Aberdeen 1 Glasgow Celtic 3

Last updated : 24 January 2004 By Footymad Previewer

Celtic tightened their stranglehold on the SPL title race with a comprehensive 3-1 victory at Pittodrie - their 20th consecutive victory.

Both sides had to make enforced changes following their games last week.

Dons boss Steve Paterson handed Phil McGuire and David Zdrilic their first starts in over two months, replacing the injured Russell Anderson and Scott Booth.

Celtic, looking to extend their lead at the top of the table to 14 points over nearest rivals Rangers, made one change, John Kennedy replacing Bobo Balde who will be missing for at least the next three weeks while he represents Guinea in the African Nations Cup.

After a bright start in which Scott Muirhead was prominent for Aberdeen, the first chance of the game fell to the visitors.

Jackie McNamara fed the ball into Henrik Larsson, who exchanged passes with John Hartson before narrowly sidefooting the ball wide from eight yards out, with David Preece beaten.

In the tenth minute Chris Sutton broke clear of a challenge from Zander Diamond but he shot straight into the arms of Preece from an acute angle.

Celtic looked to have opened the scoring when Hartson towered above the Dons defence to meet a McNamara cross - his downward header seemed goalbound but Preece somehow managed to get a hand to it and Diamond was on hand to complete the clearance.

The woodwork came to the home side's rescue just moments later, as Didier Agathe's deep ball into the area bounced around the Dons box before Diamond's clearance ricocheted off Larsson before cannoning off the crossbar and away to safety.

Celtic finally got the goal their superior play had threatened on the half-hour mark.

A long Kennedy ball out of defence found the head of Sutton, who knocked the ball into Hartson, and the big striker played the ball onto Larsson. The Swede cushioned his pass into the path of Stilian Petrov who drilled his first-time, left-foot shot from 18 yards in off the upright.

The Dons' response was immediate as they forced a succession of corners. From the second of these the ball fell into the path of Chris Clark, whose fierce drive was brilliantly saved by Rab Douglas, down to his right.

Just as it looked as though the Dons were going to go in at the interval only one goal down, the Bhoys' prolific striker Larsson added a second as he all too easily side-footed a McNamara cross home from six yards out.

Celtic emphasised their superiority on 58 minutes when a move involving Petrov, Larsson and Sutton, saw the Swede's shot deflect over Preece for Stephen Pearson to gleefully power the ball home from eight yards out, for his first goal for the club since moving from Motherwell.

The Dons at least made a game of it and they pulled a goal back after 62 minutes.

Kevin McNaughton picked out Clark, whose low cross into the area found Zdrilic. Kennedy blocked his shot, but the ball broke kindly to Dons midfielder Steven Tosh who turned the ball home from eight yards.

Aberdeen failed to trouble Douglas in the Celtic goal thereafter, as the visitors seemed content to play keep the ball. As a result the game petered out with little further action to excite the expectant crowd.

Celtic boss Martin O'Neill praised Stanislav Varga after the game saying: "You could see in training that Stan could play but you just wondered if what happened at Sunderland had knocked his confidence but we had to forget that and see what he could do for Celtic.

"He played two games last season - the first of those being the defeat against Inverness so we joked that it was his fault.

"He has exceeded all expectations here and has done wonderfully well for us so no doubt he will be knocking on my door now.

"That takes him through to the summer of 2005 and he has put himself in a great position and it's something I'll have to look at." O'Neill was also pleased to see Larsson get back on the goal trail.

"It is amazing how, regardless of how good a player you are, if you're a striker and you go a few games without scoring, how that can affect your confidence," he added.

"Henrik was saying himself in the dressing room at half-time how delighted he was to get the goal and I think he was back to his old self today." Man of the match: Stilian Petrov - Ran the game from midfield as Celtic maintained their impressive winning run.