RONNY Deila emerged triumphant from his first domestic test as Celtic manager as the champions began their defence of the Premiership title in ultimately convincing fashion.
St Johnstone - 0
Celtic - 3 Stokes (55), Biton (76 pen), McGregor (84)
Referee: J Beaton
They were indebted to a defensive blunder by Scottish Cup winners St Johnstone and a highly questionable penalty award from referee John Beaton against opponents who finished the night with ten men following the dismissal of their captain Dave Mackay.
It was a far from complete display by Celtic, who were especially lethargic in a goalless first half, but as Deila will quickly appreciate, it is results which matter most in his new role.
While their Champions League reprieve may have dulled the intensity of the inquest into their lame performances against Legia Warsaw, there was still considerable scrutiny being placed on Deila and his players last night.
There was a welcome return to the Celtic starting line-up for James Forrest, the talented but injury-plagued winger, and he was by far the brightest spark in a generally dull opening 45 minutes. Jason Denayer, labelled the equivalent of a £10 million signing by Deila following his loan move from Manchester City on Tuesday, was an unused substitute alongside Efe Ambrose as the manager stuck with the Mikael Lustig-Virgil Van Dijk central defensive partnership.
The visitors enjoyed the bulk of possession, producing some neat and patient football, but lacked any real incision. Forrest was the only source of concern to a solid St Johnstone back-four as he used his pace and trickery to probe for gaps.
He linked up cleverly with Kris Commons to carve out the first opening of the night, driving in behind Brian Easton on the right to give himself a sight of goal but dragged his left-foot shot wide of target.
For all they were on the back foot for much of the first half, Saints actually looked more threatening when they were able to launch counter-attacks. In the 21st minute, Craig Gordon was called into action for the first time when he got down to his right to beat away a stinging drive from Steven MacLean.
It was Gordon’s first competitive appearance since his last match for Sunderland in April 2012 and his first domestic fixture in Scotland since he left Hearts all of seven years ago. The 31-year-old goalkeeper looked fit and sharp.
He should have been tested again in the 31st minute when Lee Croft’s cross from the right found MacLean at the far post, only for the striker to horribly miscue his volley.
Celtic came close from a set piece three minutes later. Anthony Stokes, having been fouled just outside the penalty area by Mackay, took the free-kick himself and curled his effort narrowly wide of Alan Mannus’ right-hand post.
The St Johnstone ’keeper was finally forced into his first save of the evening eight minutes before half-time, comfortably gathering a shot from Callum McGregor.
The general lack of conviction from both sides in front of goal was then evidenced again when Michael O’Halloran took a fresh air swipe at the ball from close range after Virgil van Dijk’s failure to clear a Liam Caddis cross.
St Johnstone replaced Caddis with David Wotherspoon at the start of the second half and there was a greater sense of purpose and ambition about their work immediately after the resumption. They came agonisingly close to opening the scoring in the 50th minute when Croft was unable to pick the unmarked MacLean out with a low cross from the right.
O’Halloran did well to retrieve the ball and cut back inside to fire in a low shot which deflected off MacLean and flew narrowly wide of the helpless Gordon’s right-hand post. There was another uncomfortable moment for the Celtic defence two minutes later when Croft’s 20-yard shot ricocheted off Van Dijk and over the crossbar.
But just as it seemed the home team were seizing the initiative, they gifted Celtic the opener in the 55th minute. It was a horrible moment for Saints’ long-serving defender Steven Anderson who was caught in possession just outside his own penalty area by Commons. The Celtic playmaker slid a pass to Stokes who calmly rounded Mannus and slid a low right-foot shot into the net from a tight angle.
St Johnstone, now enjoying a fairer share of possession, tried manfully to respond and had a penalty claim turned down when Mackay collapsed under Van Dijk’s challenge. Their cause was lost when Celtic doubled their lead from the spot 14 minutes from time. It was a soft award, substitute Derk Boerrigter dramatically going down following minimal contact from Mackay.
To compound Mackay’s sense of injustice, he was shown a straight red card by referee John Beaton before Biton stepped forward to score nervelessly from the spot. The Israeli midfielder did so as the Celtic supporters behind the goal raised a ‘Free Gaza’ banner.
Celtic placed a flattering reflection on the final scoreline in the 84th minute when McGregor’s shot squirmed through the legs of Mannus and rolled over the line.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Mackay, Anderson, Scobbie, Easton; Millar, Croft, McDonald (Miller 78), Caddis (Wotherspoon 46); O’Halloran, MacLean. Subs not used: Banks, Wright, Morgan, Brown, Kane.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Lustig, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Biton, Johansen; Forrest (Boerrigter 58), Commons (Berget 66), McGregor; Stokes (Kayal 73). Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Boerrigter, Pukki, Denayer.