The title party was pooped in unexpected fashion for Celtic last night as Partick Thistle left Parkhead unbowed for the first time in 23 years. And only four days after his blistering hat-trick suggested Scott Sinclair could do no wrong, victory eluded Brendan Rodgers’ men for only the third time in 31 unbeaten league games because the winger failed to convert a penalty with the scores tied at 1-1.
Sinclair seemed on course to claim his second goal of the night when one of the few Thistle defensive lapses of the evening provided him with the 66th-minute opportunity to add to a crisp opener shortly after the restart – that had been quickly cancelled out by Ade Azeez.
A much changed Celtic never achieved the fluency or the incisiveness that took them over the line at the weekend with their 5-0 mauling of Hearts in Gorgie, but in part that was because Thistle never allowed them to get into their stride. Despite saying he would not be inclined to rest any of his main players ahead of the back-to-back meetings with Rangers in the Scottish Cup semi-final and Premiership at the end of this month, Rodgers patently decided that a midweek break was a different matter.
Scott Brown, Kieran Tierney, Stuart Armstrong, James Forrest and Dedryck Boyata were all absent from the team that sealed the championship with the five-goal rampage against Hearts on Sunday. Of all the players who were in action during the international fortnight, only Tierney and Armstrong were given places on the bench. Such extensive changes meant a first start for Eboue Kouassi. The 19-year-old Ivorian has required to bide his time after contracting malaria in his early days in Scotland following his £2.8 million move from Russian club Krasnodar in the first week on January.
The teenager cut a lithe figure in the Brown role. Notably quick and exhibiting a presence in looking the full length of his 6ft 1in frame, there was a sleekness to his work that brought much of the interest in an encounter that struggled to catch alight despite an engaged and sizeable crowd willing it to do so. He gave way to Tom Rogic, in his first appearance since December because of ankle surgery, in the 62nd minute and Celtic lost a little drive with his departure. The encounter had started with Celtic pressing and probing incessantly but Thistle withstood all the attempts to open them up with sharp passing moves in and around the box.
Thistle manager Alan Archibald had offered up a surprise selection of his own in electing to start with Kris Doolan on the bench despite the striker having netted a double to secure a victory over Ross County at the weekend that took his tally for the Firhill club onto the 101 mark.
The decision gave an indication as to Archibald’s priorities. With only one defeat in their previous eight games and having only lost by the narrowest of margins in their December visit to Parkhead, the top six-chasing Thistle were never going to be patsies. A familiar pattern was expected to take hold, though, when makeshift striker Patrick Roberts demonstrated the game intelligence that characterised his display at Tynecastle only six minutes into the second period. A deft little inside-out ball sent Sinclair away down the right channel and his surging confidence was reflected in the imperious finish he produced to slot the ball into the far corner from a tight angle.
What happened next, come the 64th minute, didn’t fit the pattern of Celtic’s imperious league form, with Christy Elliott sending over a cross from the right that Azeez squeezed in with a shot on the turn from a low angle for only the sixth goal the champions have conceded at home this season.
It appeared as if Thistle had undermined all their efforts three minutes later when Callum Booth clipped Cristian Gamboa in the penalty box and referee Greg Aitken had no hesitation but to point to the spot. Tomas Cerny’s save to deny a kick from Sinclair hit close to his body made for the first false note from the man whose hat-trick rendered last night’s dropped point academic for his club. It was, though, a point that Thistle’s intensity and adeptness meant they fully merited.