CELTIC may be romping their way to an inevitable title triumph but they will be relieved they do not have to play St Johnstone every week.
Scorers: Celtic - Ambrose (37); St Johnstone - Hasselbaink (82)
Referee: E Norris
Neil Lennon’s men increased their lead at the top of the table to 19 points with this share of the spoils in Perth and remain on course to become the first team to clinch the SPL crown in March. But remarkably, they have now failed to defeat St Johnstone in three attempts in the league this season, dropping seven points against Steve Lomas’ side. Celtic should have had all three points wrapped up in a first half when Efe Amrbrose’s goal was scant reward for their dominance. But Saints were rewarded for a more purposeful second half display when substitute Nigel Hasselbaink netted a spectacular late equaliser.
The urgency of Celtic’s bid to cross the finishing line as quickly as possible in the title race was immediately apparent, the home team pinned into their own half by a vibrant start from Lennon’s men. The Celtic manager, never afraid to tinker with the set-up of his side, deployed a flexible 3-4-3 formation which saw Adam Matthews and Emilio Izaguirre in the role of wide midfielders. With Kris Commons given the roving position in a front three alongside Gary Hooper and Lassad Nouioui, the champions simply swarmed all over St Johnstone in the opening exchanges.
But for Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus, the match might have been over as a contest in double quick time. He made his first notable save of the night with little more than 60 seconds on the clock, coming off his line smartly to deny Hooper who had been sent clear by Commons. There was another glorious opportunity for Hooper just three minutes later, Celtic’s leading scorer this time picked out by Charlie Mulgrew’s fine pass, but he was uncharacteristically lacking in conviction with a shot which Mannus blocked with his feet.
Lassad was handed a rare starting appearance in place of Anthony Stokes, who was considered ready only for a place among the substitutes after missing training because of a bereavement. The Tunisian forward should have opened Celtic’s account in the sixth minute, wastefully heading an Izaguirre cross wide from close range.
St Johnstone struggled to get over the halfway line as lone striker Steven MacLean tried to make the best of a thankless task. But he had a rare sight of goal in the 15th minute in a counter attack, only to be halted by Mulgrew’s recovery tackle.
An error by Ambrose, dwelling on the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, handed St Johnstone another opportunity but recent signing Mehdi Abeid drove his low shot just wide of Fraser Forster’s left hand post. That scare seemed to re-energise Celtic who proceeded to build the momentum which would finally lead to their breakthrough. Not before Mannus had defied them twice more, first keeping out a low shot from Joe Ledley and then blocking another effort from Lassad after some delightful build up play down the left from Hooper and Ledley.
St Johnstone’s resistance was finally broken eight minutes before the interval when they lost their concentration at a Celtic corner kick. Commons played the set piece short to Izaguirre whose whipped cross caught out the Saints defenders. Ambrose rose to power a close range header beyond the helpless Mannus. The Nigerian defender indulged himself in another extravagant cartwheel celebration, before running to the sideline to embrace Lennon. Seven days after his wretched night in the Champions League against Juventus, Ambrose was firmly back in his manager’s good books. There was clearly a need for St Johnstone to show greater ambition if they hoped to alter the momentum of the match and force their way back in contention. It was no surprise that manager Lomas made a change at the start of the second half. Midfielder Michael Doughty, who had been compromised by an early booking, was replaced by striker Gregory Tade.
The switch to two strikers certainly gave Saints more options in possession and Tade’s strike partner MacLean thought he had equalised in the 55th minute when he headed home an Abeid free-kick from close range. But a linesman’s flag for offside cut short MacLean’s celebrations.
There was another moment of alarm for the Celtic defence five minutes later, Liam Craig causing confusion with a cross from the left and Forster initially fumbling the ball in his six yard box before clutching it safely.
Celtic were unable to set the kind of tempo they had in the first half and Lennon replaced Commons with James Forrest in an attempt to reinvigorate his team. But it was St Johnstone who threatened again next, having another effort disallowed for offside when Frazer Wright headed in Liam Craig’s free-kick from six yards. The Saints defender furiously disputed the verdict. Mulgrew saw an effort deflected just wide as Celtic attempted to reassert their authority but Saints were growing in belief and wasted a good chance to equalise when Craig shanked a shot off target after being picked out by Nigel Hasselbaink.
Celtic had failed to heed the warning signs and St Johnstone’s 82nd minute leveller did not come as a great surprise. Hasselbaink, who had been full of enterprise and running since replacing Rowan Vine, collected a pass from Abeid and turned away from Celtic sub Thomas Rogne before curling a tremendous shot beyond Forster’s reach from around 20 yards.
St Johnstone: PMannus, Anderson, Wright, McCracken, Scobbie; Craig, Doughty (Tade 46), Cregg, Abeid, Vine (Hasselbaink 65); MacLean (Edwards 77). Subs not used: Tuffey, C.Davidson, Caddis, Rodger..
Celtic: Forster, Ambrose, Wilson, Mulgrew; Matthews (Rogne 72), Wanyama, Ledley, Izaguirre; Commons (Forrest 66), Hooper, Lassad (Stokes 85). Subs not used: Zaluska, Rogic, Kayal, McCourt.