Celtic continued their unbeaten charge towards the Scottish Premiership title as Hibs suffered their third-successive defeat in today’s lunchtime match at Easter Road.
A mix-up between Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster after only eight minutes gifted Kris Commons the opener but Celtic had to wait until 14 minutes from time for Dutchman Virgil Van Dijk to seal victory, his thunderous free-kick sparking a late goal rush from the Glagow outfit as subsitute Teemu Pukki thumped home a third and Commons claimed his own second of the game - and his 21st of the season – from the penalty spot in the final minute.
But, in between that initial strike from Commons and Van Dijk’s goal, Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster was made to work hard as he racked up his tenth successive clean sheet in domestic competition, twice denying Abdellah Zoubir and then producing a stunning save to push away Sam Stanton’s netbound shot.
Injuries and suspension forced Butcher into fielding an unfamiliar line-up with Stanton starting his first match for Hibs while French kid Zoubir came in alongside Tom Taiwo, who hadn’t featured for the Capital club since the end of November.
Rowan Vine, who has also found first-team action elusive since Butcher’s arrival at Easter Road, was on the bench along with Paul Cairney as Alex Harris started his first match since the opening day of the season.
An early corner and a Harris shot which zipped wide gave the home fans something to cheer but a horrible mix-up between Nelson and Jordon Forster gifted Celtic the opening goal, the pair both going for Emilio Izaguirre’s high, hanging ball, only to crash into each other to leave Commons with the easiest of tasks as he knocked his shot wide of the helpless Ben Williams.
Butcher’s side were screaming for a penalty four minutes later as Van Dijk appeared to catch James Collins as the Hibs striker cut inside him but referee Craig Thomson, never an Easter Road crowd’s favourite official, waved away the shouts.
Hibs weren’t helping themselves with a succession of stray passes, Celtic taking advantage to force a string of corners none of which caused the home side too much bother but they should have been in further trouble when Georgios Samaras broke through three challenges only to send a weak shot straight at Williams when Commons was unmarked to his left.
The Capital club, though, almost grabbed an unlikely equaliser in the 29th minute when Harris fed Stanton, who fired in a shot which Fraser Forster could only beat away, the ball breaking off Van Dijk and heading goalwards. But Izaguirre managed to get to it before Collins could cash in.
Hibs had recovered from that shaky start and had Collins been a little more alert he might have turned Jordon Forster’s header from Stanton’s corner into the net.
Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster hadn’t lost a goal in 855 minutes against Scottish opposition but he had to look sharp twice within a minute to maintain that record, just managing to take Zoubir’s cross, aimed in the direction of Nelson at the back post off the defender’s head and then shovelling a low shot from the on-loan Istres star wide of target.
And Forster did even better in the 66th minute, throwing himself full length to his left to get his fingertips to Stanton’s shot, the youngster having left the Celtic defence bamboozled by a terrific shimmy and turn at the edge of their penalty area,.
Hibs had dominated the second half with Stanton and Harris in particular outstanding as they took the game to Celtic while Zoubir also offered a threat on the right flank and Fraser Forster again had to be on his toes to take a low cross from Harris before it could cause any damage.
But Celtic weathered the storm and claimed a killer second goal in the 76th minute, referee Thomson ruling Nelson had handled the ball, the free-kick allowing Van Dijk to hammer a spectacular shot high into the net from 30 yards.
Pukki made it three for Neil Lennon’s side seven minutes later with a rising shot on the angle and a rash push on the Finn by Alan Maybury allowed Commons to score again from the penalty spot in the final minute and give the final scoreline a somewhat skewed appearance given Hibs’ second-half performance.
Hibs: Williams, Maybury, Nelson, J Forster, Stevenson, Zoubir, Stanton, Taiwo (Heffernan 82), Craig, Harris, Collins. Substitutes not used: Murdoch, Vine., Cairney, Handling, Horribine, Cummings.
Celtic: F Forster, Fisher, Amrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Biton (Pukki 46), Ledley, Mulgrew (Johansen 87), Commons, Samaras (Balde 85). Substitutes not used: Zaluska, Boerrigter, O’Connell, Henderson.
Referee: Craig Thomson.