Makeshift Celtic brush past Inverness
A makeshift Celtic side swept aside nearest challengers Inverness Caledonian Thistle 3-1 Saturday to open up a massive 18-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League.
With one eye on Tuesday's UEFA Champions League last 16 first-leg clash with Juventus, Celtic manager Neil Lennon made nine changes to the side that faced Raith Rovers last weekend, featuring debuts for new signings Rami Gershon and Australian international Tomas Rogic.
Lennon's decision looked to have backfired when Inverness, who had defeated Celtic in Glasgow earlier in the season, took an early lead through Nick Ross. But the Hoops hauled themselves level in the 20th minute when Rogic set up Kris Commons to hammer home the equaliser.
Fellow debutant Gershon headed Celtic in front for the first time in the 48th minute before Miku wrapped up the scoring in the 82nd minute as Lennon's selection gamble ultimately paid off.
At the Caledonian Stadium, Inverness created their first chance when Ross Draper fed Billy McKay at the edge of the box and he spun before sending his curling effort wide. The home fans didn't have long to wait to celebrate though as Ross handed them the lead on nine minutes. Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster's weak clearance from a dangerous Aaron Doran cross only made it as far as the edge of the box, where Ross was on hand to drill a low shot into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Rogic was looking assured on his Celtic debut and had a big hand in their 20th-minute equaliser. The Australian international broke to the byeline before cutting the ball back for team-mate Commons to rifle a thunderous strike beyond Ryan Esson and into the roof of the net.
Rogic then came close to opening his Celtic account as the midfielder clipped an effort just over after being teed up by Anthony Stokes. Inverness appealed for a penalty at the start of the second half when Doran's cross appeared to hit the elbow of Marcus Fraser but referee Craig Thomson waved away their protests.
And the home fans felt further aggrieved moments later when Gershon rose highest to connect with McGeouch's teasing cross from the right to bullet a header past Esson as Celtic took the lead. They came close to increasing their advantage on the hour when McGeouch's corner from the left was headed off the top of the crossbar by Stokes at the back post.
Adam Matthews replaced goalscorer Gershon and one of his first tasks was to clear a Billy McKay effort off the line in the 71st minute after Draper had seen his initial effort blocked as Inverness pushed for an equaliser. Celtic then moved further ahead in a quick counter-attacking move, as substitute Tony Watt's cross-field pass found Stokes, who squared the ball for Miku to side-foot low under Esson.
Following the match, Lennon offered high praise for his side: "I think you saw a wee glimpse of what's coming through. Marcus Fraser, Dylan McGeouch and Rogic are young players and I thought they were fantastic. All in all, to come here against a team in second place with our first team out and to win speaks volumes for the performance of the players today."
His opposite number, Terry Butcher, was frustrated to see his side lose their fourth straight match. "I'm not disappointed with the way we played, I'm disappointed with the result and losing three goals," the Inverness manager said.
Motherwell can cut Celtic's lead back to 15 points with a win at Kilmarnock later today, while Aberdeen host St. Mirren and Hearts go to Dundee United. On Friday, Ross County won 2-0 at Dundee to leave the Dens Park club 14 points adrift at the foot.