Celtic's attention turns towards Champions League after extending unbeaten run to 52 matches
Celtic currently occupy territory between two contrasting chasms. On one side, Brendan Rodgers and his players can gaze loftily down at the gap between them and every other Scottish club. On the other, an unbridgeable disparity in resources will likely confront the Parkhead men when they learn the identity of their Champions League group stage opponents on Friday – assuming that no calamity undermines the 5-0 lead they take into Tuesday's meeting with Astana in the second leg of their tournament play-off. Rodgers and his squad embarked upon a flight of almost six hours to Kazakhstan on Sunday, having extended their unbeaten sequence in domestic fixtures to 52 games with Saturday’s tidy 2-0 victory over Kilmarnock at Rugby Park. It was the second time these teams had met inside the space of 12 days and Killie were notably more cohesive than when they crumpled to a 5-0 defeat in the Betfred Scottish League Cup. Lee McCulloch, the home manager, was the subject of deserved praise from Rodgers afterwards but honeyed words do not alter the truth that, in the opening meeting, Celtic cruised home with what was virtually a reserve team. The Hoops started the weekend’s encounter without any first-choice central defender or striker, but still prevailed within a significant margin for error. Forrest opens the scoring against Kilmarnock Credit: ACTION PLUS In one respect, the personnel deployed on Saturday constitute an endorsement of native skills. Celtic fielded eight Scots at Rugby Park, three of whom – Craig Gordon, Scott Brown and Leigh Griffiths – are also automatic selections for Gordon Strachan, when he picks a Scotland squad, as he will do today (Monday) for next week’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in Vilnius. Ominously for Celtic’s domestic opponents, however, the Parkhead contingent also included five of the club’s academy graduates – Anthony Ralston, Kieran Tierney, Calvin Miller, Callum McGregor and James Forrest, the latter two of whom scored the goals which secured all three points. In each case, Kilmarnock’s door was unlocked by one of the club’s most effective acquisitions in recent years, Tom Rogic. Rogic frequently plays no more than an hour or so of a game, as insurance against recurrence of past injuries but, early or late, his contributions are usually significant. The Australian midfielder sealed Celtic’s clean sweep of the Scottish honours with an injury time winner against Aberdeen in the William Hill Scottish Cup final at Hampden in May, and last Wednesday he jemmied Astana’s deep defence for the opening goal at Celtic Park in the first instalment of the Champions League play-off. Thus are the Celtic faithful treated to a promenade through a fixture list which next presents them with what can be billed as a top of the table encounter, when St Johnstone make their way to the east end of Glasgow on Saturday. Tom Rogic was a key figure in Celtic's latest win Credit: ACTION PLUS Saints’ home victory over Partick Thistle extended their perfect start to three consecutive wins, a club record for the start of a Scottish Premiership campaign, secured by a Michael O’Halloran strike in the 33rd minute. O’Halloran’s goal was the fourth of his spell on loan from Rangers, a development swiftly pointed out by correspondents on his Twitter account. Social media contributions also highlighted that his tally is the same as Rangers’ league goals total and that he was one of four forwards discarded by Pedro Caixinha – the other were Barrie McKay, Martyn Waghorn and Joe Garner – who found the mark on Saturday while their former colleagues were forced to settle for a goalless draw at home to Hearts. In more favourable circumstances, Rangers fans would have exulted in Hibernian’s 3-1 home defeat by Hamilton Academical, which brought Neil Lennon’s players crashing back to earth after the euphoria of their victory at Ibrox the previous weekend. Instead, Caixinha and his players were jeered for an outcome which meant they had dropped five points in consecutive home matches against the two Edinburgh teams, one whose manager is loathed by many amongst the Rangers support, while the other is supervised by a caretaker coach. Rangers manager Pedro Caixinha Credit: PA It is not Caixinha’s fault that his utterances in English are often wholly obscure, as when he observed after the Hearts game that he did not ‘remember one single transition of the opponent’. He made himself clear, though, in May, when he predicted that Rangers would improve, while Aberdeen would lose the like of Niall McGinn and Ryan Jack. “I do believe that Aberdeen’s cycle is about to - not to end - but needs to be renewed,” he said. At that stage last season, Aberdeen led Rangers by six points. Three games into this campaign Aberdeen are five points ahead of Rangers and level with Celtic and St Johnstone. On Saturday night, one did not have to go far to hear disenchanted Rangers fans exclaiming into their pints about their manager’s indifferent record. Chatter from within the club suggests a dressing room which has incubated cliques. If Caixinha does not leave Dingwall with a win over Ross County next Sunday, the Ibrox board will be sweating, notwithstanding a summer which has been unseasonably cool even by Scottish standards.