Celtic eased their way back into action following their winter break and into the fifth round of the Scottish Cup as they saw off the challenge of League One part-timers Albion Rovers with the minimum of fuss.
Acclimatising to a chilly afternoon in Lanarkshire after their sunshine break in Dubai offered no problems for Brendan Rodgers’ team as they maintained their domestically dominant form under his management.
The Scottish champions are now just one match short of equalling the post-war record of 26 unbeaten domestic fixtures from the start of a season which was set by Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions 50 years ago.
Celtic also remain firmly in contention for the club’s first domestic treble since 2001. Their focused determination to achieve that feat was apparent as they ensured there was never even the slightest hint of a cup upset yesterday.
Scott Sinclair put them ahead with a terrific long-range goal before half-time, before Rovers’ dogged resistance finally crumbled in the latter stages of the tie when Moussa Dembele’s 20th goal of the season and a Stuart Armstrong strike gave the final scoreline a more realistic look.
At the same venue where they laboured so dismally to a 2-0 win over Lowland League side East Kilbride at the same stage of the tournament 12 months ago, Celtic were determined to impose their superiority over Rovers as quickly as possible.
That they had to settle for just a 1-0 lead at the interval, courtesy of Sinclair’s 13th goal of a highly impressive first season for the club, was testament to the defensive diligence and industry of Darren Young’s men.
Although notionally set up in a 4-5-1 formation, that effectively became a 6-3-1 whenever Rovers were forced on to the back foot – which was the case most of the time. But while Celtic hogged possession and weaved some pretty patterns across the synthetic playing surface, they found it difficult to penetrate the heavily populated Rovers penalty area.
With efforts from distance offering the likeliest route to finding a way through, Nir Bitton was first to try his luck as he sent a shot from 25 yards just over the crossbar.
The Rovers line-up was bookended by two players with exactly the same monicker, goalkeeper and centre-forward Ross C Stewart even sharing a middle initial. While the man wearing the No 9 jersey had a thankless and unrewarding shift on his own up front for the hosts, Scotland youth international ‘keeper Stewart had plenty to keep him occupied.
He made a sharp save to keep out a dipping left-foot shot from Armstrong, then was relieved to see Dembele glance a header wide after he had been picked out by a Mikael Lustig cross.
Lustig was deployed in central defence alongside Dedryck Boyata, who was handed only his second appearance under Rodgers. The big Belgian was rarely placed under any pressure, although he reacted sharply to block a Mark Ferry effort as Rovers launched a rare attack.
They were almost punished for their show of ambition as Celtic launched a sweeping counter which saw Stewart race off his line to save bravely at the feet of Sinclair.
Stewart made another fine stop in the 25th minute, again denying Sinclair from close range after a fine move involving James Forrest and Dembele had created the opening. But as Celtic ratcheted up the tempo, the Rovers ‘keeper was powerless to prevent Sinclair’s stunning strike on the half hour.
Kieran Tierney, making a welcome and energetic return at left-back following a three-month injury absence, scampered to the byline and found Sinclair with a cutback to the corner of the penalty area. The former Manchester City man let fly with a right-foot shot which took a wildly dipping trajectory as the ball beat Stewart high at his left-hand post.
To Rovers’ credit, there was no sign of their resolve being diminished by the goal and they could take satisfaction from avoiding further damage before the break, although Dembele should have done better than send a header wide from close range after being picked out by Cristian Gamboa’s cross.
That profligacy seemed to be contagious as Celtic passed up another couple of premium opportunities early in the second half, which they had started with Jozo Simunovic replacing Lustig at the back. Forrest drove a shot straight into the midriff of the grateful Stewart from around 14 yards, then Armstrong swept an attempt over from the edge of the penalty area.
While Celtic never appeared even remotely in danger of conceding at the other end, an element of frustration began to creep into their play as a second goal continued to prove elusive. Dembele headed wide again, this time from a Forrest cross, then Boyata was unfortunate to see a header rebound from the crossbar after he had been picked out by substitute Callum McGregor.
Unsurprisingly, Rovers began to tire and there was an increasing level of desperation in some of their defending. Ross Dunlop managed to scramble the ball off the line to deny Simunovic following a corner, before Celtic’s persistence finally saw them double their lead with 13 minutes remaining.
Patrick Roberts, on in place of Forrest, burst down the right and combined with Scott Brown to pierce the Rovers defence. The Celtic captain’s cross presented Dembele with a simple tap-in from little more than a yard out.
Armstrong provided the final gloss of the afternoon in the 90th minute, firing home from close range after further excellent build-up play from Roberts.