Celtic geared up for their midweek Champions League trip to Atletico Madrid by moving eight points clear at the top of the cinch Premiership with a 3-0 win at 10-man Ross County.
The hosts were up against it following an early red card for James Brown, but – inspired by a brilliant display from goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw – they stood firm until David Turnbull made the breakthrough for the Hoops in first-half stoppage time.
Second-half goals from substitutes Luis Palma and James Forrest allowed the leaders to see the match out in comfortable fashion ahead of their Tuesday night showdown with Atleti in the Spanish capital.
County – back at home following a run of three successive away draws – made three alterations to the side that drew 2-2 at Hibernian in midweek as Ben Purrington, Kyle Turner and Eamonn Brophy were replaced by George Harmon, Yan Dhanda and Jordan White.
Amid a hectic fixture schedule, Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers opted to freshen up his squad by making six changes to the side that defeated St Mirren 2-1 on Wednesday as Kyogo Furuhashi, Matt O’Riley, Alistair Johnson, Nat Phillips, Palma and Forrest dropped out to make way for Anthony Ralston, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Paulo Bernardo, Hyunjun Yang, Hyeongyu Oh and Daizen Maeda.
The Hoops had the ball in the net after five minutes when Liam Scales fired home from close range but it was swiftly ruled out after Oh was deemed to have pushed White in the build-up.
Celtic were the beneficiaries of a decision from the officials shortly afterwards, however, when Brown was sent off for catching Yang’s ankle with his studs while trying to halt the South Korean as he burst in from the left. The Staggies right-back was initially shown a yellow card but it was upgraded to a red following a VAR intervention.
County boss Malky Mackay, in a bid to bring fresh defensive reinforcement to his depleted team, responded by sending on Will Nightingale in place of striker White.
Despite being a man down, County competed manfully for the remainder of the first half although their goalkeeper was a busy man.
Laidlaw got down brilliantly to tip a 20-yard strike from Callum McGregor behind in the 21st minute. From the resulting corner, taken by Turnbull, Oh glanced his header over the bar.
Laidlaw made another fine save in the 28th minute when he clawed out a Scales header from Turnbull’s corner.
Celtic thought they had the breakthrough in the 31st minute when Oh forced in from close range following a Maeda cross from the right. However, after a VAR check, Maeda was deemed to have been offside as he ran on to a pass from Bernardo.
Laidlaw made an excellent point-blank save to keep out Bernardo in the 38th minute and the County keeper looked on course to end an inspired first half with what would have been a deserved clean sheet when he pushed away a Turnbull shot from just outside the box.
However, the Celtic midfielder eventually beat the defiant County keeper with another low strike from outside the box.
That late hammer blow might have been the signal for the floodgates to open early on in the second half but County and Laidlaw in particular continued to put up admirable resistance.
Five minutes after the restart, Oh was denied by Laidlaw from a tight angle before Bernardo curled a free-kick just over.
Laidlaw then made a superb double save to thwart substitute Furuhashi and Yang in quick succession, and his heroics continued as he threw himself high to his left to tip away a goalbound effort from Oh in the 77th minute.
But Laidlaw was helpless a minute later when substitute Palma looped a stunning strike from 30 yards into the top corner.
Palma then turned provider in the 84th minute as his cross from the left was nodded in at the back post by fellow replacement Forrest.
Laidlaw pulled off another double save in stoppage time to halt Furuhashi and Oh, but the damage was already done.
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