Sport Soccer

Monday 22 January 2018

Stokes steers Bhoys cruise

Hibernian 0 Celtic 2

Alasdair Reid

ANTHONY STOKES set Celtic up for a stroll in the sunshine at Easter Road as Neil Lennon's bhoys got their SPL campaign off to a winning start.

Afterwards, Lennon praised his players for adapting so well to the season's early beginning. However, if starting the championship in July is a tad premature, talk of winning the title after just one win would be completely out of order -- all the more so because Hibs gave the impression that they had only learned of the new season's kick-off the previous day.

Lennon acknowledged that point with his after-match comments, although he could hardy gloss over the positives in his team's performance.

"We were a bit stodgy at first, but you expect that at this stage of the season," Lennon said. "We are capable of better than what we showed in the first half. We just told the players that they had to tidy up their game a little bit.

"We did that and had good control of the game. Going forward we were excellent, which was probably an area where I was critical of them in the pre-season.

"I thought we were outstanding in the second half, probably more than I expected at this stage of the season. I'm absolutely delighted with the performance, the result and the clean sheet."

In the display of Ki Sung-yueng, his South Korean midfielder, Lennon had especial reason to be satisfied, for Ki was the game's outstanding figure, controlling his area with authority, spraying 40-yard passes across the field and capping it all with a slick goal.

Lennon said: "Ki has been very consistent over the past 18 months. He's developing nicely into a class player. He had good presence and good composure on the ball. He has a goal or two in him and his passing range is excellent.


"He's a very important player to us. I rate him very highly. He can go on to be anything he wants to be."

Celtic's opening goal could easily be dismissed as a comedy of Hibs' errors, but it also deserves to be lauded for the crisp precision of Stokes' finish.

It arrived in the 14th minute, when a Kris Commons free-kick from near the right touchline eluded Hibs goalkeeper Graham Stack and landed at the feet of the unmarked Stokes, stationed near the far post.

With Stack still grounded, the Dubliner spun inside and then whipped a shot into the top of the net, seemingly oblivious to the fact that four defenders stood in his way.

As sweet as the strike was, it would be pushing it to say that the goal rewarded a period of overwhelming Celtic pressure. Up to that point, the Parkhead side had barely broken sweat, the little energy they had spent being devoted to mopping up some desultory Hibs attacks.

Even by then, it was clear that Hibs' efforts going forward were unlikely to sap much energy from their opponents, the powerful impression being that Celtic were simply easing themselves into the new season.

Things would have been made easier still for Celtic had Mark Wilson not been deemed offside when he found the net in the 19th minute. Few in the ground, least of all Wilson himself, seemed to think that the right-back was onside, but television replays showed that the goal should have stood.

In the end, the decision mattered little, which is probably a relief to Scotland's football authorities after all the conspiracy dramas of last season.

"I'm not going to make a big issue of it," said Lennon, wryly. "Not just yet anyway. I've been warned."

In any case, Hibs seemed determined not to profit from the error, as what little threat they had demonstrated up to that point then vanished completely.

They battled and bustled admirably enough in the middle of the field, but their distribution was execrable.

Balls into the box went everywhere but to the feet of players in danger positions and Hibs went through the entire game without hitting the target.

Hibs might have been given a penalty when Ivan Sproule hit the deck under pressure from Kelvin Wilson early in the second half, but it would have been a harsh award.

That incident was also firmly against the run of play, and normal service was restored when Stokes rolled the ball across the edge of the penalty box for Ki to lash a low, left-foot shot inside the right-hand post.

Celtic had one more chance to put themselves into the comfort zone, but Stack did well to get a hand to Gary Hooper's 68th-minute penalty onto the post, after Sproule tripped Emilio Izaguirre in the box.

Elsewhere, it was a mixed day for the Irish in the Scottish Premier League. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph kicked off his season with a clean sheet for Motherwell, but it came at the expense of a first-day setback for Richie Foran, whose Inverness Caledonian Thistle side -- clearly missing Adam Rooney, who left for Birmingham during the summer -- went down 3-0.

Willo Flood made his return for Dundee United and played his part, alongside Sean Dillon and John Daly, as the Tangerines came from behind to draw with Kilmarnock 1-1.

Stephen Elliott came off the bench for Hearts, but couldn't stop Rangers coming from behind to secure a 1-1 draw at Ibrox, while Cillian Sheridan failed to get off the mark for St Johnstone, who drew 0-0 with Aberdeen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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