HARALD BRATTBAKK celebrated his first start for Celtic in almost three months by grabbing a hat-trick at Parkhead last night.
The Norwegian's three goals helped the hosts to a comfortable victory over St Johnstone and kept alive their flickering hopes of retaining the Scottish League title, although Celtic are still 13 points behind leaders Rangers, who overcame Aberdeen 4-2 in a tough tussle on Saturday.
St Johnstone, only one point adrift of Celtic in fourth place before the game, were outclassed after making a bright start.
Brattbakk marked his first start since 3 November by making the breakthrough in the sixth minute. The Norwegian striker, preferred to Mark Burchill, got on the end of a cross from Lubomir Moravcik to steer the ball beyond goalkeeper Alan Main from six yards.
Celtic stepped up the pace and added a second in the 19th minute with a goal that had a stamp of class written all over it. Henrik Larsson cleverly held the ball up for Moravcik on the edge of the area, and the midfielder's shot was unstoppable.
The home side surged 3-0 ahead after 31 minutes after an incredible scramble. Larsson scored his 21st goal of the season after a chain of events that left the crowd catching their breath.Brattbakk's shot was beaten away by Main, as was the rebound from Phil O'Donnell. The ball broke to Moravcik, who rattled the bar, leaving Brattbakk to head it across the face of the goal, where Larsson delivered a powerful diving header.
There was no respite for Saints, who had been riding high in the league despite conceding seven to Rangers earlier in the campaign. Vidar Riseth tested Main in the 53rd minute with a header after Alan Stubbs had launched a long ball forward.
Then Larsson went round the hard-pressed goalkeeper after O'Donnell played the ball through only for Darren Dods to make a timely interception.
But Saints caved in again in the space of two minutes as Celtic extended their lead. Larsson and Brattbakk linked up, and the Norwegian timed his run to perfection to score his second goal of the game in the 78th minute with a shot that went under Main's body.
Brattbakk completed his hat-trick two minutes later with a tap-in at the far post following a pass from Larsson across the face of the goal.