Celtic played through them, played round them and simply played them off park in a devastating four-goal first half the ensured their return to the top of the table. A position that their 5-1 victory will see them retain unless Rangers beat Dundee by a four-goal margin on Sunday.
Brendan Rodgers afterwards acknowledged that the mark set by the Rugby Park men had been the motivation for a sparkling display that was the equal of the best they have produced this season.
Their rampant desire, and ability, to get after Kilmarnock was redolent of the dismantlings they have dished out to Aberdeen whenever the Pittodrie men have asked them questions with their positioning in the table in recent seasons. Rodgers dismissed any suggestions that his team had reacted to the Ayrshire club being over-hyped, maintaining the “absolutely brilliant” efforts of Steve Clarke and his squad “deserved” to talked-up. Today was merely a case of those efforts proving the inspiration for his team to step it up.
“That’s very fair,” the Celtic manager said. “That is what I have been leading into with the players in the last couple of days: I feel the competition will make us better. We always focus on our own standard of course, but the competition helps you to improve and get better. Kilmarnock had every right, and everyone should rightly say how well they’ve done. But I think our performance done the talking today and the level and the hunger of the players. It was a great day, good for the supporters as well. It gives them the confidence that they’ve had in the team over the last few months. It allows us to keep improving.”
Kilmarnock, defensively disjointed without the concussed Kirk Broadfoot, were blown away by a side restored to first-choice status following the seven changes Rodgers made for the 1-1 draw at Motherwell. That meant captain Scott Brown being returned to the bench, and, not necessarily in a cause-and-effect scenario, Celtic being returned to the fluent, fearsome attacking force they have been these past two months.
The ratcheted-up finishing prowess of James Forrest kicked off the demolition after five minutes. On an afternoon when he took his scoring tally to 14 in 14 games for club and country, the winger produced an exquisite first-timed strike from a pinpoint ball flighted in from the left by Emilio Izaguirre. The Honduran excelled on an afternoon when he earned only a second start of the season after a tight hamstring led to Kieran Tierney being rested.
Forrest’s second, and Celtic’s fifth midway through the second period, followed a lacerating run from Ryan Christie that led to him being wiped out by keeper Daniel Bachmann, with the ball breaking to Forrest who curled in from an unforgiving angle before referee Nick Walsh could blow for a penalty.
Inbetween times, a move involving Callum McGregor, Christie and Rogic allowed Odsonne Edouard to steamroller his way through to make it 2-1 after 25 minutes, seconds after Craig Gordon had scrambled a save from Jordan Jones. The third came from the outstretched leg of Mikael Lustig, who took flight to direct a McGregor corner in just after the half hour mark.
On the stroke of the interval, Christie curled a free-kick into a space to the Kilmarnock keeper’s side that didn’t exist and the Rugby Park outfit must have feared a real goal avalanche of an afternoon.
Celtic hit the goalframe twice as this was avoided, with Benkovic catching Greg Stewart on the line of the penalty box to bring them the consolation of a goal that then reduced the deficit to 4-1, Eamonn Brophy converting the spot kick.
Brown appeared for the closing 15 minutes but the likelihood of the Celtic captain dislodging any of the central performers that started yesterday for Thursday’s Europa League decider at home to Salzburg would not appear to be in Rodgers’ thinking following a “brilliant team performance”.
“Listen, I have compassion for players, especially those that have done amazing for me,” he said. But what I don’t have is sentimentality. It’s clear that the level and the fluency of the team is there. I have that compassion for players but my job is to win games and to win titles.
Those two [McGregor and Christie] along with Tom Rogic, have been sensational in how they play.”