CELTIC opened up clear water between themselves and the chasing pack at the top of the Scottish Premiership with a victory over Partick Thistle which only their own wastefulness in front of goal prevented from being far more comprehensive.
Scorers: Celtic - van Dijk (60)
Virgil van Dijk’s sixth goal of the season, following his Scottish Cup double against Hearts on Sunday, was enough to give Ronny Deila’s team a sixth consecutive league win to take them three points clear of Inverness.
Had Celtic been less feckless in front of goal, they might have come close to matching the 6-0 hiding they dished out to Thistle on League Cup business earlier in the season. But, on an evening when the home fans took their greatest pleasure from news of Rangers’ implosion at Alloa, it was nonetheless another satisfactory 90 minutes for Deila as he continues to build momentum in a debut campaign alive with possibilities of silverware.
Ahead of his SFA appeal hearing tonight against the seven-match suspension imposed for racially abusing Aberdeen defender Shay Logan, there was a rare appearance in the Celtic starting XI for Alexsandar Tonev.
The on-loan Aston Villa winger was involved in much of the action as the home side dominated from the start, although much of his work lacked conviction and was unproductive.
He passed up an opportunity to give Celtic the perfect start in only the second minute, carelessly over-running the ball inside the Thistle penalty area after he had been released down the right by Scott Brown’s fine through pass.
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
Of the attacking midfield trio detailed to support striker John Guidetti, it was Stefan Johansen who looked far likelier than either Tonev or Anthony Stokes to provide a telling contribution.
The Norwegian international has been in eye-catching form since being released from a more defensive role in recent weeks and he set up Guidetti’s first chance of the evening, a close range header which goalkeeper Paul Gallacher did well to touch over the top.
Johansen’s movement and energy continued to pose difficulties for the visitors. He picked out a Tonev run with a perceptive pass and the Bulgarian’s first time shot was diverted wide by Gallacher diving to his right.
The former Scotland cap had plenty to do as Celtic maintained their monopoly of the ball. Gallacher’s next intervention saw him again react smartly to keep out a powerful 25-yard shot from van Dijk.
Thistle offered little in response, although right-back Stephen O’Donnell did whip in a dangerous low cross which Craig Gordon clutched bravely at the feet of Kallum Higginbotham.
Johansen soon had Celtic back on the front foot with a lay-off to Guidetti which the front man should have done better with than blaze wide from around eight yards out.
Celtic’s failure to cash in on the opportunities coming their way was almost punished by Thistle on the half-hour. Stuart Bannigan produced a terrific delivery from a free-kick on the right, picking out Abdul Osman whose header hit the top of the crossbar with Gordon beaten.
But it remained largely one-way traffic until the interval with Celtic’s profligacy continuing apace. Johansen saw a close-range shot saved by Gallacher when he should have left the keeper with no chance, then Adam Matthews volleyed wide from an inviting position after a sweeping move from the hosts.
Even the sloppiest of defending by Thistle was not punished. A mix-up between Osman and Gallacher on the edge of the penalty area looked certain to lead to the opener, but Guidetti and Brown both failed get a clean shot on goal before Stokes trundled his effort wide.
The groans of the home support were at their most audible on the stroke of half-time when Stokes skewed a shot wide from a restrictive angle when most in the stadium were screaming for him to cut the ball back to the unmarked Guidetti.
Celtic made a change at the start of the second half, Nir Bitton replacing the out-of-touch Charlie Mulgrew in midfield. Thistle continued to resist resolutely, despite the makeshift nature of their back four following the loss of first-choice central defenders Dan Seaborne and Frederic Fans just a few hours before kick-off. But it was Celtic’s own lack of a cutting edge which was the greatest barrier to them making the breakthrough. Tonev found himself in prime shooting position on the left hand side of the penalty area but sliced his shot wide of the target.
It needed a defender to show his attacking colleagues the way to goal when van Dijk finally put Celtic in front on the hour. Johansen provided a well flighted free-kick from the right which van Dijk won in the air under challenge from two defenders. The ball dropped kindly at the Dutchman’s feet and he coolly slotted it beyond Gallacher.
Deila refreshed his attack in search of further goals in the closing stages with the introduction of Kris Commons and Stefan Scepovic for Tonev and Guidetti and both should have increased Celtic’s lead. Commons was foiled by a fine save by Gallacher but Scepovic fired a woeful effort over the crossbar.
Thistle substitute Kris Doolan might have snatched the unlikeliest of points with four minutes remaining but his stinging volley was smartly saved by Gordon.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS