Celtic prepared for the highly anticipated Old Firm clash in the New Year with a 3-0 Premiership victory over Dundee United at Parkhead.
Ismaila Soro opened his scoring account for the Hoops in the 23rd minute before fellow midfielder David Turnbull added a second with a drive five minutes before the interval.
French striker Odsonne Edouard scored a delicious third in the 75th minute, the only downside for boss Neil Lennon being the injury of returning defender Christopher Jullien who was swept away on a stretcher after crashing into a post to save a probable United goal.
The Champions have three games underway against Rangers, who are 16 points clear at the top ahead of Ibrox’s January 2 meeting.
The Light Blues’ 2-0 win over St Mirren at Paisley means the two Glasgow giants enter the game in good form for what could be a defining game in the title race, with the Hoops aiming for 10 in a row this season.
Sunday January 3 12:00 p.m.
Eyebrows were raised ahead of the game with the news that Lennon had recalled Greece goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas, a £ 5million summer signing from AEK Athens, after a five-game spell on the bench at the expense of the young Northern Irishman Conor Hazard.
Less surprisingly, Jullien and Diego Laxalt returned while United boss Micky Mellon brought back Ryan Edwards, Peter Pawlett, Ian Harkes and Nicky Clark.
There was a minute of silence ahead of the game in tribute to former Dundee United manager Jim McLean, who died on Boxing Day at the age of 83.
United goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist made his first save after four minutes as Edward tiptoed into the visitors’ box before taking a shot.
The first goal came when Soro, the 22-year-old Ivorian midfielder, signed from Bnei Yehuda last January, who was again playing in place of skipper Scott Brown, found a space outside United’s penalty area. and took a shot that passed Siegrist and into the net.
The Tannadice goalkeeper then made an excellent save from forward Leigh Griffiths’ volley at close range after hanging on to a pass from Turnbull, before Edward pulled the rebound wide.
There was a penalty request by United in the 37th minute when the ball appeared to have hit Jullien’s arm inside the box, but referee Willie Collum played and to the visitors’ dismay they were soon 2-0, Turnbull pulling weak drive just outside the box which came off a post.
It was the 21-year-old’s third goal in three games and his fine finish gave the home side a comfortable lead.
The Taysiders nearly cut the deficit two minutes into the interval when Marc McNulty ran on a pass from Lawrence Shankland and landed a shot on Barkas. Jullien came back to clear the line but then slammed into the post and had to be replaced by Nir Bitton.
Siegrist saved a powerful shot from Turnbull before a United break saw Shankland set up Clark, but despite time and space, the former Rangers forward broke the bar with his 16-yard shot.
Griffiths and Callum McGregor put effort into United’s goal before Edward rushed to a timely Griffiths pass and lobbed the ball over the desperate Siegrist to seal the victory.
What the managers said …
Celtic boss Neil Lennon: “We have big games coming up and I want Vasilis [Barkas] play in them.
“He came in as number one and I want him to play. I think Conor has done really well but he’s still very young in his career.
“It would be a big call to put him in a game of this magnitude this weekend. So I want to come back to the experience.
“Vasilis hasn’t shown us what it is but he’s capable of doing it. So I thought it was important to give him a game before the weekend.”
Dundee United Director Mickey mellon on the question of whether his team should have had a penalty: “My instincts immediately, yes. The reaction of the players at the same time, yes.
“And the way I’ve seen it and the penalties I’ve seen recently, I think that was a hindrance. They have to go our way if we’re going to get anything.
“I’m frustrated because I didn’t feel we were aggressive enough in the first half. I thought we were giving Celtic too much respect. We were a little too passive.