Brown fires Bhoys back into title mix
The Scottish title race edged towards another drama-fuelled finale as Celtic recovered from their setback in Inverness last week to close to within a point of Rangers once more with an ultimately comfortable victory over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
It was the first time that Celtic had been forced to travel to the Ayrshire ground for three league visits in one season and, although Neil Lennon indulged in the club's default moan position about the arrangement of fixtures, his players have plundered the venue to maximum effect to take nine points -- indeed, Kilmarnock's only solace was a draw at Parkhead in December.
On this occasion goals from Scott Brown and Kris Commons, on either side of the interval, kept the title pot boiling and now Celtic travel to Tynecastle to meet Hearts on Wednesday, by which time they will know if Dundee United's ability to inflict damage on Rangers' hopes will have extended to a second successive visit to Ibrox.
Whether or not Neil Lennon would have rung changes voluntarily after Celtic's defeat in Inverness last Wednesday his hand was forced, with Anthony Stokes suspended and Beram Kayal out for the rest of the season with a broken wrist.
Charlie Mulgrew, who picked up an injury in the Highlands, was on the bench along with another midweek starter, Shaun Maloney, while Thomas Rogne, Ki Sung-Yeung, James Forrest and Daryl Murphy were all in from kick-off.
Kilmarnock caretaker manager Kenny Shiels deployed a 4-3-3 formation, a decision that looked either notably brave or equally foolish, given that the Ayrshire side's open brand of football had constituted an invitation for Celtic to rip them apart in a 4-0 victory on April 20.
Kilmarnock's first attack created the hope amongst the home support that Shiels had produced a masterstroke.
A fluid sweep into the Celtic half saw Dayton cut in from the right past the flat-footed Daniel Majstorovic to finish with a low left foot drive just wide of Fraser Forster's post, when a little more accuracy would probably have put Killie in front.
Thereafter, though, Kilmarnock conducted a bargain sale of squandered possession, with promising moves repeatedly breaking down under no great pressure.
Part of the problem was that Celtic's enforcers had targeted Alexei Eremenko and although Brown got away with his first clatter on the Finnish playmaker, he was yellow-carded for the next and Ki joined his captain in the book for a foul that left the midfielder pounding the ground in anger as he was sent sprawling while in full flow.
Celtic seemed to be led by some of the anxiety that betrayed them in Inverness, but the green tide began to lap around Cammy Bell's penalty area and the ball was in his net twice -- when Gary Hooper and Commons were both flagged offside correctly -- and the goalkeeper saw a Commons free kick skip off the top of his crossbar before Brown forced the crucial breakthrough in first half injury-time.
Kilmarnock had been pushing their luck at the back for some time before they conceded, with Mohammadou Sissoko in particular looking an insurance risk, so the surprise about the opener was that it took so long to arrive.
When it did it was the product of a hanging cross from Murphy, headed back across goal by Forrest and glanced over the line almost below the crossbar by the stooping Brown.
The Celtic captain does not get into the box quite as frequently as his coaches would like but he has a knack for the telling intervention, as Lennon acknowledged.
"Scott has had a fantastic season and that side of his game has improved, but there are other strengths in his game and today he was terrific," said the Celtic manager.
"He broke up attacks for us in the first half and when we weren't quite careful enough with passes in the final third, he proved to be a leader yet again. We had to win the game and we did that and I'm very pleased with the overall performance. We defended well, we were solid and the two boys in midfield worked ever so hard for the team.
"Going forward in the final third we weren't great in the first half but after the break we were a lot better. I wasn't worried in the first half, though. I felt a goal would come and after it did it was just a case of keeping a clean sheet. The timing was great from Brownie's point of view.
"It's not always about champagne football. Kilmarnock changed their shape and made it a little more difficult for us but we were solid and professional today. Now we hope that Dundee United can do something at Ibrox and that we can be as professional again when we go to Tynecastle." (© Daily Telegraph, London)