Griffiths goals puts Hoops on brink
Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths grabbed a second-half hat-trick against Dundee United to take the Hoops eight points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership with a 3-0 win at Tannadice.
Goalkeeper Craig Gordon made a fine save from United’s 19-year-old striker Robbie Muirhead in the goalless first half before the former Wolves player struck.
Two minutes after the restart he took a pass from Stefan Johansen before drilling an angled drive past Radoslaw Cierzniak and then beat the United man from much closer range in the 65th minute to effectively seal the win.
With eight minutes remaining referee William Collum adjudged that United skipper John Rankin brought down substitute Gary Mackay-Steven inside the box – there were some suggestions he made the wrong call – which allowed Griffiths to slam in his third and re-establish Celtic’s advantage over Aberdeen at the top of the table with four games remaining.
There might be some focus on the penalty award given the furore which followed the spot-kick the Hoops were denied in last week’s William Hill Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Inverness at Hampden, but this time it had no bearing on the outcome with Ronny Deila’s men deserving to win the seventh meeting of the season between the clubs.
Deila brought back midfielders Johansen and Kris Commons and right-back Adam Matthews as James Forrest, Mackay-Steven and Efe Ambrose dropped to the bench.
With Nadir Ciftci suspended and Calum Butcher and Mario Bilate joining Paul Paton and Ryan Dow on the injury list, United also showed three changes.
Muirhead made his first start since signing from Kilmarnock in February while midfielders Rankin and Blair Spittal returned.
The visitors started the better of the two teams but the game took a while to warm up.
Celtic defender Virgil van Dijk headed a corner from former United midfielder Stuart Armstrong over the crossbar in the 16th minute which appeared to jolt the home side into life.
United midfielder Charlie Telfer swung in a dangerous cross from the right, which evaded everyone before running out the other side of the penalty box, seconds before Tannadice defender Ryan McGowan glanced a Telfer corner wide of the far post.
The Taysiders slowly grew in confidence as the game unfolded
In the 21st minute a speculative 20-yard drive from Muirhead drew a fine fingertip save from Gordon at the expense of a corner which came to nothing before the Parkhead men responded.
In another spell of pressure Armstrong set up Van Dijk with a cut-back but his drive from 10 yards was half-blocked by Dundee United stopper Callum Morris with Cierzniak making the save.
Celtic skipper Scott Brown picked up a booking for a challenge on United counterpart Rankin but referee Collum was winning his battle to keep control.
Brown was involved in Griffiths’ goal just after the start of the second half when he slipped the ball to Johansen who, in turn, quickly put in the unmarked Griffiths who confidently drilled the ball past Cierzniak and into the far corner of the net.
Whatever anxieties had been expressed in the Hoops dressing room at the break evaporated.
A brilliant cross from Johansen in the 51st minute found Commons whose close-range header was brilliantly saved by Cierzniak, the goalkeeper following it up with further saves from the former Derby player and Johansen, before Van Dijk came close with a free-kick.
Mackay-Steven replaced former United team-mate Armstrong to help the Parkhead men strengthen their grip on the game and the second goal came soon afterwards from a Commons corner, although it was rather messy.
Van Dijk and Morris competed for the header and when it came off the post Griffiths eventually got the ball over the line before taking the acclaim of the travelling fans behind the goal.
United kept on going but without much conviction and Celtic came close in the 81st minute when Mackay-Steven rattled the crossbar with a drive from the edge of the box.
The destination of the points were settled but Collum pointed to the spot after Mackay-Steven was pulled down by Rankin and after a delay, Griffiths drove in the penalty to take his tally for the season to 18 and the Parkhead men a little closer to their fourth successive title.
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