Kilmarnock 1 Celtic 3
Celtic booked their place in the Co-operative Insurance Cup semi-finals with a comfortable win over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park.
A Scott McDonald header and a trademark Shunsuke Nakamura free-kick had the Scottish champions cruising at the interval in a tetchy game that occasionally threatened to boil over.
Killie striker Danny Invincibile pulled a goal back in the 67th minute when he bundled in from close range but man-of-the-match Aiden McGeady almost immediately restored their two-goal lead, driving past Killie goalkeeper Alan Combe two minutes later.
The Hoops join Rangers, Falkirk and Dundee United in the last-four draw where they should encounter a tougher test than was provided at Rugby Park by a side who never really looked like they would record their first win over the Scottish champions since 2001, when they last triumphed thanks to an Alan Mahood goal.
For the first time since the stadium was redeveloped in the early 1990s, with only one stand was needed for fans of an Old Firm club, perhaps indicating the lack of interest in the competition from the Hoops’ supporters who were also having to contend with a packed and costly fixture list.
Killie started brightly and within the first minute midfielder Mehdi Taouil tumbled in the box following a challenge from Mark Wilson but referee Craig Thomson was unimpressed by the penalty claims.
But as so often happens, the smaller club failed to capitalise on their good early work and in the 11th minute McDonald’s header gave the visitors the lead.
Shaun Maloney’s corner from the left was met by one of the smallest players on the pitch who, unencumbered by a marker, guided the ball past Combe from eight yards out.
Then Combe was forced to pull off a good diving save from McGeady’s drive after good work from Nakamura set the Republic of Ireland star free on the right-hand side of the box.
In the 27th minute, in what was almost a replica of the opening goal, McDonald again latched on to a Maloney corner this time failing to get enough on his header and the ball sped wide.
Killie midfielders Jamie Fowler and Manuel Pascali picked up bookings as the game became scrappier and increasingly bad-tempered while Gavin Skelton replaced the injured Frazer Wright, who looked to have sustained a hamstring injury.
In the 35th minute, as the game opened up, Invincibile twisted and turned at the edge of the Celtic box but his curled shot escaped Artur Boruc’s left-hand post.
In the final minute of the half, after Grant Murray had fouled McDonald at the edge of the Killie box by clambering all over him, Nakamura curled the free-kick straight into the net to double the Parkhead side’s lead and leave the Ayrshire side staring at a cup exit.
Nakamura had stayed in at the interval, replaced by Paul Hartley who drilled a shot from 30 yards just wide with his first contribution to the game.
Celtic retained control of the match, and if there was to be another goal it looked like it would come from the visitors, whose confidence was growing by the minute.
Belief slowly ebbed from the blue and white shirts with Boruc little more than a spectator as his defence coped with anything Killie could muster.
But in the 67th minute, out of the blue, Kilmarnock gave themselves a lifeline when Invincibile pulled a goal back.
After the Australian was fouled by Gary Caldwell on the left, Taouil floated in the free-kick to the back post, Pascali headed back across goal and Invincibile bundled the ball over from a yard out.
But two minutes later any hopes of a fightback were extinguished. McGeady restored the visitors’ two-goal lead when he took a pass from Scott Brown and slotted past Combe from 12 yards out.
Minutes later, Taouil had Boruc stretching to tip his free-kick from the edge of the box over the bar but it was all over for the home side.
The Hoops fans in the 6,319 crowd enjoyed the final few minutes, chanting their team through to the final whistle and another semi-final berth.