Full-strength Celtic refuse to take eye off domestic prize
Vennegoor of Hesselink (15, 59), Donati (41), Nakamura (56), McGuire (og 70)
THOSE Celtic season ticket holders whose seats were empty on Saturday, not to mention the hundreds who began vacating theirs long before the full-time whistle, clearly attach far less importance to a workaday SPL fixture against Inverness Caledonian Thistle than to the enchantment of the Champions League group stage which begins tomorrow night.
The same supporters, however, may have cause to be grateful at the end of the season that the man in charge of their team will never allow anything to take precedence over the competition he prizes above all else.
Celtic ascended to the SPL summit on Saturday with a victory which, if far less one-sided than the final scoreline suggests, was in no small part due to Gordon Strachan's insistence on fielding what he considers his strongest available side against the league's bottom placed club just three days before their Champions League opener against Shakhtar Donetsk in Ukraine.
Strachan's players took the field with the incentive of claiming pole position courtesy of Hearts' defeat of Rangers earlier in the day, the previously unbeaten Ibrox club having seen the gamble of starting their match with captain Barry Ferguson on the substitutes' bench fail to pay off as they attempted to utilise their resources ahead of their own Champions League starter against VfB Stuttgart on Wednesday.
It was only when Celtic scored their fourth goal of a curious but entertaining contest, in which the visitors created almost as many opportunities as their hosts, that Strachan decided the time was right to withdraw key players such as Scott Brown and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink from proceedings with the assignment in Donetsk in mind.
It is an approach from the Celtic manager which has allowed his team to display a relentless level of consistency in the SPL during his two previous seasons at the helm and which sees them remain favourites to hold off a re-energised Rangers and win a third consecutive championship under his charge.
"If you look at our teams last year, we never rested players ahead of the Champions League games," said Strachan. "I keep saying to people, my priority is to win the league. It was a good day at the office for us against Inverness. The guys who had been through some hard work with their countries over the previous ten days handled it well.
"The result and performance gave us a chance to rest two or three players at the end of the game, which was fine.
Had Inverness, who remain pointless at the foot of the table after six games, been able to capitalise on some well crafted scoring chances of their own, this would have been a far more uncomfortable afternoon for Celtic who were grateful to both the poor finishing of the Highland side and the excellence of their goalkeeper Artur Boruc for the outcome not being far less clear cut.
"The enterprise Inverness showed surprised us," admitted Strachan. "For a team at the bottom of the league to have their central midfielders trying to break beyond their strikers was a surprise for our defenders who are used to having opposition midfielders in front of them. They tried to get in behind us and had a smashing game."
Boruc's stunning one-handed save to deny Don Cowie an equaliser for Inverness, Celtic having opened the scoring when Vennegoor of Hesselink re-directed Brown's shot into the net, proved the pivotal moment of the match. In their next attack, Celtic doubled their lead four minutes from half-time when Massimo Donati's shot from a tight angle was deflected off Phil McGuire and in off Inverness keeper Michael Fraser's left-hand post.
Celtic moved through the gears in the second half, Shunsuke Nakamura bending in a brilliant left foot shot from 25 yards to make it 3-0 before Vennegoor of Hesselink finished off a sweeping move with a close range header for number four. The scoring was completed 20 minutes from time when the luckless McGuire put the ball through his own net.
The common denominator in all five goals was Scott McDonald, the Australian international striker playing a crucial part in each one as he delivered another highly impressive performance for the Scottish champions who have done much to convince that their goalless draw at home to Kilmarnock on the first day of the season was little more than a blip.
Inverness, by contrast, could not have had a worse start but manager Craig Brewster, who opted to leave himself out of the side on Saturday, took encouragement from their general level of performance. "I've got total confidence in this squad of players," said Brewster. "Not many teams will come here and create as many chances as we did."