Kilmarnock 1 - 3 Celtic: Griffiths strikes again as Celtic stay top

Leigh Griffiths continued his encouraging return to scoring form for Celtic to ensure they hit the ground running as they recommenced their quest for nine-in-a-row.

Leigh Griffiths celebrates after doubling Celtic's advantage. Picture: SNS

The striker’s second goal in as many games would have been as heartening for watching Scotland manager Steve Clarke as it was for Celtic boss Neil Lennon as his team maintained their two point lead over Rangers at the top of the Premiership.

Griffiths put Celtic 2-0 in front after Odsonne Edouard’s 18th goal of the season set them on their way. They were worthy winners, albeit they had to respond to Nicke Kabamba pulling a goal back for Kilmarnock midway through the second half.

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Celtic’s reaction was emphatic, Christopher Jullien’s goal ensuring they claimed all three points and condemned Killie to a sixth straight league defeat.

If Celtic could have hand-picked a fixture to resume their title defence after the winter break, this one would not have been at the top of their list.

Having lost two of their previous three league visits to Rugby Park, there was clearly the potential for a difficult night for the eight-in-a-row champions.

But Lennon could have no complaints about the eagerness and energy his players brought to the task from the opening moments as they looked to provide the necessary response to that Old Firm defeat at the end of December.

Celtic should have been in front as early as the fourth minute when Griffiths, starting a second consecutive match for the first time in 15 months, raced clear into the penalty area.

The striker did the hard bit by eluding a challenge from Kilmarnock defender Stuart Findlay but then slipped at the crucial moment as a simple shooting chance escaped him.

Celtic’s bright start continued when Jan Koprivec was forced into a magnificent save, Killie’s Slovenian ‘keeper throwing himself to his right to keep out Jozo Simunovic’s header from a Griffiths corner.

The hosts were riding their luck and were certainly fortunate in the 10th minute when Koprivec was not penalised for a clumsy challenge on Griffiths inside the box. The ball broke to Edouard who, with the goal gaping, slid his shot wide.

It was a howler from the normally deadly French striker but he would go on to make amends. But not before Kilmarnock posed their first threat of the evening when Chris Burke’s corner caused confusion in the Celtic defence and Kabamba came agonisingly close to bundling the ball home from close range.

Celtic were soon back on the front foot and passed up another glaring chance when Callum McGregor shot wide of Koprivec’s left hand post after superb hold-up play from Edouard created the opening.

The breakthrough looked inevitable and it duly arrived in the 25th minute. Jeremie Frimpong was the architect, the young wing-back bursting beyond Killie left-back Niko Hamalainen down Celtic’s right flank.

His low cross was deflected into the feet of Edouard who displayed great strength and poise to shrug off Alan Power’s challenge and drive a close range shot beyond Koprivec.

Celtic appeared fairly comfortable with their lead for the rest of the first half, without seriously threatening to add to it. There was one moment of concern for the visitors five minutes before the break when Hamalainen made a fine surge down the left before delivering a dangerous cross which neither Mohamed El Makrini or Burke could connect with in the six yard box with Fraser Forster flat-footed.

The Celtic ‘keeper was yet to be seriously tested but he was relieved to see Kabamba’s shot deflected just wide of his right hand post two minutes into the second half as Killie looked to respond.

But their hopes of a recovery were dented when Celtic doubled their lead in the 51st minute. Frimpong again caused problems for the home defence with a burst down the right, feeding the ball to McGregor who shuttled it on to Griffiths on the left of the penalty area.

Killie’s appeals for an offside decision fell on deaf ears as Griffiths close range shot beat Koprivec rather cheaply from the ‘keeper’s perspective at his near post.

Edouard twice came close to further extending Celtic’s advantage, seeing one shot bravely blocked by Alex Bruce and another saved by Koprivec, as Lennon’s men looked to be in cruise control.

But they were jolted in the 66th minute when Kilmarnock pulled a goal back, substitute Eamonn Brophy setting up a chance for Alan Power whose shot was smartly headed beyond Forster by Kabamba.

An anxious finale now beckoned for Celtic but they eased the concerns of the travelling support when their two-goal lead was restored seven minutes later. Griffiths added to his satisfying night’s work with an assist, his corner from the left thundered beyond Koprivec by Jullien’s towering header.

The only sour notes for Celtic came in stoppage time with injuries to Frimpong, who was taken off on a stretcher after lengthy treatment, and top scorer Edouard who limped away in some discomfort.