EVEN a Celtic side with nothing to play for, a team with the title wrapped up and an eye already on next season, were too strong for Dundee United’s precocious youngsters at Tannadice yesterday when first-half goals by Georgios Samaras and Anthony Stokes secured all three points.
Scorers: Celtic - Samaras 5; Stokes 24
An experimental line-up in which Samaras made a rare start, Scott Brown played at right-back and Beram Kayal occupied central midfield threatened to blow away their hosts in the opening period before holding off a mini revival, and eventually cruising to their 27th league win of the season.
Neil Lennon, whose team can still match the record 103-point total set by Martin O’Neill’s 2002 vintage, said that his players had been motivated by the need to prove themselves between now and the end of the season. They had not, claimed the manager, been given the credit they deserved for their all-conquering league campaign.
“We were magnificent from start to finish,” said Lennon. “We wanted to set down a marker. A lot of nice things have been said about Dundee United’s young players and rightly so. Aberdeen have had a lot of praise this season. I think sometimes we get taken for granted. You saw what a good team we are. Some of the football was sublime.
“People say there’s no competition, but you still have to go out and do it. I know how difficult it is to play here, the expectations that are on the players. We’re a relatively young team ourselves. Bearing in mind we’ve got an injury list as long as your arm ... it speaks volumes for the players.”
Pierre van Hooijdonk, the former Celtic striker, was among those who enjoyed their performance. Now an agent, he was part of a bizarre main-stand audience that also included Lorraine Kelly – a regular United nut – and Timmy Mallett, erstwhile children’s TV presenter, now apparently promoting an art exhibition in Dundee.
Mallett did not, as far as can be determined, hit anyone over the head with a blunt instrument, which is just as well, for there were a few fragile Celtic players making tentative comebacks here. Not least among them was Steven Mouyokolo, whose brief cameo as a late substitute was his first appearance since he was injured in August. Kayal provided a robust answer to suggestions that he has lost his nerve in central midfield. And Samaras, that great psychological enigma, came up trumps in his first start since early February.
The big Greek striker is expected to leave at the end of the season, although Lennon has not given up hope. “It will take a bit of convincing,” said the manager. “We have made our position clear and it’s up to Sammy to make that decision. If he goes, he goes with my best wishes, but I would dearly like him to stay because there are not many like him when he is playing like that.”
Leigh Griffiths was named among the substitutes, a decision that Lennon insisted had nothing to do with his latest indiscretion off the pitch. If the manager was annoyed that the striker had mocked Hearts’ impending relegation in an Edinburgh pub last weekend, it didn’t seem to trouble the Celtic support. “Hearts are going bust,” they chanted as Griffiths warmed up on the touchline.
Although he came on in the second half, Celtic managed perfectly well in his absence, requiring just five minutes to take the lead in straightforward fashion. Brian Graham’s foul on Kayal led to a free kick wide on the right. Commons curled it on to the penalty spot, where Samaras reached in ahead of his marker, Gavin Gunning, and volleyed it into the roof of the net.
There was a brief response from United, most notably when Gunning blazed over at the back post, but Celtic were quickly back in their stride. The visitors were keener and sharper all over the pitch, but especially up front, where Stokes was in the mood.
United’s defence had not covered themselves in glory for the first goal, but they were worse for the second. Not only was Stokes allowed to exchange an easy one-two with Kris Commons, he was given the freedom to bundle the ball into the box and clip a right-foot shot beyond Rado Cierzniak.
There were a few long-range efforts at the other end, but United could have been three down at half-time. In what was almost a replica of the first goal, Commons swung in the free-kick, and Samaras emerged from the crowd, but this time his header was off target and the assistant referee indicated offside.
United replaced Graham with Gary Mackay-Steven for the second half, a change that brought about an immediate improvement in the home side. The substitute threaded a perfect ball into the path of Ryan Dow, who knocked it past the advancing Fraser Forster, only to see the “goal”disallowed for offside.
In turn, the introduction of Griffiths lifted Celtic. He got an early sight of goal after eluding Sean Dillon, but Cierzniak was out quickly to smother at his feet. Then his shot, after a Commons cross, was turned wide by the United goalkeeper. His effort from the corner of the box looked ambitious, but it almost sneaked in at the far post.
In an entertaining finale, both sides went for it. Virgil van Dijk set up Commons in the box, but the striker failed to round Cierzniak. Then Forster got down well to palm away Mackay-Steven’s low shot. Stuart Armstrong also tested the Celtic goalkeeper, who repelled midfielder’s shot.