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New double act passes first screen test at Celtic

WHEN Celtic signed Leigh Griffiths on the final day of the January transfer window the general feeling was that it would not augur well for Anthony Stokes.

Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths have shown their strike partnership could blossom at Celtic. Picture: SNS
Anthony Stokes and Leigh Griffiths have shown their strike partnership could blossom at Celtic. Picture: SNS

It has not been a vintage season for any of the club's strikers as they attempt to fill the void left by Gary Hooper, with new signings Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde failing to make the impact hoped of them, Georgios Samaras under performing and Tony Watt sent out on loan to Lierse. Instead it has fallen to Kris Commons to lead the way on the scoring front, the attacking midfielder putting the strikers to shame with his prodigious output.

Before Sunday the now-retired Scotland internationalist was the only player at the club to have made it in to double figures, his 22-goal return making him a near certainty to be crowned player of the year.

There had been a belief that Stokes would be the one to benefit most from Hooper moving on but it has not turned out that way. The Irishman started the season well and had four goals to his name by mid-September. Then came something of a lull, the player scoring only once in the next three months, a period that coincided with him signing a new three-year contract.

Stokes was not playing badly but his efforts at the apex of Neil Lennon's preferred 4-2-3-1 system were not delivering the goals expected from any striker. Those shortcomings were felt most keenly in Europe when Stokes failed to register a single goal in 11 appearances in the Champions League qualifying rounds and group stages, despite starting eight of those matches. It was telling that in the most significant game of the campaign - at home to AC Milan - Stokes only appeared for the final 25 minutes. Throughout the group phase he managed a total of six shots on target.

Lennon made no secret of the fact he would pursue a centre forward in January, preferably one who would be capable of making an impact in the Champions League next season. Celtic, he felt, were still short of a genuine No.9, a predator who would weigh in with a glut of goals. Those already at the club, including Stokes, were all considered to be mobile forwards who could drop deep or drift out wide but were lacking a presence in the penalty box. Griffiths, although no slouch outside the area himself, was seen as someone who could be relied upon to score frequently, as he did last season at Hibernian.

In Celtic's favoured set-up - that has Commons pushing up to operate just behind the sole centre forward - it had appeared it would come down to a straight choice between Stokes and Griffiths to see who would start against St Johnstone on Sunday. Instead Lennon elected to play both, with Commons tucked in behind to form an adventurous, attacking triumvirate. It would prove to be a great success. Stokes' hat trick allowed him to grab the glory but his manager was also quick to praise Griffiths, whose movement and touch helped create space and opportunities for his strike partner, including an assist for the first goal.

There is an argument that it is too little, too late from Stokes given Celtic's season has been effectively reduced to seeing how many clean sheets they can record on their stroll to a third successive league championship. It is also unlikely that Lennon could play such a formation - a diamond midfield with no wingers - on a regular basis, especially away from home. On Sunday's evidence, however, a Griffths/Stokes partnership is one that could prove fruitful whenever a suitable occasion arises.

Lennon had made the point that the Irishman was someone who tended to perform better with another striker up alongside him and, in Griffiths, Celtic may have found the ideal foil.

"Stokesy was magnificent," said Griffiths following his first Celtic start. "He was the one who was linking the play for us and he fully deserved that hat trick. Our styles seem to compliment each other. The manager was saying that we both seemed to work really well."

If there is significance in Celtic's remaining games of the season then it may lie in Stokes, in particular, and Griffiths demonstrating that there is little need to recruit another striker in the summer. Stokes now has 11 goals for the campaign, his target now presumably to reach 20. Doubts remain about his ability to perform consistently in Europe but the award of a new contract that will keep him at Celtic Park until 2017 is evidence that Lennon and the board of directors still rate him highly.

Only a contentious offside decision denied Griffiths a first Celtic goal on Sunday but he will surely not be kept waiting long. He has yet to play in Europe in his career, although four Scotland caps show he can cope with a step up in standards. It is a partnership that offers promise.

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