FOUR months after dropping their first points of the season against St Johnstone at home, Celtic emerged from the reverse fixture at McDiarmid Park yesterday with their momentum in the SPL title race unchecked.
Second-half goals from Gary Hooper and Ki Sung Yueng secured a seventh consecutive league victory for Neil Lennon’s men as they again trimmed Rangers’ lead over them at the top of the table to four points.
After Thursday night’s admirable, if in vain, performance against Udinese in Italy, Celtic were not required to achieve those standards in Perth.
However, after a goalless first half which seldom strayed from the realms of mediocrity, Celtic imposed their will on an obdurate St Johnstone side to run out deserving winners.
Lennon has a Christmas Eve assignment against Kilmarnock to negotiate before fully turning his attention to the second Old Firm showdown of the season, at Parkhead on 28 December.
All the signs suggest his team are likely to be facing Rangers with their confidence as high as it has been at any time this campaign.
The action in the respective technical areas yesterday was more entertaining than the fare on the pitch at times during a bleak opening 45 minutes. Lennon and St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas, erstwhile Manchester City trainees and Northern Ireland international team-mates, both grew increasingly animated as their sides struggled to find any fluency on what appeared to be a difficult playing surface.
Celtic, retaining the starting line-up which was on duty in Udine, predictably enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but did little with it in the first half which caused the St Johnstone defence any great concern.
Hooper flicked a header wide from a Charlie Mulgrew cross before Ki produced the first effort on target, only to see it diverted behind for a corner off Steven Anderson. The home side had the look of a team lacking in confidence in the initial exchanges, perhaps unsurprising after losing their two previous matches at McDiarmid Park to Motherwell and Aberdeen.
They remained on the back foot for lengthy spells, albeit performing reasonably well in terms of restricting the space available to Celtic in the attacking third of the pitch.
St Johnstone goalkeeper Peter Enckelman, whose blunder cost his side dearly in the defeat to Aberdeen five days earlier, was forced into his first save of the afternoon in the 14th minute and looked less than fully convincing as he gathered a Georgios Samaras shot at the second attempt.
However, the big Finn came to St Johnstone’s rescue when Celtic carved out their clearest scoring opportunity of the first half. James Forrest, Ki and Cha Du Ri combined to create the opening for Hooper, who appeared odds-on to net from close range, only for Enckelman to make a brave and instinctive block.
Celtic were forced into a change in the 32nd minute when Daniel Majstorovic, hurt in a crunching challenge with David Robertson, was led down the tunnel with a facial injury. He was replaced in central defence by Thomas Rogne.
Robertson lasted a few minutes longer for Saints before he had to limp off, Carl Finnigan taking his place.
Thankfully, there was a much sharper tempo to the match in the second half. After Dave Mackay threatened to snatch the lead for St Johnstone just after the restart, cutting in from the right and forcing a decent save from Fraser Forster with a low shot, it was Celtic who began to exert a firm grip on proceedings.
There was a sense that the inevitable was simply being delayed as a series of chances was scorned by the visitors: Alan Maybury was fortunate not to turn a low cross from the increasingly dangerous Forrest into his own net; the young winger himself blazed over from around ten yards after being found by a Cha cross; then Enckelman made a tremendous save to keep out Hooper’s close-range volley.
St Johnstone’s resistance was finally breached on the hour mark. The intensity of Celtic’s pressure forced a corner on the right which Mulgrew whipped in left-footed. Victor Wanyama challenged with Marcus Haber for the ball at the near post and it broke into the path of Hooper, who tucked home his 15th goal of the season from little more than a yard out.
Although his side had been so dominant, there was as much relief as there was delight in Lennon’s celebration of the goal.
That was doubled four minutes later when Celtic made it 2-0. They broke swiftly from a St Johnstone free-kick which had to be taken twice after Beram Kayal was booked for encroachment when it was initially struck by Liam Craig. Saints were convinced Kayal repeated the offence as he blocked Craig’s second attempt, but referee Euan Norris waved play on.
Celtic swept upfield through Forrest on the right. With St Johnstone outnumbered, Forrest exchanged passes with Samaras before sending the ball low into the penalty area for the unmarked Ki.
Although Enckelman got his hands to the South Korean’s six-yard shot, he could not keep it out.
A jubilant Lennon charged out of his technical area and ran, in the style of Jose Mourinho, down the touchline to savour the celebrations of the Celtic players and supporters as they recognised the goal which made the victory safe.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Cha Du Ri (Celtic)
The South Korean right-back’s error in Udine last Thursday night was a costly one but he produced one of his most effective performances in a Celtic jersey yesterday. Solid enough defensively, Cha had plenty of scope to get forward, which he did eye-catchingly on several occasions as he helped Celtic stretch St Johnstone, especially in the second half.
St Johnstone: Enckelman, Mackay, McCracken, Anderson, Maybury; Millar, M Davidson, Moon, Robertson (Finnigan 39), Craig (Gibson 80); Haber. Subs not used: Mannus, Parkin, Durnan, McIntosh, Gray.
Celtic: Forster, Cha, Majstorovic (Rogne 33), Wanyama, Mulgrew; Brown, Kayal (McGeouch 77) , Ki; Forrest, Hooper (Bangura 82), Samaras. Subs not used: Zaluska, Wilson, Blackman, Twardzik.