FOR a club who have caused Celtic so much notable grief during their 21-year existence, Inverness Caledonian Thistle have suddenly adopted the role of willing stooges for their visits to the home of the Scottish champions.
Since John Hughes took charge of the Highlanders, in their five appearances at Celtic Park they have now conceded a whopping 21 goals.
Put simply, the Inverness manager’s self-confessed policy of seeking damage limitation at the home of one of his former clubs continues to backfire spectacularly.
Given that Hughes has proved he has the know-how to engineer success against Celtic, with victories over Ronny Deila’s men last season in the Scottish Premiership at Inverness and in the Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden, his Parkhead approach is all the more curious.
He admitted his decision to leave Ryan Christie, Scotland’s current Young Player of the Year, out of his starting line-up on Saturday had been based on the tactical hope of frustrating Celtic until half-time.
That plan went up in smoke as Deila’s men sprinted into a 2-0 lead inside the first 12 minutes, on both occasions taking full advantage of wretched Inverness defending as first Mikael Lustig nodded home a Stefan Johansen free-kick from close range and then Leigh Griffiths headed in Nir Bitton’s cross.
Inverness were fortunate not to be further behind at the end of a first half completely dominated by a Celtic side which produced some impressively cohesive and dynamic attacking football.
The belated introduction of Christie four minutes into the second half did not immediately alter the pattern of the contest, the excellent Stuart Armstrong tightening Celtic’s grip with two firm close-range finishes in the 55th and 69th minutes.
But Christie unquestionably provided Inverness with an injection of creativity and forward momentum which arguably would have made this a more competitive affair had he been involved from the start.
As it was, the 20-year-old pulled a goal back for Inverness with a terrific left-foot shot in the 71st minute. Celtic suddenly looked disjointed and conceded again seven minutes later when another substitute, Dani Lopez, seized on a Dedryck Boyata error to beat Craig Gordon.
“I think we killed ourselves a bit at the beginning of the game,” said Inverness midfielder Danny Williams.
“When you come here, you have to make them work for their goals and force them to pass you off the park, so to speak.
“But we gave them a couple of goals with a set-piece and a header at the back stick. That gave us a big challenge.
“I suppose we gave them more than they bargained for in the second half and we could have nicked a couple more at the end. But it wasn’t to be.
“We have a lot of boys out injured just now but that’s no excuse. We still have 11 players who are more than capable of getting a result.
“But this is the toughest place to come in the league and you have to make them work for their goals and not give them any gifts.
“If you gift them goals, they are going to kill you and it was too late before we got a hold of the game.
“I thought Ryan was quality when he came on. I thought he changed the game. You could see how well he took his goal and then he sets the other one up. He is a good player with a lot of quality.”
The concession of those two goals took some of the shine off a productive afternoon from Celtic’s perspective, although manager Deila played down their significance in circumstances when the game had effectively already been won.
He understandably preferred to focus on the positives ahead of the first leg of the Champions League play-off round tie against Malmö at Celtic Park on Wednesday night.
There was plenty of encouragement for him in that regard with his team functioning exceptionally well from middle to front.
Captain Scott Brown and Nir Bitton have formed a hugely effective defensive midfield partnership, while Deila has energy, creativity and options galore in the three attacking midfield roles.
Up front, Griffiths has now scored four times from four starts as he tries to hold down that position ahead of Nadir Ciftci.
Celtic have cause for optimism ahead of the Malmö tie, although the kind of defensive lapses perpetrated most glaringly by Boyata on Saturday could carry a huge cost at Champions League level.