NEIL Lennon paid tribute last night to the “unbelievable piece of individual brilliance” from Virgil van Dijk that strengthened Celtic’s grip on the Scottish Premiership title.
The Dutch defender’s solo goal proved the difference between the champions and their hosts, St Johnstone, at McDiarmid Park as a 1-0 win extended the cushion that Lennon’s side enjoy over their rivals to 11 points.
It was Motherwell who ensured that Celtic’s advantage was not extended by a greater margin yesterday, as they achieved a 1-0 away victory of their own. Aberdeen, their victims, lost ground in what is looking increasingly like a compelling race for second place and so did Dundee United, who were surprisingly thrashed 4-1 at St Mirren.
Inverness Caley Thistle rose above the north-east duo into third courtesy of a 0-0 draw at Partick Thistle, while it was another day of contrasting emotions for Hearts and Hibs fans.
While Hearts edged ever closer to the relegation trapdoor with a wretched 4-0 defeat at home to Kilmarnock, Hibs enjoyed their second win at Ross County in the space of four weeks, Michael Nelson and Jordon Forster finding the net in a 2-0 triumph.
Celtic’s game in Perth was only five minutes old when Van Dijk, signed from FC Groningen in the summer for around £2.5million, picked the ball up in his own half and drove towards the Saints box.
The 22-year-old left a string of blue shirts trailing in his wake before he knocked it past Perth goalkeeper Alan Mannus from around ten yards out.
“If we’d dropped points we probably would not have been talking about Virgil’s goal,” said Lennon. “So I’m glad we are because it was an unbelievable piece of individual brilliance. He certainly lit up the game.”
Van Dijk himself was understandably pleased with his match-winning contribution, which he considered to be overdue. He said: “It was a good run and a good finish as well, so I am very happy with the goal. I have tried it in other games but today I finally did it.”
Celtic’s final assignment of 2013 is another tricky road trip, with Inverness lying in wait at lunchtime on Sunday.
Motherwell manager Stuart McCall was satisfied to be heading into the last match of 2013 in second place, his side having recovered from their Scottish Cup humiliation at the hands of Albion Rovers to knit together three straight wins. “We had a hard couple of weeks after going out of the cup and lesser teams would have crumbled after what had happened. But I said at the time that we have some good, strong characters in the dressing room and those are the times you have to stand up and be counted,” said McCall after Lionel Ainsworth’s third goal of his loan spell from Rotherham secured what Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes labelled a “smash and grab” win.
“It gets a monkey off our back in terms of having not beaten a side in the top six this season,” added McCall, and Terry Butcher was another manager rejoicing in the obliteration of a supposed “hoodoo” after Hibs managed their second win in Dingwall since he joined the club on 12 November.
“In five years I’ve tried to get a win here and in five weeks I’ve managed to get two – it’s a nice ground for me now. That’s another hoodoo out of the way,” said Butcher. “That’s four clean sheets in six games now with only two goals against.”