St Johnstone 2 - 1 Celtic: Neil Lennon calls Celtic display ‘unacceptable’
AS IS often the case when Celtic come a cropper in the SPL, the credit due to their conquerors is at least partly obscured by the inquest into why it went wrong for the Glasgow giants.
St Johnstone - Tade (18), Vine (80)
Celtic - Commons (4)
So it is only fair to note from the outset that St Johnstone fully merited this most unexpected victory on Saturday, their first in the league this season, for a performance brimful of vigour, resilience and tactical discipline. On this evidence, it was difficult to credit the Perth club’s previously insipid start to the campaign which had seen them start the day at the bottom of the table.
They were able to take full advantage of a curiously disconnected Celtic side which, with a combination of defensive frailty and erratic possession, earned a withering verbal post-match assault from manager Neil Lennon.
Composed but nonetheless unmistakably furious, Lennon was a man who had just been provided with a jolting reminder of the kind of display which, at one point last season, had him questioning his own future in the job.
“I don’t want to get back to where I was last year with disjointed performances,” observed Lennon, having slated his players for a “needless and unacceptable” showing. He accused them of “listening to their own hype” and suggested they had been pre-occupied by this Wednesday night’s Champions League group stage opener against Benfica at Celtic Park.
The absence of their traditional title challengers, Rangers, of course, lends a wholly different perspective to Celtic’s domestic duties this season. Even amid the disgruntlement of their supporters at McDiarmid Park, there was no sense that this defeat could prove in any way damaging to the champions’ long-term prospects of retaining the title.
You could still pretty much name your own odds with the bookies this morning for anyone other than Celtic to be holding aloft the SPL trophy next May. But Lennon will nonetheless be anxious that the failings on show at the weekend are quickly addressed. Celtic have now dropped seven points from their first five SPL games, their worst start to a league season for 14 years.
“There was a softness about us today which I didn’t like,” said Lennon. “The two goals we conceded were awful. We never laid a glove on St Johnstone in the build-up to them.”
Concerns over his defence, with seven goals conceded in those opening five league fixtures, are understandable. Charlie Mulgrew and Kelvin Wilson were an unconvincing central defensive pairing on Saturday, while Emilio Izaguirre continues to toil desperately to recover his optimum form at left-back.
Such vulnerability can often be compensated for by Celtic’s attacking prowess and, when Kris Commons beat the hesitant St Johnstone goalkeeper Alan Mannus with a left-foot shot from 20 yards to put the visitors ahead in the fourth minute, it seemed as if that would be the case.
Commons was Celtic’s best player by some distance, once again highlighting Scotland manager Craig Levein’s questionable omission of a player who has started the season so brightly.
But Celtic were unable to build on the platform Commons provided. St Johnstone were level in the 18th minute, Rowan Vine finding Gregory Tade inside the penalty area, where the big French striker was given all the time he needed by a negligent Celtic defence to turn and place a firm, low shot beyond Fraser Forster.
Lennon’s men should have had the chance to regain their lead from the penalty spot eight minutes later, referee Euan Norris incredibly waving play on when Commons was taken out in the area by Steven Anderson in what would also have been a red card offence by the St Johnstone defender. But, although Lennon queried the decision afterwards, it was only when prompted to do so. This was a day when his anger at his own players superseded any frustration with the match officials.
St Johnstone, with Tade leading the line with both brute strength and game intelligence which caused the Celtic defence no end of discomfort, should have had a penalty of their own when Mulgrew blatantly bundled Peter Pawlett off the ball in the 62nd minute.
Celtic, for whom on-loan Venezuelan striker Nicolas “Miku” Fedor had a tame debut before being replaced by Tony Watt, struggled to penetrate a Saints defence well marshalled by captain Dave Mackay.
The ultimate reward for Steve Lomas’ side, ravaged earlier in the week by a virus, came with the 80th minute winner. Substitute Nigel Hasselbaink fed Vine on the left of the penalty area and the big English striker cut inside Mikael Lustig’s weak challenge to curl a sublime shot beyond Forster into the goalkeeper’s top left-hand corner.
A brave stoppage time save by Mannus denied Watt what would have been a harsh equaliser from the home side’s perspective. Like last season, when a Mackay goal at Parkhead broke their duck, Saints claimed their first SPL win of the season against Celtic.
“It’s strange that it takes us until we play Celtic to get going but, if it means we have the same kind of season we had last year, then we’ll take it,” observed Mackay.
“Knowing how things panned out last year probably made it easier this year and made sure nobody panicked. We’ve had a tough start, we’ve played all the top teams in the opening weeks. We’ll have the teams round about us coming up so judge us after eleven games when we’ve played everyone. I don’t think we were great against Celtic, but we were hard to play against and tried to play off the back of that. That’s what we’re good at.
“It worked a treat today. It was hard to lose a goal so early on because against Celtic you worry they might go on to steamroller you a bit. But we managed to get a goal pretty quickly and after that competed well.
“Six or seven lads were down with the bug during the week, and Murray Davidson had to come off in the first half because he was sick. A few of the lads were running on empty so they all deserve credit for showing that sort of commitment.”
MAN OF THE MATCH
Gregory Tade (St Johnstone)
As his captain Dave Mackay observed, the big French striker is not the “prettiest on the eye”. But Tade was hugely effective on Saturday, his selfless shift up front unsettling the Celtic defence throughout and providing a regular outlet for his team-mates. Capped a fine personal display with the well-taken equaliser.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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