THE slow-burning Celtic career of Amido Balde flickered into significant life as he stepped off the bench to earn all three points for the Scottish champions in the first top-flight Glasgow derby for 18 months.
Scorers: Partick Thistle - Doolan 67; Celtic - Samaras 34, Baldé 75,
The Portuguese striker has largely been restricted to cameo outings since his £1.7 million summer acquisition from Vitoria Guimaraes, with just one starting appearance so far. But the 22-year-old showed why his manager is convinced he will eventually emerge as a key player for Celtic, settling this absorbing contest in the swirling wind and rain of Maryhill with a well-executed 75th minute winner.
Partick Thistle, still seeking their first home league victory of the season, had rallied impressively in cancelling out Georgios Samaras’s first-half opener with an opportunist strike by Kris Doolan. Alan Archibald’s side can take consolation from a standard of performance which once more suggested they should not be sucked into relegation concerns over the coming months. But they were ultimately undone by a thoroughly professional Celtic side showing impressive levels of application and ability as they combine their domestic and European commitments.
Until Samaras made the breakthrough for Celtic to lay the foundation of a hard-earned but merited win, the home side had been both competitive and purposeful in a fixture they had been relishing ever since clinching promotion last season.
Passing the ball with confidence on the slick surface, Thistle gave as good as they got in the opening half-hour. With left-back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair especially prominent as he surged forward at every opportunity, there was a fair share of defending for Celtic to do as they repelled the home side’s efforts to seize the initiative.
Emilio Izaguirre made a crucial clearance from inside his own six-yard box after Taylor-Sinclair delivered a dangerous cross which cut Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster out of the equation.
Scott Brown, back after missing the Champions League win over Ajax through suspension, led Celtic’s response. The captain made a powerful run through the middle which was crudely halted by Isaac Osbourne’s late challenge just outside the penalty area. Osbourne was booked for his trouble, with team-mate Aaron Muirhead fortunate to escape with just a warning from referee Willie Collum after he booted the ball at the prostrate Brown.
Thistle continued to produce their most threatening work down the left and it was Virgil van Dijk’s turn to make a telling intervention in front of goal when he turned away a fine cross from Stuart Bannigan. Taylor-Sinclair then showed tremendous skill to flick the ball beyond the bewildered Mikael Lustig and charge into the penalty area. He opted to shoot from a difficult angle, allowing Forster to make a straightforward save, when a cutback might have been more profitable for Thistle.
Celtic steadily forced their way on to the front foot and tested home ’keeper Scott Fox for the first time in the 30th minute. Beram Kayal played Anthony Stokes in on the left of the Thistle penalty area and the Irish striker’s low shot was diverted wide by the man who began his career as a youth player at Celtic. But Fox was badly let down by his defence when Thistle found themselves trailing three minutes later. Their marking at a corner kick, albeit delivered superbly from the right by the left foot of Izaguirre, was conspicuous by its complete absence. Samaras barely had to raise himself off the turf as he headed home his seventh goal of the season from inside the six-yard box.
It suddenly threatened to unravel completely for Archibald’s side as Celtic began to play with considerable swagger and pace. They could easily have extended their lead by two or three goals before the interval.
Teemu Pukki, operating as the main support to central striker Stokes, swept through the middle and should have done better with a low shot which Fox saved low to his left. It was the same outcome moments later when the Finnish international, this time played in by Stokes’ perfectly weighted pass, saw his shot touched wide by the agile Fox.
Thistle had not learned the lesson of the opening goal and were fortunate not to concede from another Izaguirre corner in the 37th minute. Van Dijk had a free header on this occasion but the big defender wastefully sent his effort wide of Fox’s right-hand post.
Celtic had a penalty claim turned down as they looked to press home their advantage at the start of the second half, Brown wrongly flagged offside as he went down in the box under a hefty challenge by Conrad Balatoni.
Thistle introduced Christie Elliott for Bannigan in a bid to reinvigorate themselves as an attacking force and it almost paid off immediately, the Englishman surging forward and seeing his powerful shot blocked by Izaguirre. The ball broke to Kallum Higginbotham who was unable to tee up the unmarked Doolan for what would have been a simple chance.
But it provided Thistle with the fresh impetus they required and they duly equalised in the 66th minute. From a Higginbotham corner, Balatoni headed the ball into the path of Doolan who struck the crossbar from close range. Celtic were unable to clear properly and Higginbotham worked the ball back into the box, James Craigen helping it on and Doolan this time making no mistake from a couple of yards out.
Higginbotham had a firm shot saved by Forster as Thistle suddenly sniffed the prospect of a first win over Celtic in almost 20 years, but those notions were snuffed out as the resilient visitors grabbed their 75th minute winner. It was a sweet moment for Balde, who had entered the fray just eight minutes earlier as a replacement for Kayal. Showing composure and considerable power, the big striker worked his way into the penalty area and beat the advancing Fox with a well-placed left-foot shot.
Balatoni volleyed over a more than passable chance to level, but even with just ten men in the closing stages after Samaras limped off when Celtic had used all their substitutes, the champions comfortably saw out the win.
Partick Thistle: Fox, O’Donnell, Muirhead, Balatoni, Taylor-Sinclair; Welsh, Osbourne; Higginbotham, Craigen (Forbes 79), Bannigan (Elliott 59); Doolan. Subs not used: Gallacher, Lawless, Piccolo, Baird, Kerr.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre (Biton 78); Kayal (Balde 67), Ledley; Brown, Pukki (McGeouch 71), Samaras; Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Rogic, Atajic, Fisher.