JOHAN Mjallby yesterday saluted the victory which takes Celtic to within touching distance of the title, although the assistant manager admitted everything has been put into perspective by news of Stiliyan Petrov’s leukaemia battle.
There was nothing like the party atmosphere which had been anticipated by many in the run-up to yesterday’s clash with St Johnstone. Part of the reason for this was Rangers’ victory at Motherwell 24 hours earlier, the consequence being that Celtic could not clinch the championship against their visitors from Perth. But there was also little appetite for a party following the news about Petrov, who played for Celtic between 1999 and 2006 and was a well-liked team-mate of three members of the current coaching staff.
The Swede spoke to Petrov, now at Aston Villa, on Saturday morning, just before the midfielder was given an emotional reception at his club’s home clash with Chelsea. “I spoke to Stiliyan yesterday morning and gave him my support,” said Mjallby. “What can you say? It puts life in perspective and football in perspective when someone who you are close to and who you played with gets this diagnosis. It’s terrible. We are all hoping that he is going to come back.
“He was obviously very shocked,” he added. “It was still quite new for him. But he was adamant he was going to beat the disease. He is a strong, fit lad and he has always been a fighter so that is what we are all praying for.
“Right now, he is probably tired of all the phone calls he is getting from all over the world. I am sure he will get the very best treatment as soon as possible. I am quite sure he will overcome this.”
Perhaps the emotion of the occasion – a montage of Petrov’s goals for Celtic was also shown on the big screens at half-time – got to the home team at first. They struggled to find a way past St Johnstone in the first half and relied on Georgios Samaras to make the breakthrough midway through the second half with a header. The player’s consistent form has prompted manager Neil Lennon to remark on this being his best season at the club.
“He has been a bit of an enigma in the past,” said Mjallby. “If you look at Georgios he has everything you are looking for in an attacking player. He’s got great height, he’s good in the air, strong, and a great runner with good technical skills.
“We always knew he was a terrific player, but he has been very inconsistent before this season. He is now playing at the standard he should play.”
Samaras was also heavily involved in his side’s second goal after 70 minutes, although there was some controversy in the build-up to Chris Millar’s own goal, following a low cross by the man of the match.
St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas was not impressed by George Salmond’s decision-making at key points. According to Lomas, he missed an obvious foul on Liam Craig by Kris Commons. Celtic then broke upfield to go two goals ahead.
“At 1-0 you are still in it,” he said. “The second goal is a killer. I don’t understand how you can’t see that is a free kick. Obviously Celtic break up the park and seal the game, and it is over as a contest. I am not here to witch-hunt referees. They say these decisions even themselves up – we ain’t seeing that at the minute.”
Lomas also complained about the free kick from which Celtic opened the scoring, and which had been given after some jostling between David McCracken and Samaras. He also despaired at the failure to award a penalty kick to St Johnstone after Fran Sandaza had been upended by Ki on the edge of the box in the second-half.
“Three key decisions – they all went against us,” said Lomas. “That’s what happens. To come to Celtic Park and get something you need to work hard from 1 to 11, which our team did, you have to take chances, which obviously we didn’t do, and you have to get the rub of the green, which we didn’t get.
“We have tried to come and be positive and have a go at Celtic, and we didn’t get the rub of the green. We feel mightily aggrieved.”