WHEN Celtic get it right, even the greatest shower them with compliments.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic made headlines around the world last week after scoring what many reckon to be one of the greatest goals of all time. Before addressing his imagination to the execution of that dizzying overhead kick against England, the bold Zlatan had given some thought to Celtic. Their Champions League defeat of Barcelona had caught his eye. "Zlatan congratulated me," said his Sweden team-mate Mikael Lustig with a smile.
Beat Barcelona and the world pays attention; win at Aberdeen and no-one bats an eyelid. Celtic have dropped 14 points in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League this season, all of them immediately before or after a European fixture, when their focus and energy levels palpably dip.
There was the prospect of that again as Aberdeen sensed they may be vulnerable, but Celtic delivered a comfortable, unremarkable victory to return to the top of the league table. This morning Celtic will fly to Lisbon for the penultimate Champions League Group G game against Benfica. A win would take them into the last 16, even a draw might do if Barcelona take care of Spartak Moscow. Celtic's admirable display in Camp Nou and their mesmerising win against Barcelona at Parkhead has made every other fixture seem winnable for Neil Lennon's team, yet the danger of underestimating Benfica is obvious. The Portuguese need a win to keep alive their own prospects, which makes them an enormously dangerous opponent tomorrow night on their home turf.
"Benfica must take three points," said Lustig. "There is massive pressure on them. Benfica away is probably the second toughest game in the group. It is going to be really tough. Hopefully we can go there, play our football and get a point. Benfica are a bit more defensive away from home, they were at Parkhead. I think they will be more offensive.
"We will try to get the win although we might have to tighten up a bit in the last five to 10 minutes. Benfica away and Spartak at home are hard matches. But we are close, and we want to get there."
Kris Commons and Georgios Samaras were substituted at Aberdeen but both should be fine to board today's flight and Celtic hope that Gary Hooper, Scott Brown, Joe Ledley and Miku Fedor will also be available. Only James Forrest is sure to miss out.
They will arrive in Portugal as SPL leaders after suppressing Aberdeen's attempt to leapfrog them in the table. Celtic had taken only two points from the previous nine available against Kilmarnock, Dundee United and St Johnstone, but had enough respect for the threat posed by Aberdeen to deliver a focused performance in the north-east, albeit they lacked sparkle in a generally drab game.
Of the heavy pitch, a noisy home support, and the will of Ryan Fraser and Niall McGinn, none could unsettle Celtic. They always looked the better side, although a draw seemed probable until Lassad Nouioui scored his first for the club after 73 minutes and Charlie Mulgrew finished things with a second four minutes later. The former Aberdeen player cupped his ears with his hands during his celebration, an "I can't hear you now" message to the home support, who had been giving him stick.
Aberdeen maintained their habit, evolved over the past few years, of disappointing in major matches. Often it seems that the more fans turn up, the fewer of their players do. There was never any momentum to their play and, although the defending was generally sound and the formation positive – Fraser and Jonny Hayes supporting McGinn from the wings – they have regularly played against Celtic and Rangers with far more midfield bite and aggression than they did on Saturday. Losing Gavin Rae at half-time was a setback but too often their players stood off Celtic, which was asking for trouble.
Going out of the Scottish Communities League Cup to St Mirren then losing to Celtic amount to derailments in Aberdeen's season and the club must regroup for the William Hill Scottish Cup and another run of rewarding league results. They still have strong credentials to emerge as the "best of the rest" behind Celtic this season, even if many of the floating supporters who showed up for them on Saturday will regard the outcome as evidence of another test failed.
"The fans were brilliant," said Hayes, unable to disguise his disappointment. "It's unfortunate that for the two biggest crowds we've had this season we've let them down: the start of the season when we drew 0-0 with Ross County and then against Celtic when there was almost a full house. I feel sorry for them. They've paid their money and haven't been entertained.
"We had been playing well but it was very lacklustre. It was just down to the players on the day. We had the mentality that we would go out and attack, and be positive. But that was one of our worst performances in terms of possession and giving the ball away. We got punished."