AFTER the tumult of Milan, the last thing Neil Lennon needed was another dramatic and painful finale to a game they had dominated, but the Celtic manager very nearly got it.
Scorers: Celtic - Pukki (11), Mulgrew (26); St Johnstone - Caddis (81)
Bookings: Celtic - Forster; St Johnstone - Anderson, Cregg, Caddis
Ultimately, it was a victory for the home team, but to say they were hanging on at the end would be an understatement. They were jaded and vulnerable, but they survived. Just.
Nobody could see this bonkers end-game coming. With little more than half an hour gone, Celtic had their feet up on the metaphorical desk. They were leading 2-0 and so cosy in the match that they could have allowed themselves a snooze. What woke them up was an 82nd minute Liam Caddis goal and the realisation that if they didn’t snap out of their torpor and find some energy in those tired limbs then the most comfortable victory could have become the most wasteful draw.
Teemu Pukki scored the first of Celtic’s goals on his home debut and Charlie Mulgrew drilled in the second. Celtic owned the ball, the chances and had scored the goals that looked like a launch pad for more. The exertions of Milan hurt then for sure. Maybe there was also a feeling that St Johnstone looked incapable of raising a challenge. Either way, they almost blew it. In the closing minutes, the visitors pushed and pushed for the equaliser and came painfully close to getting it.
In the 87th minute, Steven MacLean screamed for a penalty after a brush with Stokes, an incident that caused some verbal jousting between the respective managers in the aftermath. That wasn’t the end of it. What stress there was in the Celtic team in those dying seconds when Brian Easton’s cross came whizzing into the home team’s penalty area. Gary McDonald touched it on to Stevie May, on the field as a second-half substitute, who flicked an effort on to Fraser Forster’s left-hand post, the ball rebounding out to Dave MacKay whose effort was beaten away by the Celtic goalkeeper. Celtic were dazed, like a prize fighter hanging on for the final bell. It came, just in time.
St Johnstone may have lost their mojo in recent games, but they found it yesterday. They left here with reason to believe that the mini-slump they have found themselves in during their last three winless games might be at an end. Tommy Wright was incredibly testy about why he did not play May from the start. The striker came on just after the hour and instantly the game changed.
Asked for a comment on May, the St Johnstone manager replied that he had done “OK,” when he had quite obviously done a whole lot better than that. Why didn’t May start? “Because I didn’t pick him.” Why didn’t he pick him? “That’s between me and him,” said Wright, who later denied that there was an issue with May. A pretty weak denial.
Lennon started with nine of the San Siro set and had Stokes and Pukki up front, the latter sitting just behind the former and continuing their nice understanding of Tynecastle a week ago. It was that combo that engineered Celtic’s opening goal. Stokes’ slick lay-off put Pukki through on Alan Mannus who resembled a rabbit in the headlights as the Finnish international came at him. To be fair, Mannus was left isolated by his own defenders but he should have done better to stop Pukki’s fairly weak shot.
The traffic was one-way only. Wright threw himself in front of two Scott Brown shots; Mannus saved from Matthews; Steven Anderson slid in on Pukki to avert yet more danger. When a Stokes pass broke off David Wotherspoon, the loose ball fell to Charlie Mulgrew a distance out. The midfielder switched it to his left foot and snapped in a drive that Mannus could do nothing about.
Mulgrew is one of the great successes of this Celtic team. Others get more attention but his consistency in any number of positions is excellent. If he was a product on the shopping channel he’d be one of those multi-purpose chopping gizmos, a thing that can be used in about a dozen different ways and all for the bargain price of… whatever. Mulgrew is a bit like that. A bargain, for sure. And many different uses. Centre-half, full-back, wide midfielder and now central midfield.
Yesterday he was both midfielder and defender, when he moved back to centre-half for the second period, and he barely put a foot wrong in either position. Stokes and Commons and Brown grab our attention more often than not. Pukki will too. But Mulgrew is the guy who helps tie it all together.
If Celtic had kept up their early pace then they would score more goals, no question. But they didn’t. Or couldn’t. Derk Boerrigter headed wide just before the break and Stokes had a header of his own hoofed off the line, but there was a general flatness to it after the second goal.
Then the craziness began to unfold. A scrappy goal for Caddis and a row in the net straight after – Caddis and Forster were both booked – then a penalty appeal and finally the ball pinging around the Celtic box in those late seconds. Lennon’s team will have slept well last night. They looked like a team in need of rest.