Celtic finding rhythm to revive race for title
Foreign affairs will occupy their attention this week but for the first time since they fell behind Rangers in the opening weeks of the season Celtic have got close enough to their Old Firm rivals for the champions to hear the pounding rhythm of their pursuit.
The fraught passage during which some -- at both Glasgow clubs -- were tempted to suppose that Celtic's title challenge was close to irretrievable appears to have been negotiated and a steady course charted to bring them to within four points of the champions and league leaders, who buckled yesterday under the new challenge.
For Neil Lennon, the figures are beginning to stack in pleasing mounds -- five consecutive victories, four SPL wins in a row, five goals scored at home for the second time this season, and now just four points behind Rangers who lost 1-0 to Kilmarnock yesterday.
Lennon has had to reshape his defence game by game because of injuries but two of the last three fixtures have yielded clean sheets. Chances are being created steadily -- and against St Mirren on Saturday they were mostly put away -- as the preferred front pair of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper moves back into gear.
Even Georgios Samaras, the one-man Greek default, has played his way back into the fans' affections and was accorded a standing ovation when he departed with a quarter hour left, having scored his first goal of the season. True, St Mirren virtually ushered him into their net, first when Marc McAusland appeared to try to kick Banquo's ghost instead of the ball and then when Craig Samson played Tom and Jerry with Samaras's shot and allowed the mouse to scurry off with the cheese.
The roof should have fallen in on St Mirren four minutes later when Hooper materialised below their crossbar to finish a move that flowed towards him through Joe Ledley, Samaras and Stokes but the structure held -- just -- until Hooper netted another two after the break and Celtic went nap when Dylan McGeouch arrived as a substitute and graced a glorious 80-yard caper by confounding half of the Paisley outfield contingent to finish with a clipped drive inside Samson's right-hand post.
The administration of a good doing is the best tonic in football and Celtic played out the final quarter as though they were partying. Every such gathering, of course, has a guy in a bad mood in the kitchen and in this case it was Stokes. The Dubliner wanted to take the penalty kick awarded to Celtic last week at home to Dunfermline but was overruled by his manager and reacted with pantomime frustration when Ki Sung-Yeung booted his attempt comically wide. Against St Mirren he set Hooper up for two of his three goals and was rewarded for his trouble by his team-mate's genial taunts.
Asked if Stokes was frustrated that others were finding the net, Hooper replied: "Plus I'm beating him as well! Yes, I think he is but he's doing it for the team. He's working hard and he's setting me up for scoring, but the main thing is getting the three points."
Stokes even managed to cavil at McGeouch's showboating contribution, indicating to the substitute that he had been free in space for a pass inside the box, not that the 18-year-old was troubled by the complaint. "Well, he's a striker, isn't he? He wants to score all the time, like me, but I thought he had a good solid performance," said Hooper, about his fellow forward, who now trails him by eight goals to nine.
"There's even more competition now. I told him I beat him on Saturday. He asked how many times I've scored and I told him. So I'm one ahead. There's not a bet, no, but I'd still beat him."
McGeouch's goal was one to be savoured by Celtic because the youngster is a Hoops supporter who started at the club but spent three years with Rangers before being lured back at the end of his Ibrox contract.
"Everyone who comes to Parkhead tries to keep it tight for 20 minutes but we committed the cardinal sin of losing two early goals and it was always going to be an uphill battle from there," said St Mirren goalkeeper Craig Samson.
"Celtic have had a lot of criticism this season but they certainly deserve all the plaudits for that performance because they were superb. Unfortunately for us, they came away with a 5-0."
(© Daily Telegraph, London)