Manager Ange Postecoglou was able to make five changes to his starting XI yet still get a fine tune out of his team. Their lead over Rangers in the cinch Premiership has been stretched to five points ahead of the Ibrox club’s visit to Motherwell this lunchtime. Yet there is one man who deserves all the headlines, all the praise from this match. Take a bow, James Forrest, the one-club, dyed-in-the-wool Celt who scored a hat-trick here to take him to the 100-goal mark for the club.
What a phenomenal feat for a man who has played predominantly as a winger through a glittering career. At 31 years old, there should be more in the tank, albeit he has not been a regular in Postecoglou’s teams. Injuries have not helped him. Yet Forrest can lay legitimate claims to being a Celtic legend: ten league titles, five Scottish Cups, five League Cups and now a centenarian on the goal front.
This was his third matchball-winning feat for Celtic – his first treble came against Partick Thistle in 2018 and he scored four against St Johnstone later that year. Had Postecoglou kept him on the pitch for the full 90 minutes, he could have matched that tally given the absolute hiding Celtic gave Hibs.
The pre-match thought of Postecoglou’s heavy shuffling of his pack – five changes to the team that lost to RB Leipzig on Tuesday with Forrest, Anthony Ralston, Alexandro Bernabei, Aaron Mooy and Giorgios Giakoumakis coming in – might have been deemed risky given Hibs’ status in the league and the fact they’ve started life reasonably well under manager Lee Johnson. The reality was very different. Josip Juranovic, Greg Taylor, Kyogo Furuhashi, Liel Abada and Daizen Maeda dropped to the bench and were not missed.
Johnson had vowed to come to Celtic Park and attack their hosts. Under the Englishman, Hibs are ambitious. They like to press, they like to bomb forward. The hope for them was to expose Celtic’s sometimes shoogly defence but the philosophy played into Celtic hands. In essence, these two teams like to play the same way. Hibs are a bargain-basement version of Celtic, and it showed.
Celtic started with vigour and purpose. Deployed in 4-1-4-1 formation with Matt O’Riley continuing to fulfil duties in a deeper midfield role, Mooy and Reo Hatate in front of him scampered forward in earnest to support the front three of Forrest, Giakoumakis and Sead Haksabanovic. With full-backs Ralston and Bernabei pushing up too, Hibs’ back-four simply could not live with the number of bodies flowing towards.
Hibs’ defence weren’t helped by the reluctance of Martin Boyle and Harry McKirdy – given his first start – on the flanks to protect them. Celtic had clearly targeted right-back Chris Cadden, who was exposed on Tuesday in the 1-0 defeat by Dundee United for the goal, partially because he is not in great form but also because Boyle does not track back. Celtic were wise to this. Their opener, on nine minutes, came down the flank in question, Bernabei feeding Haksabanovic, who had too much time to cut on to his right foot and deliver a fine cross that Forrest steered back across David Marshall and into the net after ghosting in at the far post.
Celtic’s second goal, on 18 minutes, was again manufactured down the left. This time Bernabei was the direct assistee, scuttling free and putting in an accurate, low cross that Giakoumakis met to power home an unstoppable shot.
A clearly shell-shocked Hibs team were then not aided by their captain and most experienced player, goalkeeper Marshall, helping out his old employers on his first return to Celtic Park on club duty since leaving in 2007. Forrest’s effort from just inside the penalty box carried power, but the ex-Scotland stopper should not have let it go through his hands and over the goalline before he was able to recover.
At this point, one really feared for Hibs. Johnson and his coaching staff deliberated the situation in their technical area. Central midfielder Josh Campbell was told to go over and help Cadden out to stop the bleeding. While Celtic completely dominated the rest of the half, the scoreline remained the same.
Johnson acted by making a quadruple substitution at the interval and going to a back-three, with Rocky Bushiri making his first appearance for two months due to injury. McKirdy, who looks a little like Derek Riordan but isn’t nearly as effective as him, made way for Elie Youan, while Cadden, Stevenson and Mykola Kukharevych also came off. Marijan Cabraja and Kyle Magennis were the other two introduced to the fray.
Youan made an impact on proceedings, giving Hibs a small glimmer hope on 56 minutes with a composed finish after Boyle had set him free. It was his first goal for the club. Alas for the visitors, Forrest went on to score the 100th for his just minutes later.
Nohan Kenneh was caught in possession and Mooy ferried the ball out to Forrest, unmarked and bearing down on his goal. His crisp finish took a slight nick off the despairing Paul Hanlon and shot high into the net. With the win secured, Postecoglou took the chance to take off O’Riley, while Forrest came off for Abada. Celtic Park rose to acclaim him.
The scoring was not done, though. Giakoumakis bagged his second with a nice finish that gave the post a right good kiss on the way in after a pinpoint cutback from Abada on 73 minutes. The Greek was removed, so he could not match Forrest on the scoring stakes on the day. While Maeda came on and scored on 89 minutes, again with assistance from the woodwork, there could be no denying it: this was wee Jamesie’s day.