HAVING indulged in a rare brand of fantasy football with their Champions League triumph over Barcelona last Wednesday, Neil Lennon and his Celtic players were rudely re-acquainted yesterday with the reality of a domestic title defence which is proving far less straightforward than most observers had imagined.
Celtic: Watt (51)
St Johnstone: Hasselbaink (77)
For the first time in two years, Celtic have now gone three SPL games without a win after St Johnstone came from behind to secure a share of the spoils at Parkhead.
Tony Watt, the match winner against Barcelona, looked to have emerged as Celtic’s hero again when he put them in front after coming on as a half-time substitute, only for Nigel Hasselbaink to plunder an equaliser for a gritty Saints side who went some way to erasing the memory of their 5-0 thrashing at the same ground on League Cup business last month.
Celtic have now dropped seven points from their last three SPL games, leaving them two points behind new leaders Hibernian. With a game in hand, Celtic will not be overly perturbed by the position they find themselves in but their widely predicted procession to another championship win has yet to materialise.
After the feverish high of the midweek win over Barca, this was always going to be something of an anti-climactic occasion for Celtic. Nonetheless, Lennon would have been dismayed at the sluggishness of his players.
Kicking off in the knowledge they required victory to reclaim top spot in the SPL, having been leapfrogged by Hibs earlier in the afternoon, Celtic struggled to bring any cohesion or genuine conviction to their work.
St Johnstone were robust and well-drilled, maintaining their concentration levels even after an enforced change in only the sixth minute when central defender David McCracken had to leave the action after suffering a facial injury in an aerial challenge with Efe Ambrose.
McCracken was replaced by Gary Miller.
While the visitors were second best in terms of possession during a mundane first half, they did have their moments as a counter-attacking force. They should perhaps have made more of a smart break involving Steven MacLean and Hasselbaink in the 12th minute, the latter player just lingering on the ball too long at the edge of the penalty area as he was crowded out by the Celtic defence.
Lennon had made just one change to the side which beat Barcelona, captain Scott Brown returning at the expense of Mikael Lustig, and it was the midfielder who created the champions’ first real chance.
Brown’s cross from the right picked out Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor in the box but the Venezuelan striker’s first touch was sloppy and he was unable to get a shot away.
Kris Commons, in a roving midfield role, looked the most likely source of a breakthrough for Celtic and he saw two fine deliveries into the area unrewarded. Victor Wanyama wasted the first of them, badly miscuing his close range header, then Joe Ledley got under the second one to nod the ball over the top.
Commons tried to take matters into his own hands next, turning cleverly and driving a 20 yard shot narrowly over Alan Mannus’ crossbar in the 34th minute.
But there was generally a lack of dynamism and penetration about Celtic in the attacking third of the pitch which would have been uppermost on
Lennon’s mind as the teams left the field at half-time.
His response was to replace the lacklustre Fedor with Watt and the introduction of the midweek headline grabber paid a rich dividend. The teenager’s instinctive predatory skills in and around the penalty area were displayed to great effect once more when he broke the deadlock just six minutes into the second half.
A long diagonal ball from Charlie Mulgrew on the left caught out the St Johstone defence, Watt timing his run perfectly to sneak in behind them at the far post and stab a shot beyond Mannus from close range. Frazer Wright tried desperately to keep it out, but the ball was clearly over the line before the defender hoofed it away.
The prognosis for St Johnstone appeared grim at that point and manager Steve Lomas’ afternoon took another turn for the worse when he was sent to the stand by referee Iain Brines. The match officials took exception to a show of dissent by Lomas over the nature of Watt’s re-introduction to the field after play had been stopped for an injury to the youngster, who then sprinted into immediate possession of the ball.
But Celtic were unable to capitalise on Watt’s goal, leaving the Perth side to gain in confidence and belief during the closing stages that they could yet salvage something from their day’s graft.
Saints had a decent looking penalty claim turned down when substitute Gregory Tade went down under a hefty challenge from Ambrose, then were denied by a brilliant reaction save from Fraser Forster, who kept out Wright’s close-range volley after Liam Craig had fired the ball into the area.
The visitors maintained that momentum to claim their leveller in the 77th minute. Dave Mackay’s cross from the right found its way into the path of Hasselbaink on the left of the Celtic penalty area.
The little striker shielded the ball smartly before turning and placing a firm left foot shot low to Forster’s right into the corner of the net.
The closest Celtic came to reclaiming the lead was a rasping shot from substitute Beram Kayal which flew narrowly over the top but St Johnstone held out with a degree of comfort to a well-earned point.
Celtic: Forster, Matthews, Ambrose (McGeouch 84), Wilson, Mulgrew; Brown, Wanyama, Ledley (Kayal 71), Commons; Fedor (Watt 46); Samaras. Subs not used: Zaluska, McCourt, Lustig, Ibrahim.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, McCracken (Miller 6), Wright, C.Davidson; Millar; Hasselbaink (Vine 84), M.Davidson, Craig, Robertson (Tade 71); MacLean. Subs not used: Tuffey, Caddis, Tobin, Kane.
Murray Davidson (St Johnstone)
There were few failures in the visiting ranks but midfielder Davidson caught the eye with a display full of energy and tactical discipline which played a significant role in St Johnstone limiting the service Celtic were able to provide to their attacking players.