CELTIC’S trip to Perth today to face St Johnstone has been described in some quarters as a real test. The brutal truth is that these rarely feature on the domestic calendar for the Scottish champions. Yet, if any assignment for Ronny Deila’s men merits such a description, it is facing up to a bang-in-form McDiarmid Park side a matter of days after returning from a testing Europa League tie in Turkey.
St Johnstone have registered three league victories over Celtic in the past four and a half seasons, as well as four draws. No other team in the country can boast such a trio of successes. Tommy Wright’s side are the last away side to post a Premiership win at Celtic Park – that three-pointer achieved courtesy of a blinding strike from Danny Swanson in March. His club are one of only two teams in Scotland – Inverness Caledonian Thistle are the other – to have beaten Celtic home and away in the league during the Glasgow side’s four-in-a-row run of titles.
Granted, you have to go back almost three and a half years for the last time Celtic lost to St Johnstone in Perth. Although, it ought to be pointed out that the sides played out a lifeless 0-0 draw in their last meeting at McDiarmid Park, in the middle of May.
Moreover, there might have been mitigating circumstances for Neil Lennon’s side being beaten 2-1 by St Johnstone in September 2012. They had a Champions League opener to follow only a few days later. However, the Perth side, who retain the core of the side responsible for that result, matched Celtic throughout that first season without Rangers in the top flight – both sides claiming five points from their four encounters.
Not since 2010-11 have Celtic won all of their league encounters against St Johnstone.
As Lennon’s side chased 100 points with his tenure drawing to a close, a madcap 3-3 draw weeks before the end of the campaign put paid to the three-figure total being achieved.
With nine wins, a draw and defeat from their past 11 encounters, Wright’s side are the only team in Scotland who have been as commanding on the home front as the visitors they host today.
Yet, Deila’s men are entitled to feel a little better about themselves following the 1-1 draw away to Fenerbahce with which they closed a calamitous Europa League campaign.
For all their earlier mishaps – especially in the back-to-back defeats against Molde – the performance in Istanbul suggested there is every reason to suspect that Celtic can qualify for the Champions League next summer. No side that matches Ajax and Fenerbahce on their own soil can be wholly deficient.
The questions over Deila’s 18-month Celtic stewardship have not been amplified by midweek events on the continent, for a change, and Mikael Lustig doesn’t expect the Turkish trip to make the quest for domestic domination more difficult to embark upon.
“We have done really well this season when returning to domestic football,” said the Swede, who has been standing in as captain in the injury absence of Scott Brown. “I think we have won in every game after a European game. So we will try to recharge the batteries and get a good performance on Sunday.”
Lustig will take positives into next season from the draws away to Fenerbahce and third-placed Ajax.
However, the full-back concedes that the Scottish champions were not good enough over the course of the campaign, where Deila again spoke of “small details” being the difference between winning and losing after the game at the Sukru Saracoglu stadium.
“It was a tough place to go to, said Lustig. “But we got one point in Istanbul and, as a team, it builds confidence to know that we can go away from home.
“We did it against Ajax and in Istanbul, so we know that we are capable of taking points away from home, so that is probably the positive thing about the campaign. But it was not good enough.
“Before we started this group we thought that we should take six points against Molde and if we do that we are through. But we weren’t good enough and the only positive thing is that we went away to Ajax and Fenerbahce and took points.”