Glitz and glamour giving way to grime and grind is so often the way of it for Celtic at the end of a Champions League week. Yet against Inverness Caledonian Thistle yesterday, Brendan Rodgers’ changed side had enough sparkle to ensure there was no serious comedown from that rarity of a commendable away performance in club football’s premier tournament.
Scott Brown’s inability to play for more than an hour after taking a whack to his right foot in a first-half tackle with Greg Tansey might have provided the headline from a one-sided win. Little wonder when, after all the hoopla about his facing England at Wembley, the knock could result in the Celtic captain’s international comeback lasting all of a few days and not even covering a single game.
Brown joined Mikael Lustig and Liam Polworth as the casualties of a physical encounter in which the Highlanders couldn’t stand up to their opponents either in terms of football or force. It may have taken 48 minutes for Celtic to end their visitors’ resistance, but they were always going to do so. The wonder of it yesterday was that Moussa Dembele didn’t add his name to the list of scorers comprising regular net-ripplers Scott Sinclair, who claimed the opener, and Tom Rogic. A first goal in six weeks from Leigh Griffiths notably was sandwiched by the other two strikes, with Rodgers starting with a 3-5-2 that meant the Scot and Dembele playing alongside each other up front for the first time since the opening afternoon of the club’s league season brought victory at Tynecastle.
Since then, ten Premiership games have produced only one slip – Inverness’s late equaliser six weeks ago – but yesterday’s defeated manager Richie Foran doesn’t envisage there will be too many more. The Irishman performed a volte face, having said the other day he didn’t feel Celtic were so far ahead of the rest of Scottish football.
“I said last week I didn’t think the fear factor was at Parkhead like it was years ago. But maybe Brendan has created that. Some of our players played with fear and didn’t express themselves, which is disappointing. They didn’t express themselves.
“We had opportunities to counter but didn’t believe. I’m disappointed but maybe one of our better performances might not have been good enough for Celtic today – they dominated.
“The way Celtic played today I can see them going through the season unbeaten. It’s the firepower they have up front. It’s better than I’ve seen in the league. They have a great variety of player. [Stuart] Armstrong was magnificent and he’s one of their fringe players. He controlled the game.”
Armstrong did so from the right-back berth, having had to step back there after Lustig’s enforced withdrawal in the 14th minute led to Rodgers reverting to a back four. The “blond Cafu” his manager joked of Armstrong’s driving down the flank. “I thought he was brilliant today, Stu,” said Rodgers. “He adapted, no drama, played the position really well and should have scored.” A brilliant block from Owain Fon Williams prevented Griffiths striking with a first-half volley but goals were always destined to arrive.
The first, after 48 minutes, brought a redemptive moment for the excellent Callum McGregor following his miss to win it against Borussia Monchengladbach. He produced a lovely pass that split the visitors’ defence in 48 minutes and allowed Sinclair to dash forward and slide a low effort below the Welsh keeper. “There’s been a lot said about young Callum McGregor missing, but you should write about his pass, the improvisation and that ability that he had to flick it in between two defenders to set Scotty up. Once we got that goal, we started to move through the gears,” said Rodgers.
They were helped by Greg Tansey, already on a booking for persistent fouling, wiping out McGregor in ugly fashion as the midfielder played through Dembele for a curling effort on goal that Fon Williams pushed away, but only as far as Griffiths, who bashed in from close range.
For that last 25 minutes, it was all about adding to the scoreline for Celtic. Substitute Tom Rogic driving a cut-back from Armstrong through a crowd seven minutes from time was the only further damage inflicted, but Foran sees much more for those who face up to Rodgers’ – already – champions-elect.