Larsson hat-trick banishes talk of crisis

Crisis, what crisis? Henrik Larsson continues to mock those who perceive his powers to be waning. The drought that critics spoke of has merely produced a flood of goals.

The Celtic striker's hat-trick yesterday meant he has now found the net seven times in the last three games. More importantly, he also laid on two for Chris Sutton to underline to Scottish Premier League leaders Rangers, who visit next Sunday, that they are not ready to relinquish their title.

Kilmarnock had not won at Parkhead since 1955, but they chose the wrong week to try to alter that statistic. With that first Old Firm contest of the season so close, Celtic had already adopted the ruthless mindset required for Glasgow's tribal encounter.

Had the visitors taken a clear chance after just seven minutes, then things might have been different. However, Paul Di Giacomo's profligate header from just six yards, after Peter Canero had won a battle of strength with Momo Sylla before delivering an intelligent cutback, let the champions off the hook. Within four minutes Kilmarnock were punished.

Steve Guppy eschewed his normal role as provider from the left flank by rolling the ball back to Neil Lennon, whose low left-foot cross picked out Larsson at the near post for the Swede to angle a right-foot volley past the goalkeeper, Gordon Marshall.

Celtic's hunger was evident. The movement supplied by Martin O'Neill's team meant Kilmarnock's defenders were pulled in every direction. It was that work ethic which underscored Celtic's second goal after 15 minutes. Larsson played a fine reverse pass into Chris Sutton, with Stilian Petrov making a crucial decoy run to drag markers the other way, allowing Sutton the space to clip a right-foot shot past Marshall.

With a comfort zone established, Robert Douglas incurred the wrath of his team with a sloppy kick-out straight to Alan Mahood, whose venomous long-range return had to be touched away by the sprawling Celtic goalkeeper.

No one else had plans to loosen the grip. Celtic stretched their lead further in the 21st minute when Larsson collected his second goal. Guppy's well-disguised corner found Paul Lambert outside the box and his chip to the back post was returned by the towering Bobo Balde for Joos Valgaeren to head against the crossbar; Larsson had the relatively easy task of heading in the rebound.

Kilmarnock tried to claw themselves back into the game, but when Ally Mitchell's low shot from Di Giacomo's knockdown was superbly held by Douglas, the scale of their second-half task was ominously clear.

The tempo, naturally, dropped after the interval, though the friction rose as Kilmarnock stemmed the tide at the expense of robust tackling, notably from Mahood, who managed to upset Larsson's cool demeanour when the pair were involved in an eyeball-to eyeball confrontation.

Larsson, though, never loses sight of the real prize, goals. His vision created Celtic's fourth goal when he robbed Jesus Sanjuan in the 66th minute as the defender dwelt on the ball, and raced away towards Marshall. The striker rounded the goalkeeper, but instead of finishing himself, he unselfishly provided a cut-back which Sutton rammed through the ruck of defenders on the line.

Marshall later prevented Larsson from collecting his third by bravely diving at his feet, but when Shaun Maloney's driving run was abruptly halted inside the box by Chris Innes in stoppage time, the Swede gratefully thrashed in the penalty.

Celtic 5 Kilmarnock 0
Larsson 11, 21, 90, Sutton 15, 66

Half-time: 3-0 Attendance: 57,469

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