SUBSTITUTE Leigh Griffiths scored the second hat-trick of his Celtic career in little more than half an hour last night to help soothe the fears of the majority inside Parkhead.
Scorers: Celtic - Commons (58), Griffiths (66,80,85); Kilmarnock - Westlake 50
Celtic survived a scare to pull eight points clear of second-placed Aberdeen, as had been the plan and also the expectation of their supporters before kick-off. But Kilmarnock did not prove quite as compliant as hoped when taking the lead through Darryl Westlake five minutes after half-time.
It was hardly surprising that Griffiths got the man-of-the-match award even though he did less than half-a-match’s worth of work. But what he did in this truncated period invariably came up trumps as he took his tally to 15 for the season.
Kris Commons scored Celtic’s equaliser two minutes after Kilmarnock had struck. The goal was significant because it also prompted Celtic manager Ronny Deila to introduce Griffiths to the forward line, where he was asked to provide the cutting edge Celtic so obviously lacked in the opening half.
And he certainly managed that. He scored with a header seven minutes later to give Celtic the lead and then almost broke a post with a swerving shot that bashed off the upright and into the net ten minutes before the end.
He completed his hat-trick with five minutes remaining when he latched onto a long through ball from Virgil van Dijk to score Celtic’s fourth goal. All this on a day when the player heard confirmation that he must stand trial later this year in Edinburgh for singing an allegedly offensive song in a bar in the capital before a Hearts v Hibs fixture last season.
But Griffiths looked as though he did not have a care in the world last night as he left the field with the match ball under his arm. Photographers crowded around the player as he celebrated a very satisfactory half-shift for his team, after things had begun to look tricky for the hosts. The match certainly promised little of this subsequent excitement in its opening half.
Inverness manager John Hughes was in the stand, although to describe him as an interested observer might be stretching things considering what unfolded in the first 45 minutes. Few in the crowd were.
Hughes at least had a pressing reason to be here. His side face Celtic at Hampden Park in Sunday’s Scottish Cup semi-final. Paul Hartley was also present in the stadium, with his side Dundee due to host Celtic next Wednesday. But Celtic had to be careful to avoid projecting their thoughts too far ahead. There was a game to be won last night and though they managed this, it was a struggle at first.
Celtic were making heavy weather of trying to break the deadlock. At one point John Guidetti even ran out of the box with the ball after delaying his shot to the point where he ran out of every other option.
Credit has to be given to Kilmarnock, who defended solidly.
Of course, the Rugby Park side had their own reasons for wanting to gain a result here; their relegation fears are far from over. At the start of play, they were only seven points clear of the relegation play-off place and this is where they remain.
Deila rotated his strikers again and started with Guidetti, on the day the Swede celebrated turning 23. Little fell for him in the opening half although he was denied by some good goalkeeping by Craig Samson in the second.
For all their team’s possession, Celtic’s lack of cutting edge was beginning to worry the home supporters. A Nir Bitton flick should have been headed nearer goal by Denayer. The Belgian’s defensive partner Van Dijk was even more at fault when failing to convert another headed opportunity, this time from a Commons corner.
Kilmarnock clearly took great heart from reaching half-time still level with their opponents. While Celtic were expected to race out of the blocks following the interval it didn’t quite pan out like that. Kilmarnock it was who seemed to emerge with a renewed impetus and they were the ones who opened the scoring five minutes into the second-half on one of their admittedly rare forays forward.
Westlake’s shot was helped on its way past Craig Gordon via a deflection off Denayer and Celtic Park was plunged into silence. The Celtic fans knew full well how Aberdeen supporters would be greeting news of this Kilmarnock breakthrough, however. The small band of Kilmarnock followers in the corner were also beside themselves.
But their glee did not last long. Samson was doing his best to keep Kilmarnock ahead. While he saved when parrying Guidetti’s deflected effort he could do nothing about Commons’ drive into the top corner, after the midfielder took the ball off the toes of Scott Brown.
Griffiths was sent on for the disappointing James Forrest immediately after the goal and what an inspired decision this proved.
His first goal after 65 minutes arrived with a header following Commons’ neat chip from the bye-line and his second, 15 minutes later, was a special left-footed effort; Brown set him up and Griffiths swiped an unstoppable shot which hit the post with a thud that echoed round the stadium. Samson could only watch as the ball rebounded into the net behind him. Gordon was called upon to make one of the saves of the season from a deflected Nathan Eccleston effort on 85 minutes. But nothing could take away from it being Griffiths’ night. His hat-trick was completed with five minutes left with another neat finish, this time from a tight angle after Van Dijk’s long ball. The fans’ frustrations were swept all away.