnie, Warren, Meekings, Tremarco, Watkins (Christie 88), Ross Draper, Williams, Doran, Ross (Agdestein 83), McKay. Subs not used: Esson, Raven, Devine, Polworth, Pepper.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Forrest (Pukki 81), Brown, Ledley, Samaras, Commons, Stokes (Biton 90). Subs not used: Balde, Rogic, Zaluska, O’Connell, Atajic.