Writ large yesterday were the contrasting fortunes of the sides separated by the entire length of the Premiership. For Brendan Rodgers’ men, another assignment ticked off in the stroll towards the club’s seventh straight title and the return to full pelt and scoring form of Stuart Armstrong, as well as the reappearance of Leigh Griffiths after a two-month lay-off..
For County, a collection of calamities. Or as joint-manager of the club Stuart Kettlewell aptly put it, an afternoon that “spiralled out of control”. Inside 45 minutes, no less. Across that period the Highland side conceded a penalty converted by Moussa Dembele, were reduced to ten men after captain Andrew Davies deliberately jabbed his boot into Scott Brown’s upper thigh area and lost their goalkeeper Aaron McCarey to a back spasm.
It is questionable whether any of this had any bearing on the outcome. Celtic were profligate as they moved to within ten points of their latest championship but they also had a verve that hasn’t always been evident in recent months.
The brio exhibited by Armstrong in his first club start this year – following on from his bright Scotland contributions in the past week or so – gave Celtic an added attacking dimension, felt Rodgers. It also gave them a clinching second goal just after the interval, with the 25-year-old edging his way along the box before finding a gap between defenders with a low angled drive that left substitute keeper Scott Fox unsighted.
The incisiveness in this strike was matched by a typical Tom Rogic finish on the hour wherein the Australian swept the ball in from the edge of the area after James Forrest fed him to stride forward. A win that extended Celtic’s league lead to 12-points flowed from a penalty opener that resulted from Scott Sinclair proving just too quick on the turn for Jason Naismith inside the box after 25 minutes, the winger having his legs taken from him.
With Patrick Roberts introduced on 63 minutes and then Griffiths on 70, the afternoon was notable for the appearance of all Celtic’s attacking players from their invincible treble-winning season for the first time in almost five months.
“I thought we were back today to what we were last year,” said Rodgers whose team, with the Scottish Cup semi-final to come against Rangers in a fortnight, could potentially be only five wins away from completing a first-ever double treble. “Lots of threats on goal, speed and penetration. Very importantly we had a hunger to get the ball back and that got us our second goal.
“When you come back from an international break you’re always looking to get some fluency as quick as you can. The pitch really helped, it was in good condition so well done to the groundstaff for getting it to that level which allows us to play the game much quicker. The crowd for top v bottom was virtually a full house. We talked before the game about having intent and intensity and we started strongly.
“Stuart Armstrong has been building his way back into contention. He showed his energy and all his qualities. Great goal but worked very hard and played the position really well. He tired a little bit in the last 20 minutes but we wanted to put him through 90 to push him with his game time.”
Games in the coming months could presage a momentous time for the champions-elect. The return to fitness of Griffiths, then, who looked sharp in his 20-minute run-out, could come at the right time for him to be part of personal and professional milestones – the striker is on 97 goals for Celtic as he bids to become the first player to hit three figures for the club since John Hartson 13 years ago. “We’re going into a really exciting part of the season where it’s about your mental fitness,” Rodgers said.
His team appear to have a renewed vigour to plot their paths to two more finishing lines.