Goals from James Forrest and Callum McGregor gave a much-changed Celtic side a 2-0 Ladbrokes Premiership win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
There appears to be a Celtic senior side, and a side they send out to face Kilmarnock. For the second time in 12 days, changing half their personnel from the previous encounter didn’t make one blind bit of difference to the outcome of a joust with the Ayrshire club. If yesterday’s largely unremarkable 2-0 win wasn’t as painful for Lee McCulloch’s men as the earlier 5-0 Betfred Cup battering at Celtic Park, it was still an occasion to make them wince. After a fourth straight defeat of a season that has already brought three home league losses, it could be no other way.
Fresh from their Champions League exploits in the pizzazz-filled 5-0 play-off success over Astana, the visitors weren’t that fresh. Understandable, after the emotional high of that night. A starting line-up shorn of Leigh Griffiths, Scott Sinclair, Jozo Simunovic, Mikel Lustig, Olivier Ntcham and Nir Bitton, was well-served by Scottish full-backs Calvin Miller and Anthony Ralston and former Kilmarnock loanee Kristoffer Ajer.
The crucial contributions were made by men who often do make them, however. No one more so than Tom Rogic, whose balletic grace with the ball at his feet was central to the two goals plundered by the Scottish champions.
A meandering sort of affair was shaken up by the Australian’s capacity for driving daintily into his opponents’ penalty area – as he did to set his team on their way against an Astana side who they will play again on Tuesday in Kazakhstan to fullfil their Champions League play-off commitments.
Rogic seemed to skip over the challenge of Adam Frizzell in the 40th minute before squaring for James Forrest – auxiliary striker once more – to squeeze a low shot through a ruck of players in with a deft side-foot from eight yards.
Aside from an effort that new Kilmarnock signing Eamonn Brophy tugged wide from an inviting Chris Burke corner late on, a 47th win in a 51-game unbeaten domestic sequence under Rodgers was never threatened. It was sealed two minutes from normal time when Rogic galloped forward and sought to release substitute Griffiths, only for the ball to arrive at the feet of Callum McGregor – ghosting in behind his team-mate – who despatched it past Jamie MacDonald clinically.
“The goal is absolute magic,” Rodgers said of Rogic’s contribution to the opener. “I was right behind it and you just notice him lift the ball over the defender to continue his run. If he tries to play it along the floor, the defender blocks it. But he’s a big, big talent and he has the awareness to cut it back for what wasn’t an easy finish for James.
“And the second one, it’s the difference between a player who allows you to go forward or just keep possession. We want to keep the ball but we also want to penetrate and with players like him in the attacking third, the ability is there to do that. He’s fantastic.”
Rodgers, effusive in his praise of the now under pressure Lee McCulloch, delighted in the manner he felt his makeshift team exhibited the understanding of a more experienced first 11.
“All the players train hard and they understand the structure of the team,” Rodgers said. “Then it’s just replacing one player with one of a similar profile. That’s what you look for whenever you’re recruiting players. And how I work in particular there needs to be a certain ability to run, be mobile and have technique.
“They need to be able to take on board information so if there’s a player who comes through into the system they should have all of those attributes, so that when you take one out another one goes in – then it’s just a clone really.”
Celtic will be cloning such straightforward wins across the Premiership campaign, no doubt. Right now, McCulloch would love to introduce that into the DNA of a Kilmarnock team that have completely lost their ability to prosper in their home environs.
“You could argue we’re better away from home, although we don’t know that yet this season,” said McCulloch, whose team have a fourth straight home league game next Saturday when Hamilton will be visitors.
“In the last seven years, it’s been the worst home form in the club’s history. I would love someone to tell me why that is, because there’s been different managers, different players, different pitch. I would quite like to find the answer to that. But it had nothing to do with the performance today.”
If McCulloch was disconsolate – “we do need to start picking up points now” – Rodgers provided the contrast. “Did anyone see me fall at half-time? I’ll put a claim in, I think. You didn’t see it? Good.”
Cue much waggery about it being Rodgers’ first notable slip-up in 15 months in charge.