Stokes insists Celtic won't take foot off the pedal despite huge lead
Celtic 6 Dundee United 2
Anthony Stokes insists there will be no let-up at Celtic, even though it is a matter of 'when' and not 'if' they win the Scottish Premier League.
The Hoops striker (24), scored twice in the comprehensive win over Dundee United at Parkhead on Saturday, which took the champions 18 points clear of Motherwell.
Midfielder Kris Commons also scored a double, one from the spot, and there were goals for defender Efe Ambrose and midfielder Joe Ledley. At 2-1 in the first half goalkeeper Fraser Forster saved a Jon Daly penalty, although the visitors opened the scoring through Stuart Armstrong and finished it through Johnny Russell.
While Celtic's European campaign is all but over following the 3-0 defeat by Juventus in the first leg of their last-16 clash at Parkhead, the Hoops' title victory is similarly inevitable following their sixth successive SPL win. However, Stokes, back in the frame after an ankle injury decimated the first part of his season, knows Celtic will not be allowed to canter in the final stages.
"We demand it from ourselves to perform in each game and fans want to see us winning every game," said the Irishman. "That's the mentality we go out with every week, so we won't be taking our foot off the pedal.
"It's always nice to wrap it up as early as possible, but, even if we do, we are going to be expected to win every game anyway so, whether we sew it up early or not, I don't think it is going to change the mentality of how we go into the games."
Stokes grabbed his second and third goals of the season and, with manager Neil Lennon hinting at extending his contract which is up in the summer, the Republic of Ireland international is looking to make up for lost time between now and the final game.
"Every player wants as much game time as possible and I'm no different," he said. "But I know I will have to perform in training and when I get my opportunity on the pitch.
"I'm judged on goals and that's what I look back on at the end of the season. It's hard, coming back from injury and missing so many games, but I just want to score as many as I can before the end of the season."
The unintended consequence of Celtic's big lead, which Lennon has acknowledged, is that he could choose to give key players time off while the season is still under way. Joe Ledley – who was left out of the team for last week's encounter with Juventus, but who was captain on Saturday – disclosed that the topic of an early break had already been discussed.
"We've looked at the possibility of some players finishing early if we can win the league quickly. We're only going to have a short break as it stands – three weeks I think – and it's important as professional footballers to have rest," said the Welsh international midfielder.
"It's not ideal just to have three weeks and then get right back into it again with crucial qualifiers early in the next season. We've played 45 games already, so I think it would be a good idea to rest people.
"Rest is key with the amount of games we'll have played in this campaign. We proved it again on Saturday with a couple of players rested, the manager changed the team around and we were fresh and that is key in football now – recovery."
Ledley, too, was fulsome in his praise of Ambrose, who redeemed himself somewhat after his disastrous performance against Juventus, which attracted criticism from team-mate Kris Commons.
"Efe has been a fantastic player for us since he signed and it was difficult for him against Juventus but it just proves how strong a character he is to come out and play again and score in the win over Dundee United," said Ledley. "For me, he's been a steal since we signed him – and he just showed it again. The Celtic fans showed their appreciation of him and they always get behind you no matter what. The Juventus game was just one of those days.
"Efe and Kris have been fine. That's just part and parcel of football, they just got on with it and turned in two fantastic performances. I don't think Kris meant to criticise him like that, it was just one of those things.
"Efe knew he could have played better, but we put it behind us and moved on and proved it with the fantastic display we put in against Dundee United."