Any graph charting Celtic’s fortunes this season would be jagged. The title looks firmly within the grasp of Ronny Deila’s men again courtesy of the six-point gap they established with a 3-0 weekend win in which their play fluctuated wildly. Yet that was true too a matter of months ago, only for Aberdeen to threaten seriously before slipping up against Inverness Caledonian Thistle a week ago.
In Europe, Celtic travelled from highs to lows inside minutes. They looked on course to take Malmö apart in the Champions League play-off, only to be left with an inadequate 3-2 home win. In the Europa League group stage that followed, wins that would have set alight their campaign against both Ajax and Fenerbahce were doused.
There has only been one Celtic story that could be plotted with a rising straight line: the goalscoring of Leigh Griffiths.
The striker’s double against John Hughes’ side was the product of peerless predatory instincts that make the possibility of the 25-year-old achieving true greatness this season very real. The 32-goal haul he now has to his name is underpinned by 24 league strikes. Since the inception of the Premier League in 1975 the highest league total scored in any one season is 35 goals – which Brian McClair achieved in 1986-87 and Henrik Larsson equalled in 2000-01.
That means Griffiths has 12 league games to score 12 goals. In his past 12 such outings, he has netted 13 times. Incredibly, across the entire season, he has only failed to score in five league games in which he has appeared.
“I just take each game as it comes. I don’t really look at records, I just concentrate on what I can do. But if I can beat them, I’ll be a happy, happy guy,” he said. “It would be massive. Henrik Larsson’s the best striker that’s played for this club.
“To be up there with the likes of him, [John] Hartson, [Chris] Sutton would be something but I want to make a name for myself and the only way I do that is by playing well and scoring goals.
“If I keep playing well and scoring goals then one day I hope I’ll be able to come back and people will say ‘there’s the record goalscorer’. When I got to the 20-mark I was trying to beat my 28-goal record from Hibs. Now I’ve done that I just keep looking forward to every game. On Friday we are at Hamilton and I scored a hat-trick against them last time so hopefully I can score there too.”
Griffiths looks as if he could score anywhere, anytime. As he is well aware. “I feel that if I get chances I’ll score goals,” he added.
“First half didn’t really get any opportunities, second half the one that came my way, I buried it. Scotty [Scott Allan] laid it off perfectly for my second. Maybe I should have had a couple more with the chances that I’ve had at the back post. But it was a good day’s work for me.”
For all that Inverness had opportunities to expose Celtic vulnerabilities with a couple of first-half chances,ultimately the afternoon was a good day all round for the Scottish champions – the introduction of Ryan Christie, Patrick Roberts, the on-loan Manchester City winger making his debut, and Allan supplying vibrancy to a team previously devoid of that.
However, with two goals early in the second period, they were not devoid of matchwinning qualities. Gary Mackay-Steven’s 53rd-minute curler that followed a number of Celtic players shuffling the ball along the box turned the contest that ended when Griffiths, in delightful fashion, produced a spin, acceleration and then slam to ensure a chance from nothing was “buried”. Roberts, Christie and Allan then combined to give Griffiths the chance to whack low into the goal a pinpoint effort seconds from time.
Celtic can now move nine points ahead if they win at Hamilton on Friday night, with Aberdeen at home to St Johnstone the following afternoon. Griffiths pointed to the fact that Celtic have now racked up two consecutive league clean sheets – three in all competitions for the first time this season – and clearly believes the platform is there for the push towards five in a row.
“We concentrate on ourselves,” said the striker. “It’s about what we do. If we go about our business and win games we’ll be champions. They [Aberdeen] cut the points gap last season and we kind of steamrollered them after that.”