Title merely delayed for Neil Lennon and Celtic

Hibs' Paul Hanlon attempts to block Victor Wanyama's shot. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Hibs' Paul Hanlon attempts to block Victor Wanyama's shot. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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AS Neil Lennon said, it does not matter when you win the league, the important thing is winning it. Celtic are not quite over the line yet, but their performance here was just one more compelling demonstration of their superiority over every other team in the country.

Celtic 3-0 Hibernian

Scorers: Celtic - Commons (16, 52), Lustig (61)

Referee: J Beaton

Attendance: 49,174

For a time on Saturday afternoon as they eviscerated Hibernian at their leisure, Lennon’s team were on the verge of retaining their title there and then thanks to events at Fir Park. James McFadden’s equaliser for Motherwell against St Mirren denied them the chance to celebrate, but it is only pleasure deferred: 15 points clear and 35 goals to the good with five games to play, they should now wrap it up in the first round of post-split fixtures.

This was little more than a training exercise for Celtic, albeit one carried out with genuine purpose. Once Kris Commons put them in front relatively early in the first half they were never in any danger of not picking up all three points, and as the afternoon unfolded the majority of the crowd became far more interested in what was going on down the road in Motherwell.

Indeed, the biggest cheer of the day was produced not by any of Celtic’s three home goals, but by the news that St Mirren had gone ahead for the second time in their game against the only team now technically capable of catching the champions. McFadden’s goal some ten minutes later subdued the Parkhead atmosphere, but there was still no doubting the justifiable satisfaction which everyone connected with Celtic took from this display.

With six defeats already in the SPL, the champions have had far from a vintage season domestically, especially when their League Cup semi-final defeat by St Mirren is taken into account. But this result, as well as propelling them to within a point of the title, set them up perfectly for the season’s other remaining trophy, the Scottish Cup.

They are unlikely to have it all their own way against Dundee United in Sunday’s semi-final, and it was noteworthy that Jackie McNamara’s team played the latter stages of their top-six shootout with Aberdeen as if it were a cup-tie. But the purpose Celtic showed here will ensure they go into that match in good spirits, and with a determination to put some poor recent Hampden performances behind them.

Lennon was especially pleased with the way his strikers played, but really this was an all-round performance in which no-one stood out either as a weak link or as a player who was head and shoulders above the rest. Commons’ contribution may have been marginally better than his team-mates’, but above all this was a disciplined and determined team effort.

No-one really stood out for Hibernian either, but in the opposite sense. None of Pat Fenlon’s players had a significantly impressive outing, and while none was particularly worse than the rest of his team-mates, that was only because almost all of them were pretty poor.

Alex Harris enjoyed a few decent touches and Leigh Griffiths at least did little wrong, seeing very little of the ball from a central midfield who were invariably unable to get close to him. Apart from those two, Hibs looked thoroughly disheartened, and it was only thanks to some commendable perseverance in the face of inevitable defeat that they were not given a more thorough going-over.

Fenlon’s plan had to been to keep things tight, frustrate Celtic, and score a goal, ideally late in the second half once the sting had been taken out of the game. That plan went for a burton with a little more than quarter of an hour on the clock, and thereafter Hibs appeared unable to come up with any alternative scheme to get back into the game.

Victor Wanyama did the initial damage, dispossessing Jorge Claros in midfield before feeding Charlie Mulgrew. The latter found Gary Hooper, and his pass put Commons through on goal to sidefoot past Ben Williams.

Celtic should have had at least one more goal before half-time, as both Mulgrew and Hooper were also through on the goalkeeper only to lose control at the vital moment. But their single-goal lead at no time looked precarious, and it was unsurprising when they claimed a second not long after the restart.

Commons was again the scorer, accepting a ball from the right by Mikael Lustig and rolling Paul Hanlon before shooting low into the net.

Lustig went from provider to scorer for the third, meeting a Joe Ledley cross with his head, but only getting the ball over the line thanks to a bit of assistance from his hand. The contact might well have been unintentional, but Lustig looked apologetic, as if he expected the goal to be chalked off.

“I felt the ball went to the hand, so I did what I did then, it was up to the referee,” the Swedish right-back said. “Sometimes you know you’re offside but you score anyway.

“I won’t celebrate it if I know it touched my hand, but I think it’s then up to the referee. I thought the referee would disallow it: it was a clear handball.

“If the ref had come to ask me I’d have told him it was a handball. If it had been 0-0 I wouldn’t have celebrated – but I wouldn’t have told the referee.”

Lustig admitted that he had left the park thinking St Mirren were still ahead and that Celtic were therefore champions, but he now hopes his team can win the title in their next game on their own merits, not because Motherwell drop another point.

“Hopefully we can get a home game first and get the one point there,” he added. “Everyone thought we were going to win [the championship] and it put a lot of pressure on us.

“Of course it will be really nice to do it. Last year was unbelievable and now it seems like we’re going to do it again.”