A MEMORABLE individual goal from Virgil van Dijk was enough for Celtic to maintain their unbeaten record in the Scottish Premiership this season and extend their lead over their nominal challengers to 11 points.
Scorers: Celtic - Van Dijk (5)
Bookings: St Johnstone - Wright, Wotherspoon, Davidson; Celtic - Fisher
The position of Neil Lennon’s side at the top of the table has effectively been unassailable for several weeks now with the only real issue of interest whether they can complete the campaign without losing a match.
They merited their victory yesterday, their first in Perth for two years, on the basis of a dominant first-half display varnished by van Dijk’s superb early strike. But they were made to work hard for it after the break by a St Johnstone outfit who finished the afternoon harbouring a sense of grievance over a penalty claim which was turned down by referee Craig Thomson.
Van Dijk has been the most impressive of Lennon’s summer recruits by a distance and he showcased all the positive aspects of his ability with significant contributions at both ends of the pitch in the opening exchanges.
Just before his goal gave Celtic their fifth-minute advantage, he displayed the athleticism and awareness which makes him such an effective central defender. Van Dijk’s pace and poise allowed him to halt a threatening counter-attack from St Johnstone, timing his intervention perfectly to dispossess Stevie May inside the penalty area.
Less than 60 seconds later, Van Dijk was celebrating in the opposition’s box as he put the champions in front. St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright would be aghast at his team’s timid defending as van Dijk slalomed his way from the halfway line past several players, before guiding a low right foot shot beyond Alan Mannus’ right hand from around 14 yards.
But, while the home side would be right to hold an inquest into the manner they conceded the goal, it was nonetheless an exceptional piece of skill by van Dijk.
Saints looked as if they had not learned their lesson when Georgios Samaras meandered his way into the penalty area down the left, but on this occasion Bosnian defender Sanel Jahic got back in time to dispossess the striker at the expense of a corner.
Celtic were dominant in possession and territory, with St Johnstone scarcely evident as an attacking force. They did threaten briefly when Murray Davidson narrowly failed to connect with Gary McDonald’s cross from the right, but it was the visitors who largely remained on the front foot.
Anthony Stokes might have done better with a header from van Dijk’s flick-on which was comfortably saved by Mannus. The Irish striker then volleyed over from the edge of the penalty area as Saints struggled to clear their lines.
Fraser Forster was reduced to a passive role for most of the first half, although the Celtic goalkeeper was grateful to Emilio Izaguirre when the left-back bravely blocked Gary Miller’s netbound volley from a Nigel Hasselbaink cross as Saints managed another rare foray forward.
Celtic looked to increase the tempo just before half-time and passed up opportunities to increase their advantage. Stokes did well to loft the ball over the head of the advancing Mannus on the edge of the penalty area but was unable to get his shot away before being crowded out by Jahic and Frazer Wright.
Mannus then made a smart save to keep out a close range Kris Commons effort, the midfielder having been played in by Scott Brown’s neat pass. From the resulting corner, curled in by Commons from the left, Ambrose headed wide.
St Johnstone, who replaced Miller with Gwion Edwards at the start of the second half, were much improved after the break and began to look capable of making Celtic pay for not translating their first-half superiority into a more commanding lead.
May was the source of biggest concern for the Celtic defence, Saints’ leading scorer just inches away from an equaliser with a low shot from a difficult angle after he burst into the penalty area from the right. The Perth men then had loud appeals for a penalty turned down by referee Thomson, who was perfectly positioned to assess van Dijk’s challenge on May which left the striker on the turf. Manager Wright was incensed, clearly convinced van Dijk had prevented May connecting with a Davidson cross by using his forearm illegally.
The greater conviction in St Johnstone’s work continued, Wright’s men playing with greater purpose and intensity from midfield to the attacking positions. It needed another alert piece of defending from van Dijk to block a Brian Easton shot after Saints had stretched Celtic with one especially impressive passing move. Forster was then forced into action, the big ‘keeper reacting well to beat away a shot from Edwards.
Celtic were finding it difficult to reclaim the momentum they had enjoyed in the first half, but it took an outstanding save from Mannus to prevent them doubling their lead in the 79th minute. Joe Ledley set up an opportunity for Commons and his low drive looked a certain goal until Mannus threw himself to his right to divert the ball wide for a corner.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Wright, Jahic, Easton; Miller (Edwards 46), McDonald, Davidson, Wotherspoon (Croft 74); May, Hasselbaink (Kane 81). Subs not used: Banks, Scobbie, Cregg, Anderson.
Celtic: Forster, Fisher, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Matthews (Forrest 55), Brown, Ledley, Samaras (Biton 70); Commons (Balde 87); Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Pukki, Atajic, Henderson.