LEIGH GRIFFITHS papered over the cracks of another substandard performance by Celtic as his 90th minute winner took Ronny Deila’s side three points clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership.
Celtic - 1
Partick Thistle - 0
But there was precious little else in the way of new year cheer for disgruntled supporters of the champions. This might have been a welcome first home victory since Halloween for Deila but it was another display which simply lends weight to the argument of those who feel he is on borrowed time as Celtic manager.
Griffiths made his return from injury as a half-time replacement for the woefully ineffective Nadir Ciftci and provided some respite for Deila with his 20th goal of the season.
It ended Partick Thistle’s six-match unbeaten run and was a harsh outcome for Alan Archibald’s tactically disciplined and often enterprising side.
They will reflect ruefully on a missed opportunity to claim their first league win over Celtic for over 20 years, especially after the hosts were reduced to 10 men for the final 25 minutes when Nir Bitton was sent off. The resilience shown by Celtic in that closing period at least gave Deila something to be positive about afterwards.
“You can call it relief to win the game, I call it happiness,” he said. “We had a very good period with 10 men, we worked hard as a team and created chances.
“It was a vital win, of course. It was about confidence. Our passing was not at our normal standard and we couldn’t really get into the game in the first half.
“We were more dangerous when Leigh came on and he got in behind their defence. We didn’t have enough speed in the team in the first half.
“I felt the frustration of the fans and I was frustrated myself. You play under pressure here and it is small things like today which can turn things around. We got three points, a clean sheet and we are three points ahead of Aberdeen.”
Archibald’s men were composed and confident from the early exchanges, setting the tone for a first half which saw Celtic struggle to find any fluency as an attacking force.
It was another miserable afternoon for Ciftci who was comfortably contained by the Thistle defence before making way for Griffiths.
The Turkish striker was restricted to a glimpse of goal in the 10th minute, when Dan Seaborne’s poor attempt to clear allowed the ball to drop to him before Liam Lindsay got across with a fine covering challenge to deflect his shot wide for a corner.
Ciftci lacked the necessary pace and movement to trouble Thistle, however, and it was little surprise he failed to reappear for the second half.
The visitors had looked just as likely as the hosts to make a breakthrough in the goalless opening 45 minutes with Steven Lawless flashing a volley narrowly wide from 20 yards and Kris Doolan glancing a close range header wide after stealing a yard on Jozo Simunovic.
Callum McGregor came closest for Celtic before the break, his shot fizzing just wide of Tomas Cerny’s left hand post, while they also had a penalty claim turned down when a Tom Rogic shot looked to strike Lindsay on the hand as he blocked it.
The jeers which greeted the half-time whistle told their own story, one which has been all too familiar from the home fans’ perspective in recent months,
The introduction of Griffiths did meet with their approval but even though he proved to be their late saviour, Celtic’s problems run deeper than simply the identity of the central striker in Deila’s mis-firing system.
They continued to lack tempo and creativity and the Celtic fans were bemused when Deila decided to withdraw Rogic, arguably their most effective performer, when he sent on James Forrest just after the hour mark.
Celtic’s difficulties increased with Bitton’s foolish dismissal 22 minutes from time. Booked seven minutes earlier, the Israeli had already been fortunate to avoid a second yellow card for a poor challenge on Abdul Osman.
There was no such leniency when referee Steven Finnie sent him packing for a needless foul on Gary Miller.
“I didn’t think it was a red card,” said Deila. “Having said that, it was a little bit stupid.
“Nir had other fouls before it, that made the decision of the referee. It was inexperience and something he has to learn from.”
Thistle sensed their chance to claim what would have been a first victory at Celtic Park since 1992.
As they pushed for the opener, Craig Gordon made a fine reaction save to deny Doolan, then Kieran Tierney cleared a Seaborne header off the line.
The Firhill men certainly did not deserve to be on the wrong end of such a dramatic finale. But Griffiths, who had been denied earlier by a fine save from Cerny, underlined his value to Celtic with his last minute intervention.
A Kris Commons shot was deflected into his path and he drove a low shot beyond Cerny from around 10 yards.
“I’m absolutely gutted,” said
Thistle boss Archibald after the match. “We put a hell of a lot into the game and deserved to take something from it.”