CELTIC took some time to find top gear but were ultimately in cruise control as they earned a maiden league victory in Dingwall in emphatic fashion.
Scorers: Ross County - Sproule 68; Celtic - Van Dijk 41, 52; Ledley 70, 74
Four headed goals – two each from Virgil van Dijk and Joe Ledley either side of substitute Ivan Sproule’s consolation for a poor Ross County side – saw Neil Lennon’s men put their midweek Champions League disappointment at Ajax behind them as they strengthened their position at the top of the Premiership.
Celtic may face a battle to keep their heads above water in Europe’s elite club competition but their domestic superiority remains largely unchallenged. They simply had too much power, pace and purpose for Derek Adams’ team which, on this evidence, may yet be grateful for Hearts’ seemingly hopeless situation at the foot of the table this season.
Despite Lennon’s concern about the early kick-off as Celtic went from the Netherlands to the Highlands, there was nothing sluggish about the way his team started the match in terms of expending energy and forcing County on to the back foot. But, while Celtic totally dominated possession and territory, the quality of their work in the attacking third left much to be desired until van Dijk made the breakthrough.
Full-back Emilio Izaguirre had the misfortune to be the nearest player to the technical areas as he surged up and down the left flank to little effect in the first half hour or so. After one poor delivery too many from the Honduran, he found himself on the receiving end of an uncomplimentary earful from the exasperated Lennon.
With the new front pairing of Teemu Pukki and James Forrest failing to gel immediately, it was van Dijk who was Celtic’s most threatening player as he ventured forward regularly.
The big central defender saw his first headed attempt of the day cleared in the six-yard box by Stuart Kettlewell, then tested Mark Brown with a stinging 25-yard drive which the County keeper did well to hold.
Van Dijk should have found a way past Brown in the 19th minute, badly miscuing a header wide of the target after being picked out
by Charlie Mulgrew’s perfectly delivered free-kick.
Nir Biton, handed his first league starting appearance as one of five changes to the Celtic side from Amsterdam, struggled to get to the pace of the action as he continues to find adjustment to Scottish football problematic.
The Israeli midfielder’s display was symptomatic of a general lack of fluency in Celtic’s play before they scored. There was a rare glimpse of class and cohesion when Pukki and Izaguirre linked well to play Forrest in but his lofted shot was just too high to trouble Brown.
Despite Lennon’s frustration at this stage, his team never looked likely to find themselves behind. County completely lacked enterprise and the only time they even hinted at an attacking threat was when Brian McLean headed Graham Carey’s corner over the top.
Celtic finally seized the lead they merited in the 41st minute. County were caught flat-footed by a short corner routine on the left, which saw Mulgrew find Izaguirre who, unusually, opted to deliver a cross with his right foot. It found van Dijk at the far post and his header went in off Brown’s right-hand post.
Starting the second half with renewed vigour, Celtic doubled their lead in the 52nd minute when the County defence were once more unable to contain van Dijk’s aerial prowess. Scott Brown saw a shot deflected on to a post and wide for a corner, which Mulgrew whipped in from the right. Van Dijk timed his leap superbly to glance a close-range header beyond Brown.
It seemed as if all three points had been well and truly wrapped up at that stage but County briefly burst into life in the 67th minute to give their fans hope of an unlikely comeback.
Ivan Sproule, with his first touch of the ball after replacing Mark Klok, lashed the ball beyond Forster from close range after the big Englishman had got down well to parry a 20-yard shot from Rocco Quinn.
Celtic’s response was ruthless as they quickly re-asserted their authority with two goals in four minutes from Ledley. County’s weakness in the air was exposed again when the Welsh midfielder headed in Izaguirre’s cross from the left.
He repeated the dose when he found space to nod home teenage right-back Darnell Fisher’s delivery from the other flank.
A fairly regular goalscorer for Celtic from midfield since his arrival at the club, these were Ledley’s first of this season and the injury-hit Welshman will hope it can kickstart his campaign.
It could have been even worse for County, Celtic swarming forward at will in the closing stages. Biton forced a smart save from Brown with a good header and Ledley was denied a hat-trick when he struck the County goalkeeper’s right-hand post with a firm shot.
Ross County: M Brown, Micic, McLean, Boyd, Kovacevic (Saunders 80), Brittain, Quinn, Kettlewell, Carey (Maatsen 66), De Leeuw, Klok (Sproule 66).
Subs not used: Gordon, Ross, Luckassen, Fraser.
Celtic: Forster, Fisher, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Biton (Rogic 80), Ledley (Boerrigter 85), Forrest (Stokes 71), S Brown, Mulgrew, Pukki.
Subs not used: Commons, Balde, Zaluska, McGeouch.
Ref: K Clancy