"OBE: Over By Easter." The banner clutched by a group of Celtic fans said it all at Parkhead yesterday. Martin O'Neill already has his award, but his team are swiftly following in his footsteps with a Scottish Premier League title as Celtic annexed the only new year honour that matters in Glasgow.
A second Old Firm success of the season opened up an 11-point gap over their great rivals which will surely put them beyond the reach of Rangers, even with another 19 games left. Celtic brimmed over with self-belief, and thumping finishes from Stilian Petrov, Stanislav Varga and Alan Thompson established a new club record of 18 successive League victories.
O'Neill's men eclipsed the class of 1968-69, whom Jock Stein had guided to the European Cup just two seasons earlier, but the Celtic manager shrugged off comparisons. "Jock is an immortal character around here," reflected O'Neill. "I think he would be delighted, but I am a million miles away from emulating him or that era."
O'Neill refused to acknow-ledge that the title race - which last season was decided in Rangers' favour on the wafer-thin goal difference of one - is over. The worrying thing for the Ibrox club, and Liverpool, is that he believes Parkhead is his empire as Celtic close in on a third championship in the fourth season of his reign.
"I can do no more than repeat that there is not a jot of truth in it," he said of reports that he will replace Gérard Houllier at Anfield. As Parkhead literally bounced to the taunts of "champions" aimed at the departing Rangers fans, you would struggle to find a bigger stage than this.
"The title is not over," insisted O'Neill. "That is the strength of our dressing room, they never take anything for granted." It is that philosophy which has underscored Celtic's remarkable revival since losing the Uefa Cup final in extra time and then their crown by a meagre goal within four days last May.
The only points spilled in their unbeaten League season were on the opening day in the draw at Dunfermline. Rangers knew the scale of their task: they had to win at a ground where Juventus and Valencia are among the victims in a 69-game unbeaten run.
Celtic forced six corners in the opening 15 minutes, the last of which saw Stefan Klos produce a great save to parry Bobo Balde's header from Thompson's inswinger. Four minutes later, not even Rangers' outstanding goalkeeper could prevent Celtic surging ahead.
Klos managed to get a glove on Petrov's diving header, after Henrik Larsson delivered a cross to the back post that missed out John Hartson. The keeper touched the ball on to his far post, then watched as it ran along the line to hit the other post and go in before Klos could claw it back.
Celtic had the lead they wanted, yet failed to capitalise on it, which meant that an impressive period of control from Rangers after the interval had nerves fraying around the 59,000 crowd. However, Varga removed any doubts just on the hour. Again Thompson was the supplier, with a corner to the back post that was knocked back across goal by the towering Balde for his defensive partner to power a header beyond Klos.
Parkhead erupted, and six minutes from the end Thompson delivered the coup de grâce. The Englishman's 30-yard free-kick bent around the wall and arced away from the outstretched hand of Klos into the roof of the net.
"That was great execution from Thompson," said the gracious Alex McLeish. "Celtic can only lose the title now."
Celtic 3 Rangers 0
Petrov 19, Varga 60, Thompson 84
Half-time 1-0 Attendance: 59,087Reuse content