CELTIC’S hopes of getting their bid to progress to the knockout rounds of the Europa League back on track may have suffered a blow yesterday with the loss of their talismanic captain Scott Brown to injury.
Not having Brown, who was conspicuous by his absence in the 3-1 defeat to Salzburg in Austria at the start of this month, available to face RB Leipzig in Germany on Thursday will significantly reduce their chances of both getting a result and going through to the last 32.
Yet, this was a game which underlined that Brendan Rodgers’s men have put their decidedly unimpressive early-season form firmly behind them and remain strong favourites to retain the Scottish title, as well as their other trophies, in the months ahead.
Losses to Hearts and Kilmarnock and a draw against St Mirren in the league had, coupled with the strong start both Hearts and Hibernian had made, led to speculation their domestic dominance could, after completing trebles in the past two years, be set to come to an end.
However, they were far more like their old selves here. James Forrest, Olivier Nthcam and Tom Rogic were all magnificent. Odsonne Edouard netted twice too.
The game was, due to the second-half goals they conceded to Florian Kamberi and Martin Boyle, far closer than it should have been. Work certainly still remains to be done. But the margin of victory could and should have been greater.
Rodgers was unable to disguise his satisfaction at the end of 90 minutes which were a fine advertisement for the Scottish game. “I thought we were outstanding,” he said after his team had moved ahead of their opponents on points and Kilmarnock on goal difference and into second position.
“Overall, we scored four goals, hit the woodwork four times and had other opportunities where, with a bit more finesse, we could have finished the game. It was a wonderful attacking performance and we put a lot of work into our pressing, which is very important against a good Hibs team.
“I thought the rhythm and speed in our game was back. We’ve seen it coming over the last number of weeks, which was highlighted against St Johnstone. It was really pleasing to have that fluency and combination play.”
Hibernian were certainly disappointing. They gave their rivals some difficult games last term and, having beaten Hamilton 6-0 at home a fortnight earlier, travelled to Glasgow with high hopes doing the same again. But they only really came to life after half-time and by that stage they had left themselves too much to do.
There was an early indication that this was not the Hibs side that had won its previous four league games after they were awarded a free-kick just outside the Celtic area in only the second minute. Stevie Mallan, normally so deadly from such distances, hooked his attempt well wide. Their hosts had soon assumed control.
Celtic took the lead with a well-worked goal in the eighth minute. Mikael Lustig fed Tom Rogic from his position on the right touchline. His team mate cut inside and played a deft one-two with James Forrest before curling a delightful left-footed shot beyond Adam Bogdan.
Forrest and Rogic, two players whose return to form in recent weeks has coincided with an upturn in the performances of their side, combined to set up Olivier Ntcham for a second in the 19th minute.
Shortly after the celebrations had subsided Brown was replaced by Scott Sinclair. Callum McGregor dropped into his deep-lying midfielder role and his team continued to dominate.
Rodgers’s men should really have had the three points sewed up by half-time. McGregor struck the top of the crossbar from distance with a long-range free-kick, Edouard hit the right upright and Sinclair volleyed against the left post with an inviting empty net beckoning in the opening 45 minutes.
Hibernian, perhaps sensing a half-time rollicking from their manager, who cut a highly agitated figure in the technical area, finished the first-half strongly.
Craig Gordon did well to first keep out a swerving Mallan effort and then tip a Martin Boyle header out for a corner after an Efe Ambrose delivery into his penalty box.
Hibs pulled a goal back in the 63rd minute after Daryl Horgan supplied Florian Kamberi. The Swiss forward did superbly to steady himself and whip a unstoppable shot beyond Gordon and into the top right corner.
But Celtic had forged two in front again just seven minutes later thanks to the powerful running of Forrest. The winger barged his way past Mark Milligan and got to the goal line before cutting back to Edouard. The striker made no mistake.
Perhaps anticipating his side had completed the job in hand, Rodgers removed Rogic and put on the lesser spotted Eboue Kouassi. Again, though, Lennon’s charges rallied. Boyle broke clear and dinked over Gordon.
Edouard, though, made sure of the triumph with two minutes of regulation time remaining. McGregor chipped the ball to the forward who controlled it on his right foot and buried it with his left.
“I am sick of hearing this title contention stuff,” said Lennon. “They have a budget of £60m, they have a £9m striker. I have got free transfers and rejects from other clubs who are playing brilliantly for me.
“I am really pleased with what I saw in the second-half. But over a 38-game season it is very difficult to maintain that consistency, especially against the quality that we faced today.”