Five-star Celtic go 17 points clear at top of SPL
Hibernian 0 Celtic 5
Gary Hooper’s double helped Celtic go 17 points clear of administration-hit Rangers at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League as Neil Lennon’s men hammered Hibernian at Easter Road.
Goals from Anthony Stokes and the former Scunthorpe striker gave the impressive visitors a commanding interval lead and there was no let-up from Celtic in the second half.
Hoops defender Charlie Mulgrew fired in a free-kick just after the break and Hooper grabbed his second before substitute Ki Sung-yueng added a fifth to extend the Parkhead side’s winning domestic run to 18 games.
With such a commanding lead over their Old Firm rivals, who look likely to get weaker by getting rid of players in cost-cutting measures, the title is almost certainly in the bag for Celtic.
Sorry Hibs, though, who were simply swept away, look set to continue their battle with Dunfermline to avoid the drop.
Lennon’s growing reluctance to tinker too much with his side in recent weeks saw only two changes.
Defender Thomas Rogne returned from a calf injury at the expense of Daniel Majstorovic while striker Stokes came in for Georgios Samaras to partner Hooper, a move which was to provide rich dividends.
Striker Leigh Griffiths and defenders Paul Hanlon and James McPake returned from suspension for the Leithers as Sean O’Hanlon, George Francomb and Garry O’Connor dropped to the bench.
Hibs had kept a clean sheet in their previous two home matches which gave them some confidence but the travelling fans behind the goal were in party mood and anticipating a Hoops win.
There was less than a minute played when Hibs keeper Graham Stack had to save from Hooper’s close-range flick after he had been set up by Stokes, with the home side forced to defended a couple of early corners.
Hibs rallied but there was an inevitability about the opener in the 14th minute which saw Stokes head in Mulgrew’s corner from the right without much interference from the home defence.
The second goal six minutes later came from a quick Celtic break, Hooper playing the ball out to Stokes on the left and then racing into the Hibs box to take the return pass and shoot low past Stack from 10 yards.
Already it looked all too easy for the league leaders.
Hibees midfielder Lewis Stevenson, though, had a good chance to bring the Easter Road men back into the game when he dispossessed Celtic right-back Adam Matthews just outside the box but he volleyed weakly straight at Hoops keeper Fraser Forster.
The home side kept at their task and on the half-hour mark David Wotherspoon failed to connect with Isaiah Osbourne’s cross right in front of goal before Griffiths crossed from the other side for Osbourne to head wide of the far post.
Moments later, in another swift Celtic break, Stokes went down after turning inside McPake, but referee Craig Thomson ignored claims for a penalty.
Celtic threatened every time they went forward and in the 37th minute midfielder Joe Ledley drove towards the Hibs goal before driving over the bar, before Stack had to make a save from Parkhead skipper Scott Brown who had been set up by Stokes.
Francomb replaced Matthew Doherty for the start of the second half but Fenlon’s switch was rendered almost immediately pointless.
There was barely a minute played when Hanlon fouled Hooper 20 yards from goal and Mulgrew curled in a delightful left-footed free-kick to make it 3-0, although questions may be asked about Stack’s positioning.
Celtic were rampant and Stack had to make a good block from Stokes after he had been played in by Hooper but the fourth was on its way.
In the 52nd minute, when Hooper flashed in a drive from the left-hand side of the box, Stack looked favourite to save but the Hibs keeper watched in dismay as the ball escaped his grasp and ended up in the corner of the net.
O’Connor had replaced Eoin Doyle before midfielders Ki and Kris Commons came on for Victor Wanyama and Hooper respectively.
As Celtic dropped down a gear momentarily, Emilio Izaguirre replaced Rogne as Lennon took the opportunity to give the left-back some much-needed match practice.
In the 77th minute Commons’ wayward shot from the left cannoned off Ki and behind Stack for number five before Ledley saw a header come back off the bar following a Ki corner as Celtic hunted more goals.
Celtic fans wanted six but will have been satisfied with the result and a storming performance by a Parkhead side who now look almost unstoppable in their quest to wrest the title back from Ibrox.