THE time may have come to ask a new question about Gary Hooper around Parkhead.
Since he left, in July, the only thing anyone at Celtic has really cared about is where the goals were going to come from without him. How about wondering whether they already have someone who might surpass him? Kris Commons is not an out-and-out-striker like Hooper, and there is far more to his all-round game in terms of creativity and teamwork. But his rate of goalscoring this season has been outstanding. The two he hit past Motherwell on Saturday afternoon took his total to 19. The date was January 18. On the same date a year ago, Hooper had one fewer.
By the time he moved on to Norwich City, Hooper had finished the season with 31. If he stays fit and continues to score at the same rate Commons has 17 league games and potentially a handful of Scottish Cup ties to beat that total. He has scored with plenty of thrilling finishes this season but against Motherwell he converted a poacher's tap-in and a penalty. Celtic needed someone to step up after the loss of their finest striker and Commons has done so far more effectively than Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes, Teemu Pukki, Amido Balde or, for that matter, the dimming star Tony Watt. "Celtic are a totally different team when he is playing well," said an admiring James McFadden when asked about Commons. "He is a big threat. He picks up the ball in great areas and gets in the hole."
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Celtic can advance a persuasive case for Virgil van Dijk as Scotland's player of the year and the Dutchman predictably coasted his way through their latest clean sheet, a run which now extends to 648 minutes of football since Barcelona's sixth in Camp Nou. Van Dijk's age, consistency and ability to instantly settle at a new club in a new country all weigh in his favour but for many Commons has been Celtic and the country's most convincing performer. It is a view held by team-mate Charlie Mulgrew. "He's scored some vital goals, and scored a lot. There was always going to be talk about how to replace players after Victor Wanyama and 'Hoops' left the club. But Kris is scoring the goals and I suppose he has kind of replaced him.
"The way the manager has us playing there's plenty of movement and interchanging. A lot of the time Kris does find himself in the striker's position and that's why he's scoring a lot of goals. He definitely does produce something different in a key area of the pitch. He seems to be taking every good chance he's getting. If that's how he's playing with the benefit of having a break from the international scene then he's probably better off continuing it. But it's not my business, it's up to him. We'd welcome him back for Scotland of course."
Manager Neil Lennon eulogised about Celtic's performance and the atmosphere at Parkhead but it was difficult to share his enthusiasm. Celtic were very comfortable winners but Motherwell had spells of possession in the second half and might have worried them if John Sutton and McFadden had been sharper. When Sutton was crowded out by Van Dijk and Efe Ambrose the ball broke across the box for an easy chance for McFadden but he struck a tame shot into Fraser Forster. "I think it would have been a game changer if I'd scored," said McFadden. Celtic were 2-0 up at the time. "It wasn't a good save. I missed. It was a bad miss. But, generally, I feel good at the moment. I love playing and I think you can see that in the way I've been playing the last few weeks. I'm enjoying it rather than putting pressure on myself to be a 10 out of 10 every week."
Commons had buried an easy finish after five minutes when Stokes's shot was saved by Gunnar Nielsen and the rebound broke perfectly because his anticipation was good. When Stokes was brought down by the goalkeeper just before half-time a penalty was correctly given by Bobby Madden, although the referee got dogs' abuse for earlier giving a Motherwell goal-kick when it was blatantly a Celtic corner. Commons rammed home the penalty too. Stokes was rightly sent off for hacking down Keith Lasley in the second half but by then James Forrest had burst down the right and flashed over a cross which Stephen McManus sliced into his own net for 3-0. Motherwell had won six consecutive games since collapsing 5-0 at home to Celtic last month. They offered far more this time but Celtic won with plenty to spare.
They have not lost a domestic game since Morton, of all clubs, went to Parkhead and won in September. It seems slightly contrived to make a big deal of the lesser objectives they now carry - going the league season unbeaten, seeing how many consecutive clean sheets they manage - but it does inject some interest into the foregone conclusion of them winning the championship. The eagerness to manufacture targets can now include another one: can Commons eclipse Hooper's total before the campaign is done?