AGAINST opponents whose name can still send a chill down the spine of some of their supporters, Celtic made solid, if unspectacular, progress into the quarter-finals of the League Cup.
Raith Rovers emerged with credit from a 90 minutes which is unlikely to live long in anyone’s memory, but there was seldom any prospect of them recreating the heroics of the Kirkcaldy club’s finest hour when Celtic were defeated in the 1994 final of the tournament.
Goals from Kris Commons and Stefan Johansen ensured Ronny Deila’s side remain involved in four competitions this season.
While Deila had made it clear he would treat their defence of the League Cup seriously, he nonetheless acknowledged the need for squad rotation with significant Premiership and Europa League assignments on his forthcoming schedule.
To that end, he made six changes to the starting line-up from Sunday’s 6-0 romp against Dundee. It was, perhaps, no surprise, then, that there was a flatness and lack of fluency to much of Celtic’s work until Commons lit up the tie with his superb opener.
Nadir Ciftci, who had finally claimed his first goal for the club as a substitute in that weekend victory, was rewarded with a starting appearance as top scorer Leigh Griffiths was given the night off. But the Turkish striker failed to impress during a stodgy start from the home side, his struggles typified by a wild swipe off target from a promising position when Celtic created their first opening in the fifth minute.
Raith, deploying a 4-1-4-1 formation with teenager Ross Matthews in the anchor role just in front of the defence, were as compact and composed as their manager, Ray McKinnon, could have hoped for as they settled into the tie.
While most of their work involved subduing Celtic, they threatened occasionally on the counter-attack and came close to snatching the lead in the 13th minute.
A kick-out from goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert was flicked on by Grant Anderson to find Craig Wighton running clear of the Celtic defence. The on-loan Dundee youngster struck his low shot well but was defied by a fine save from Craig Gordon, diving to his right to claw the ball to safety.
Ciftci blazed a shot over from 20 yards and then met a Gary Mackay-Steven cross with a poor header as the hosts continued
to make heavy weather of imposing their authority on proceedings.
But Raith’s resolve was broken by a typical moment of top quality from Commons in the 32nd minute. Receiving a pass from Callum McGregor, the attacking midfielder wrong-footed Raith defender Kyle Benedictus with a neat swivel of his hips before drilling a left-foot shot low beyond Cuthbert’s right hand into the corner of the net from 20 yards.
The goal brought greater tempo into Celtic’s play and they almost doubled their lead four minutes later. Kieran Tierney, the 18-year-old left back making just his fourth first-team appearance for the club, burst into the penalty area and saw a netbound shot bravely blocked by Benedictus.
Tierney’s overall contribution was eye-catching, the Isle of Man-born youngster defending diligently when he had to but also offering plenty of energy and imagination going forward.
Celtic found the insurance of a second goal elusive and, as long as they remained just one behind, Raith retained both hope and ambition.
It was almost realised in the 58th minute when Matthews, who was impressive throughout as he willingly went toe to toe with Scott Brown and Stefan Johansen in the heat of midfield battle, was presented with a glorious chance to equalise.
Celtic’s defence failed to deal properly with a long throw-in from Raith captain Jason Thomson, allowing Mark Stewart to nod the ball into the path of Matthews who should have done better than volley over the top from around eight yards out.
Deila decided an injection of pace and power was required for his side as he made a double substitution, James Forrest and Tom Rogic replacing McGregor and Commons. Mackay-Steven passed up a couple of excellent opportunities to put the tie beyond Raith, first seeing a shot deflected wide and then being denied by a good save from Cuthbert.
The visitors introduced Jon Daly as they tried to force extra-time and the former Rangers striker had a few hearts in the mouths of the home fans when he scooped a shot narrowly over in the 83rd minute.
But Johansen settled matters with three minutes remaining, the Norwegian midfielder bursting clear and stabbing a neat left-foot shot beyond Cuthbert.
Celtic: Gordon, Janko, Ambrose, Blackett, Tierney; Brown, Johansen; McGregor (Forrest 66), Commons (Rogic 66), Mackay-Steven; Ciftci (Nesbitt 89). Subs not used: Bailly, Izaguirre, Stokes, Lustig.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Toshney, Benedictus, McKeown; Matthews (McCord 79); Anderson (Megginson 75), Davidson (Daly 70), Craigen, Stewart; Wighton. Subs not used: Laidlaw, Petrie, Ellis, Mackie.