ST JOHNSTONE made a happy return to the scene of their greatest triumph to claim a victory over Celtic which suggests widespread reports of the end of the title race may just have been premature.
Scorers: St Johnstone - Swanson (54)
A goal of the season contender from Danny Swanson allowed Saints to celebrate again on their first appearance at Celtic Park since lifting the Scottish Cup at the stadium last May. It is a win which takes Tommy Wright’s side into the top six of the Premiership as they brought a run of eight consecutive league wins by Celtic to a shuddering halt.
It leaves Ronny Deila’s team six points clear of Aberdeen at the top of the table with 11 games of the league campaign remaining. The Celtic manager had warned their 4-0 win over the Dons at the weekend provided no guarantee they will go on to win the title and this was a warning to his players that they still have much work to do.
Just as they had on Sunday, Celtic made a less than convincing start to the contest. The relatively sedate atmosphere created by the far from capacity attendance seemed to have an effect on the performance of Deila’s men.
St Johnstone deserved much of the credit for that too as they defended robustly and intelligently, while posing a threat of their own on the counter attack.
Celtic did come close after just three minutes, the recalled Anthony Stokes curling a shot narrowly wide after a Stuart Armstrong effort had been blocked. But there was generally a lack of the intensity which has become their hallmark in recent weeks.
Alan Mannus was forced into action for the first time in the tenth minute, parrying a swerving shot from Gary Mackay-Steven and then gathering the loose ball under pressure from Stokes. St Johnstone then showed they were not content to simply play on the back foot, captain Dave Mackay charging forward from right-back and driving in a low shot which was comfortably held by Craig Gordon.
Celtic’s response was a stinging left-foot shot from all of 25 yards from Leigh Griffiths which fizzed just wide of the post.
Much of the play was scrappy with Celtic’s passing lacking sharpness. The visitors grew in confidence and ambition and there was an anxious moment for Gordon when he misjudged a free-kick into the penalty area from Tam Scobbie. Fortunately for the Celtic ‘keeper, Jason Denayer was on hand to scramble the loose ball to safety.
The young Belgian defender made another crucial contribution for Celtic in the 22nd minute, reacting smartly to knock the ball behind for a corner as it dropped in the six-yard box from Steven MacLean’s attempt to get on the end of a Mackay cross.
Swanson collected the first caution of the evening when he cynically chopped down Griffiths on the half-way line as the striker was set to sprint clear towards the Saints penalty area.
Celtic finished the first half on top with the visitors suddenly required to produce some defending of the desperate variety to keep the scoreline blank.
Mannus dived to his right to turn a rising 20-yard shot from Armstrong behind for a corner which was whipped in from the left by Stokes. The ball broke to Virgil van Dijk whose shot was blocked by Steven Anderson. Celtic appealed furiously that the defender had used his arm to do so but referee Calum Murray was unmoved. Celtic made a change at the start of the second half with Mubarak Wakaso replacing Adam Matthews. The on-loan Ghana winger, making his first appearance since mid-December, was deployed at left-back with Efe Ambrose shuttled across to fill in at right-back.
Wakaso had clearly been handed licence to get forward and his first involvement saw him engineer time and space to deliver a good cross which Mackay-Steven miscued from close range to send a shot over.
It was St Johnstone who suddenly began to look more menacing, however, and they almost capitalised on some poor Celtic defending at a David Wotherspoon corner as Murray Davidson got in a header which deflected just over off Ambrose.
The visitors clearly sensed a vulnerability in Celtic’s play and they took advantage of it in spectacular fashion as they made their 54th minute breakthrough.
Another Wotherspoon corner, this time from the right, was again weakly dealt with by Celtic as their attempt to clear saw the ball drop invitingly in the path of Swanson around 25 yards out. The on-loan Coventry man met it with a thunderous right-foot half volley which flew high beyond the helpless Gordon into the roof of the net.
Stokes tried to hit back immediately for Celtic, his low shot well saved by Mannus, but it was Saints who should have scored again in the 59th minute from yet another Wotherspoon corner. This time the ball found its way to the unmarked Anderson but the big defender slashed his shot wide from close range.
Celtic came close in the 76th minute when Mannus made a fine save to keep out Ambrose’s close range header from a Stefan Johansen corner. The home side foraged desperately for a late leveller but St Johnstone held out with relative comfort.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews (Wakaso 46), Denayer, Van Dijk, Ambrose; Brown, Johansen; Mackay-Steven (Forrest 59), Armstrong, Stokes (Bitton 59); Griffiths. Subs not used: Zaluska, Scepovic, Fisher, Henderson.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Scobbie, Anderson, Easton; Swanson (Croft 71), Millar, Davidson, Wotherspoon; O’Halloran (Miller 78), MacLean. Subs not used: Banks, Graham, McFadden, Brown, Kane.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS