CELTIC saved one of their most convincing displays of the season for last as they marked their title-winning celebrations in style with a dynamic demolition of Scottish Cup finalists Inverness.
This was a party for which everyone connected with the champions wanted an invite – even Stefan Scepovic turned up, the previously misfiring Serbian striker scoring twice in his first starting appearance for four months.
Stefan Johansen, Leigh Griffiths and Kris Commons were also on target for Ronny Deila’s side, who wrapped up what for long periods had resembled a proper title race by finishing a massive 17 points ahead of nearest rivals
Another clean sheet for Celtic also gave them the best defensive record in the Scottish top flight since 1919, having conceded just 17 goals in 38 games.
For Inverness, this was a day when their priorities lay firmly elsewhere. Their first Scottish Cup final appearance at Hampden next Saturday was understandably at the forefront of John Hughes’ mind as he made his team selection.
It was a starting line-up without seven of the first-team regulars who will certainly be in action against Falkirk at the weekend. Graeme Shinnie, David Raven, Josh Meekings, Ross Draper, Greg Tansey and Edward Ofere were left out completely, while Marley Watkins was among a short-handed complement of just five substitutes for the visitors.
By contrast, Deila fielded pretty close to what many would regard as his first-choice starting 11. The obvious exception to that was Scepovic, who was handed a final opportunity of the campaign to persuade the Celtic supporters he has not irredeemably joined the list of big-money striking flops at the club.
That perhaps explained why the PA announcer was so keen to credit Scepovic with Celtic’s opening goal in the fifth minute.
Initial impressions suggested that Nir Bitton had beaten his team-mate to the close-range tap-in after Johansen’s free kick from the right had been nodded back across the six-yard box by Virgil van Dijk.
The Israeli midfielder’s celebration of the goal also appeared more convincing and telling than the reaction of Scepovic. Even the television replays were less than conclusive but no-one seemed to begrudge the £2.3 million signing taking the acclaim.
It may have been one to refer to a dubious goals panel, but what was not in doubt was that it was an early reflection of the one-sided nature of the match. Celtic were clearly eager to finish their campaign on a high note against opponents who had proved so troublesome to them in their previous meetings.
As the hosts maintained the pressure, Carl Tremarco spared his team-mate Gary Warren from putting through his own goal when he made a smart clearance off the line.
Estonian forward Tarmo Kink, handed a rare start by Inverness, briefly threatened a response from the visitors with a snapshot from 22 yards which flew just wide of Craig Gordon’s right-hand post.
But Celtic were soon back in the ascendancy, Scepovic showing a desire to make a positive impression as he tested Ryan Esson with a powerful right-foot effort which was well saved by the Inverness goalkeeper.
There was already a sense Celtic could help themselves to a high-scoring win here and it was no surprise when they made it 2-0 in the 18th minute.
It was a fine goal by the champions, intelligently created and clinically finished. Scott Brown and Stuart Armstrong combined slickly on the left to send Emilio Izaguirre racing into the penalty area. The Honduran full-back showed nice footwork to cut inside and lay the ball invitingly into the path of Johansen, who claimed his 13th goal of the season with a firm, low, left-foot shot from around 12 yards.
Celtic should have been given the opportunity to further add to their tally from the penalty spot in the 33rd minute. Instead, they were left with an unwelcome sense of déjã vu when a blatant handball by an Inverness player went unpunished.
The memories of that Josh Meekings incident in the Scottish Cup semi-final are still raw for many Celtic fans and they were stirred again when Danny Williams clearly blocked a Van Dijk header on the line with a raised hand, only for referee Kevin Clancy to ignore the claims for a penalty.
On this occasion, however, the controversy was mild by comparison and never likely to influence the outcome of the contest.
The momentum remained firmly with Celtic as they continued to dominate possession and territory in the second half.
Armstrong should have extended their advantage nine minutes after the restart, the midfielder wastefully blazing a shot over from around ten yards after being set up perfectly by James Forrest.
The third goal, which more accurately reflected Celtic’s level of control, did not arrive until the 70th minute. It completed a morale-boosting afternoon for Scepovic, who started and finished a fine move by Deila’s men.
Seizing on loose play by Inverness, Scepovic surged forward and fed Johansen who, in turn, picked out Forrest on the left.
The winger slid the ball low across the penalty area for Scepovic, who had scored just four times in his previous 24 appearances for Celtic, to execute a finish which this time was definitely all his own work. He left the pitch to a warm reception seven minutes later, replaced by Griffiths, who wasted little time in reminding everyone who is Celtic’s current No 1 striker.
Inverness had sent on 18-year-old Cameron Mackay to make his debut as a replacement for Esson but the young ‘keeper was soon picking the ball out of the net.
Receiving a clever angled pass from fellow substitute Kris Commons, Griffiths arrowed a low left-foot shot across Mackay and into the corner of the net to claim his 20th goal of the season. In the final minute, Commons got in on the act when he wrapped up an emphatic victory for Celtic with a powerful right-foot shot from 22 yards after being set up by Izaguirre.
Celtic: Gordon; Matthews (Mulgrew 68), Denayer, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Bitton, Brown, Armstrong (Commons 68), Johansen, Forrest, Scepovic (Girffiths 77). Subs not used: Zaluska, Stokes, Ambrose, Mackay-Steven. Booked: Izaguirre, Johansen. Goals: Scepovic 5’, 70’; Johansen 18’; Grififths 80’; Commons 90’.
ICT: Esson (Mackay 73), Horner, Warren, Vincent, Tremarco, Ross, Devine, Williams, Polworth, Kink (Sutherland 76), Christie (Doran 62). Subs not used: Watkins, Brown.
Ref: K Clancy