IF this turns out to be Gary Hooper's final game for Celtic – and who knows what might unfold before the transfer window closes this evening –then here, perhaps, was an indication that Neil Lennon's side might not struggle for goals without him.
It was far from Celtic's best performance of the season but, after a sluggish start, they gradually eased away from Kilmarnock to win quite comfortably, moving 15 points clear at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League in the process.
Celtic ended up running in four goals and, for once, Hooper did not claim a single one of them. This, in fact, was one of the Englishman's most ineffective displays of late as he squandered a number of opportunities, in the second half especially, that he would normally have buried without a second thought. When he could only divert a close-range effort against the post as injury time approached, it was the final sign that this just wasn't to be his night. If his misfiring performance is enough to dissuade any watching scouts from Norwich City or others from putting in a last-minute offer, Celtic may come to view it as a blessing in disguise.
With Hooper failing to extend his scoring streak to five consecutive games, Celtic instead shared the goals around, Adam Matthews scoring twice and Joe Ledley and Anthony Stokes also chipping in. That may give the Celtic support some solace should Hooper end up moving on amid the usual transfer frenzy that tends to surround the Barclays Premier League on deadline day.
While there has been near daily speculation about Hooper since the start of the transfer window, there have been next to no transfer rumours surrounding Kris Commons. On this evidence, Celtic will be quite happy about that. The attacker was restored to the starting line-up after starting the Scottish Communities League Cup defeat to St Mirren on the bench and made the most of his recall. Twice in the first half he saw shots strike the top of the crossbar, while he also provided assists for Ledley and Matthews' first.
It was the sort of performance that would have surely heartened Gordon Strachan ahead of his first Scotland squad announcement today. Celtic ultimately ran out worthy winners but Kilmarnock departed nursing a grievance, believing the officials had denied them what would have been the opening goal of the game after 37 minutes. Rory McKeown's cross spun over Lukasz Zaluska to the back post where it was contested by both Charlie Mulgrew and Ross Barbour. The ball then squirted goalwards prompting Zaluska to quickly smother it as if desperately trying to put out a chip pan fire.
At first look it seemed to have crossed the goal line – and Barbour certainly thought so as he darted back to the halfway line anticipating the re-start – but Stephen Mitchell, the main stand assistant, was unmoved. Literally. Standing virtually motionless on the touchline he looked towards Calum Murray, the referee, for guidance. Murray's response was to award Celtic a free-kick.
Kilmarnock's frustration would be compounded four minutes later when Celtic went in front. Commons was the creator, touching a pass to Ledley whose shot deceived Cammy Bell. The irony that Ledley, dropped from the side that lost at Hampden, was only on the field due to an injury to Emilio Izaguirre would not have been lost on Kenny Shiels, the Kilmarnock manager watching from the stand.
Shiels had stuck to his word and put out a Kilmarnock side so young that most have probably not yet started shaving, with only James Fowler and Bell over the age of 24. Their gameplan, as they sought a second victory at Celtic Park this season, unsurprisingly involved soaking up the pressure and trying to counter.
Opportunities were few and far between and yet, early in the second half, they somehow scored an equaliser. William Gros did well to shrug off an insipid challenge from Victor Wanyama to reach the goal line. His cross was inviting and Cillian Sheridan was well-placed to score, as he had done when Kilmarnock, who released Lee Johnson yesterday, tasted victory here in October.
That sparked groans all around Parkhead but not for long as, within two minutes, Celtic were back in front. It was another special goal, Commons feeding Matthews whose right-foot shot arced away from Bell and into the top corner.
Celtic were now dominant, perhaps grateful that earlier wastefulness had not proved costly. Georgios Samaras had another off night, slicing an effort into the side netting from a promising position before being denied by a fine Mo Sissoko sliding tackle when it looked as if he would benefit from a rebound. The Greek would not last the half and was replaced by Tony Watt just before the interval.
Matthews' first seemed to set the platform for Celtic to go on and rack up a few goals. That they didn't initially was down largely to the profligacy of Hooper who played as if his boots were on the wrong feet.
That could have proved costly – Barbour thumped in a spectacular volley that Zaluska scrambled away before Jeroen Tesselaar advanced from defence to lob an effort over the crossbar – but a third goal settled any lingering nerves for Celtic. Hooper was the provider with a precise through ball and substitute Stokes danced around Bell before finishing from a tight angle.
As Kilmarnock's resistance finally crumbled, Celtic added a fourth. Stokes made hay down the right and Matthews nipped in ahead of Watt to claim his second of the game.