Despite a brief show of resistance Dundee United were unable to prevent last night turning into the Leigh Griffiths show with the Celtic striker piling on the problems for the home side.
The once unruly Griffiths might at one time have preferred to spend Friday nights engaged in less wholesome pursuits. But just two years on from making his debut for Celtic, he sealed his place among the club’s great goalscorers by scoring his 50th goal for the club, before adding a 51st for good measure.
While he couldn’t match the hat-trick he collected here last season he has every reason to be more than content with his efforts. As for United, this was a familiar take of looking bright in spells before surrendering via almost all-out collapse.
Teams deposited at the bottom of the table rarely get the breaks and so it was with United last night.
They could reasonably point to three potential penalty kicks that referee Bobby Madden failed to award. Simon Murray, who got United back into the game when making it 2-1 on the half-hour mark, twice went down in the box under suspect-looking challenges while Celtic substitute James Forrest also handled in the penalty area in the second half.
But it was obvious who deserved to take all three points. When able to rely on a goalscorer like Griffiths the winning of matches becomes a lot more straightforward.
Jozo Simunovic and Kris Commons got in on the act as well, the latter scoring an acrobatic fourth goal with a volley. Celtic have now stretched their lead at the top over Aberdeen, who play Ross County tomorrow, to six points.
It is a far different story for United, who remain 11 points adrift at the bottom. Their situation could worsen later today. Billy Mckay’s absence because of a family bereavement had to be stoically endured by United, who don’t have their troubles to seek. Having struck nine times since his loan move in September, the striker is responsible for the majority of United’s goals this season.
But then summing up the home side’s problems, Leigh Griffiths’ pre-match total of 22 was equal to the number of goals United had scored between them all season. Former Dundee striker Griffiths had extra motivation last night. On 49 goals for Celtic in only 59 starts, this clash against the league’s basement dwellers represented a huge opportunity for the striker.
Griffiths needed only 21 minutes to become Celtic’s most prolific striker of the modern era, picking up a booking in the process after revealing a tee-shirt with a giant 50 printed on it as he celebrated. He had clearly decided before kick-off to risk a caution by advertising such an impressive achievement.
The goal was the least Celtic deserved up to that point. Contrary to Mixu Paatelainen’s promise on the eve of the match, United had not started the game with great energy and desire. Rather, they looked cowed by the challenge ahead. Hardly helping matters was the number of changes the manager was forced to make due to injury, suspension and the aforementioned bereavement. These circumstances meant Paatelainen was forced into handing new signing Riku Riski a first start perhaps earlier than the manager might have liked. Riski, who looked a little lightweight, was paired up front with Murray, whose last start was as long ago as August. His only goal prior to last night was against Motherwell in the same month.
So the sinking feeling among the United fans when Griffiths gave Celtic such an early lead was understandable. The visitors should already have been ahead by this point, with Stuart Armstrong, the former United favourite, going close on a couple of occasions with curling efforts.
As is so often the case with United, it was an avoidable goal, sourced from a mistake at the back. Gavin Gunning’s slip allowed Griffiths to latch on to a Tom Rogic pass, and with only the goalkeeper to beat, the odds were staked in the striker’s favour. He did as was expected, drilling the ball through Eiji Kawashima’s legs for a goal of undeniable significance.
The likes of Charlie Nicholas, Henrik Larsson and Brian McClair all needed more starts to reach 50 goals for Celtic. Griffiths has required only 60 to hit this magic total. Ronny Deila is likely to forgive him the booking he subsequently picked up.
It didn’t augur well for United when Celtic stretched their lead six minutes later. The celebrations among the visiting fans had barely died down when Simunovic bulleted a header into the net under little or no opposition pressure after Armstrong was fouled on the edge of the box.
Simunovic was given far too much room to meet Kris Commons’ free-kick, with questions being asked not only of Kawashima, who missed the cross, but also Gunning, the nearest defender to the goalscorer.
United had every reason to be downhearted but they summoned a response. It was impressive resilience by a side who do not make it easy for themselves. Souttar, a physically heavy-looking presence in midfield given his tender years, looked sprightly as he ran at the Celtic defence before exchanging passes with Riski and slipping a perfect pass through to Murray.
Once a prolific scorer in the lower divisions with Arbroath, the flame-haired striker looked every inch a marksman when clipping the ball past Craig Gordon with a first-time shot.
With the deficit now cut to one, United passed their first test by reaching half-time without conceding again. But they failed the second test when allowing Celtic to score early in the second half.
It was another significant goal for Griffiths since it more or less secured the points for the visitors. United, whose powers of recovery were to the fore in the first half, looked the sort of broken team we have come to recognise thereafter.
With no 51 T-shirt to parade to the fans, Griffiths avoided the booking that would have earned him a red card. But such a fine finish with his less preferred right foot, after Mikael Lustig’s cross was missed by Commons, was still worth celebrating.
Commons’ brilliant volley from Armstrong’s chip to the back post, with still more than half an hour left, meant the Celtic fans spent the rest of the game in carefree weekend mode.
The home supporters, meanwhile, were simply relieved the almost weekly dose of agony was out of the way earlier than usual.
DUNDEE UTD: Kawashima, McGowan, Dillon, Gunning, Spittal, Souttar (Paton 82), Fraser, Rankin, Dixon, Murray (Erskine 73), Riski (Dow 64). Subs Not Used: Telfer, Spark, Donaldson, Zwick.
CELTIC: Gordon, Lustig, Ambrose, Simunovic, Tierney (Izaguirre 78), McGregor, Johansen, Commons, Rogic (Forrest 60), Armstrong (Allan 69), Griffiths. Subs Not Used: Ciftci, Cole, Bailly, O’Connell.