Yet the tie was negotiated as if a “training ground” exercise, according to losing manager Terry Butcher, with a starting line-up in which the Glasgow side’s top-scorer Anthony Stokes and, arguably, their most effective player this season, James Forrest, did not even feature.
Celtic were assisted in their canter to the quarter-finals by a calamitous display by their Highland hosts. “Horrendous mistakes” and “comedy of errors” were just a couple of the descriptive terms applied to the goals which Butcher’s team conceded. “S***” was another he deployed to sum up the performance overall. But that should not be allowed to detract from the fact that Saturday provided further evidence as to what a formidable force, in Scottish terms, Celtic have become over four months in which they have racked up 15 consecutive domestic wins and been unbeaten across 19 outings.
Some context is required. In the modern day, there is only one team which has enjoyed a longer sequence of straight victories across the various domestic tournaments. In 2001/02, Martin O’Neill’s Celtic team posted a 19-game such run. No team managed by Walter Smith, Gordon Strachan, Alex McLeish or Dick Advocaat has achieved what Lennon’s men have this season. That is surely remarkable. And it makes any bet against Celtic claiming the treble – especially in light of Rangers’ Scottish Cup ousting yesterday – assume a contrary aspect. Celtic supporters may be revelling in the potentially catastrophic financial problems of their bitter rivals – as evidenced by the fact their travelling support hammered on constantly about partying when “Rangers die” at the Caledonian Stadium. But the very poverty, on and off the field, at Ibrox could deny Lennon and his squad the appreciation that would be theirs by rights were they to do the clean sweep.
Of course, if ever there was a sizeable obstacle to Celtic’s ability to continue knocking out the wins it is surely the Tynecastle confrontation they face on Wednesday. But the Scottish Premier League leaders do so as a team transformed from the one whose last domestc loss came on their visit to Gorgie in October.
Then, all of their strikers were struggling for either fitness or form, or both. Now, all of those Lennon could select are in the finest fettle of their Celtic careers. Including Georgios Samaras, who set Celtic on the way to their latest win with a vicious, swerving drive from the left-hand edge of the area, after the ball was knocked to him in a crucial area courtesy of Ross Tokeley. “I thought Sammi’s all-round game was brilliant,” Lennon said. “He really lashed the ball into the top corner for his goal and we have been looking for him to do that for a long time because he is capable of it.”
His striker partner at the weekend, Gary Hooper, continues to look capable of doing everything expected of a top- class striker, with the possible exception of scoring headed goals – Lennon’s only gripe with him. And, having come close to scoring on a couple of occasions, he set up Celtic for a second by winning a penalty. To do so required an admirable willingness to graft for little potential reward, the Englishman chasing down a misplaced pass that David Proctor had reached first on the right-hand byline. The defender admitted later he should have then put the ball out but didn’t, allowing Hooper to hack it away from him and, as he moved away with the ball, was bumped by the Inverness player. “He initiated the contact,” Proctor said. “He was cute about it.” What Hooper did was slow down and wait for a rash challenge, which duly arrived.
The subsequent spot-kick allowed Scott Brown to make it three goals in three games, two in the form of penalties. And while proving seemingly sound in the art of netting a free hit from 12 yards shouldn’t be a big deal, it is to a Celtic side which has missed six penalties in little over a year. “He’s waited a long time to be the penalty taker and he is doing fantastically well,” Lennon said. “Once he was over the ankle surgery and pain-free, we knew he would come to the fore.”
Brown is a, sometimes, brutal competitor and his afternoon ended with the Celtic captain complaining to referee Calum Murray that he had been elbowed off the ball by his fellow armband wearer, Richie Foran. The pair had a ding-dong all day, while Gregory Tade gave Kelvin Wilson and Thomas Rogne a real physical scrap. In every department, however, Celtic stood strong and that is where they appear to have made profound progress in recent months. Lennon picked a team to play, and play long if necessary, on a difficult pitch in unforgiving wind and rain. It may be altogether different to the side he selects for Tynecastle, but he has the players and the nous to be able to win in all manner of circumstances right now, it seems.