3 talking points as Celtic close in on title with win over Ross County

It wasn’t so long ago Celtic’s 10 In A Row hopes went rocketing into the Dingwall night, never to be seen again.

Ryan Christie’s infamous miss embodied the shambolic end of the Neil Lennon era but a little over 12 months later, they returned to the Highlands to take a massive step towards reclaiming the Premiership title.

Their transformation under Ange Postecoglou would’ve been scarcely believable to those who made the long journey north that night, but many will have been present again to watch Kyogo Furuhashi and Jota see off Ross County for a victory that puts their side on the brink of becoming champions once again.

They will host Rangers at Celtic Park next Sunday in the knowledge that another three points would all-but put the green and white ribbons on the trophy.

It could’ve been much more comfortable for Postecoglou and his players had they buried a series of first-half chances, but the scenes late on following Jota’s clincher displayed just how important both fans and players know these three points to be.

Despite that late relief, it was still a largely comfortable victory against a Ross County side, buoyed by their unlikely ascension to the top six, who never got going.

Billed as a potentially jittery afternoon for the league leaders, any early trepidation was swept away when Jota’s dipping cross met the head of Kyogo, leaping like you wouldn’t think a man of 5ft 6 would be capable.

But he drifted in between County’s towering centre-backs to head home and set a chorus of “champions again” sweeping through the away support.

The forward was then denied a second by a marginal offside call as Celtic dominated, the flag going up as he darted onto Matt O’Riley’s clever pass.

That Jota-Kyogo link-up was proving the visitors’ most effective combination, as it so often had done before the Japanese international’s hamstring troubles.

This time from the left, Jota dinked to the back post and Kyogo volleyed, a little awkwardly, onto the crossbar.

Malky Mackay’s men were toiling to establish any sort of foothold in possession but a brief around the Celtic box ended with Blair Spittal squaring across goal, but there were no County bodies on hand to tap home and Joe Hart collected gratefully.

They should’ve been two down moments later.

Ross Laidlaw spilled O’Riley’s shot from distance but reacted brilliantly to deny Kyogo following up for what really ought to have been a simple tap-in.

The Staggies’ keeper was in action again before the interval as Maeda met another sumptuous Jota cross on the run but Laidlaw was equal to his volley.

Somehow, Celtic’s lead sat at just one and they had Cameron Carter-Vickers to thank for keeping it that way following the restart.

Harry Paton fashioned space for a shot after Regan Charles-Cook’s brilliant run had Celtic scrambling, but Carter-Vickers was in the way to block the midfielder’s effort from close range.

It was clear County had been instructed, likely in no uncertain terms, to get closer to their visitors and it made for a better contest in the early second period.

Postecoglou responded by introducing Giorgos Giakoumakis, Tom Rogic and Liel Abada all at once in place of Kyogo, Maeda and O’Riley.

But still it was Jota who mostly led the charge, peppering the County box with crosses he may just feel expected more over the course of the afternoon.

David Turnbull was next on in place of Reo Hatate and he screwed a shot wide from distance as Celtic sought a decisive second.

As time ticked away, it looked as though they would be forced to settle for just the one – until Jota reacted first to Giakoumakis’ effort rebounding off the bar to spark bedlam in the away end.

Kyogo at the heart of it

Celtic fans have waited too long to see their talisman in full flow once more and he looked much more like his old self here.

An early goal set the tone and banished any potential for anxiety against a stuffy County side.

It was a trademark Kyogo finish, too, ghosting in between defenders against whom he should be physically outmatched and timing his jump to perfection.

The 27-year-old made a couple of substitute cameos prior to Sunday but this feels like the moment he solidified his return to action.

His finishing was a little off, on occasion, but there’s little doubt that consistent killer touch will be back before long.

Title permutations

Victory means that Celtic can effectively seal the title at home to Rangers next week.

A tantalising prospect, no doubt for the Parkhead faithful after their side restored a six point lead over their city rivals.

Extending that to nine on May 1 will mean Rangers can only hope to match Celtic’s points haul with three games to play afterwards.

But Postecoglou’s team hold a hugely superior goal difference, one that looks virtually impossible to overhaul even if Celtic suffer a hugely unlikely collapse over the next few weeks.

It sets up a monumental afternoon in Glasgow’s east end seven days from now.

County late to the party

For a side you’d have tipped to be on a serious high after gatecrashing the top six, County were surprisingly passive in the first-half of this contest.

Had Celtic not been so profligate in front of goal, they could’ve found themselves dead and buried by the interval.

They emerged for the second period most likely with the words of their manager ringing loudly in their ears and set about unsettling Celtic.

It made for a more competitive contest and but for a sensational block from Carter-Vickers, they could’ve levelled quickly following the restart.

That being said, it’s had to argue Celtic weren’t good value for their victory.

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