Celtic 2 Kilmarnock 0
Celtic leapfrogged Kilmarnock into fourth place in the Premiership with a 2-0 win over the 10-man Ayrshire side at Parkhead.
Swedish striker John Guidetti scored his fifth goal in seven games in the 35th minute with a 25-yard free-kick awarded when Killie skipper Manuel Pascali’s ’last man’ foul on Stefan Scepovic earned him a red card from referee Willie Collum.
It was the turning point in a match in which hitherto Killie had been the equal of their hosts.
Rugby Park manager Alan Johnston immediately sacrificed his mercurial midfielder Alexei Eremenko for defender Lee Ashcroft and thereafter the Ayrshire men concentrated their efforts on keeping the champions at bay.
Hoever, Scepovic scored the second with a shot in the 63rd minute and the Hoops ran out easy winners although the extra man advantage they enjoyed for a large part of the game makes proper analysis tricky.
Much of the attention on the match, from a Parkhead perspective, was on Celtic’s two-man strikeforce given that manager Ronny Deila has preferred one attacking midfielder off the main striker.
Guidetti, ineligible for the 2-1 Europa League game against Astra at Celtic Park on Thursday night as he was not registered in time following his loan move from Manchester City, returned to partner Scepovic who scored his first goal for the Hoops against the Romanian side since signing from Sporting Gijon in the summer.
Right-back Adam Matthews and winger Mubarak Wakaso were also drafted in as Mikael Lustig and Charlie Mulgrew started on the bench and Anthony Stokes dropped out altogether.
The Rugby Park men, who had won their last three games despite being involved in a bonus dispute with club’s board, started positively.
Eremenko took out the whole Hoops defence in the fifth minute with a fine pass but wide-man Tope Obadeyi lost his race with Celtic goalkeeper Craig Gordon and the home side eventually cleared their lines.
Before Scepovic headed a Stefan Johansen corner into the side-netting in the 24th minute, Celtic had not seriously threatened Conor Brennan, although moments later the Killie keeper made a decent save from Wakaso’s header from Callum McGregor’s deep cross.
At the other end Gordon did well to parry away a powerful drive from Eremenko but as it transpired that was the Finn’s last contribution.
Pascali’s battle with Guidetti had been an interesting sub-plot but it was when he prevented Scepovic going clean through on goal from a McGregor pass that Collum reached for the red card.
Eremenko was not best pleased at being replaced by Ashcroft and he had hardly taken his place in the dugout when Guidetti, from 25 yards, curled a wonderful free-kick into the far corner of the net.
Losing arguably their best player, their captain and a goal in the same incident turned the game firmly in the Parkhead side’s favour and they tried to bury Killie before the break.
Scepovic’s curling shot from 16 yards in the 39th minute beat Brennan but was headed clear off the line by Mark Connolly before the increasingly busy keeper made a fine save from Guidetti’s shot on the turn from the edge of the box moments later.
Ominously for Killie, Scepovic forced Brennan into another block with a drive on the turn before a minute of the second half had elapsed.
On a blustery day in the east end of Glasgow there was no let-up in the wind, rain or the Celtic pressure.
Guidetti smashed a drive off the post in the 56th minute before making Brennan save another shot seconds later but the Killie defence was exposed again when Wakaso’s deep cross to the back post found Scepovic who knocked his volley back across the Killie keeper and into the net
Minutes later, the Serb pounced on a slack Sammy Clingan pass back but his lob from the edge of the box could not beat Brennan.
The Hoops striker was immediately replaced by Leigh Griffiths, as Mulgrew came on for Johansen and the procession towards the Killie goal continued.
Amid several near misses for the home side, Ashcroft’s lunging block prevented Matthews’ drive getting through on goal but the game petered out in the final stages.