ANTHONY Stokes came back to haunt Hibs once again as the Easter Road side were totally over-run by a Celtic juggernaut as it clocked up an 18th successive win in domestic competition to further tightened their grip on the SPL title, stretching their lead at the top to a massive 17 points.
The former Hibs striker, who has made a habit of scoring against his old club, opened the scoring with strike partner Gary Hooper doubling Celtic’s lead within the opening 20 minutes.
Charlie Mulgrew added a third only two minutes into the second half as Hibs failed to spoil the title party which had begun long before kick-off and in the 52nd minute Hooper claimed another, his shot taking a wicked bounce which totally deceived goalkeeper Graham Stack.
Worse was to come 13 minutes from time when Kris Common’s shot broke off fellow substitute Ki to make it five for the Celts.
Skipper James McPake, fellow defender Paul Hanlon and striker Leigh Griffiths made an immediate return to Pat Fenlon’s starting line-up after suspension, George Francomb, Sean O’Hanlon and Garry O’Connor making way to accommodate them.
Although he had won his appeal against the red card shown at Inverness, Celtic defender Daniel Majstorovic could only find a place on the bench, joined by Georgios Samaras as Thomas Rogne and Stokes took their places.
There was a party atmosphere among the visiting fans, the ten point deduction imposed on arch-rivals Rangers following their fall into adminstration having all but handed Neil Lennon’s side the SPL title giving, as it did a 14 point to the Hoops before the Ibrox outfit’s defeat by Kilmarnock yesterday.
Celtic signalled their intentions within seconds, Stokes delivering a low cross for strike partner Hooper who flicked a heel at the ball, Stack reacted superbly as he stretched out a boot to divert it over the bar.
The fans from Glasgow, however, only had to wait for 14 minutes that opening goal and again it was all too simple, Stokes rising totally unchallenged to nod home Charlie Mulgrew’s corner from the right.
A tough challenge from Jorge Claros produced a predictably angry reaction from Celtic skipper Scott Brown, referee Craig Thomson stepping in to cool tempers before Lennon’s side doubled their lead in the 20th minute. Once more, though, Hibs were the authors of their own misfortune, a misplaced pass from Pa Kujabi deep in enemy territory seized upon as Hooper raced away to provide a crossfield pass for Stokes.
The former Hibs star drew McPake, cut inside him and returned the ball for Hooper to slide under the exposed Stack.
Hibs were stunned but Lewis Stevenson earned himself the sight of Fraser Forster’s goal, his persistence seeing him rob Adam Matthews at the edge of the Celtic penalty area but his shot didn’t carry enough power or direction to beat the goalkeeper.
But Mulgrew dashed any hope of a Hibs fightback, firing home a superb free-kick only two minutes after the interval.
Stack pulled off a great block to deny Stokes a second two minutes later as Celtic went for the jugular. A fourth was merely delayed, Hooper claiming his second of the game with a shot from the corner of the box which appeared to take a wicked bounce in front of Stack to leave the goalkeeper baffled. The fifth goal came after 77 minutes, when good work by Kris Commons allowed the substitute a shot at goal, which took a deflection of Ki Sung-Yeung to consign Hibs to their heaviest home defeat since September 1985 - when Celtic ran out 5-0 victors at Easter Road.