Which team has given Celtic the strongest test this season?

23/02/17  
  LENNOXTOWN  
  Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers speaks to the press ahead of his side's match with Hamilton on Saturday

23/02/17 LENNOXTOWN Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers speaks to the press ahead of his side's match with Hamilton on Saturday

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Brendan Rodgers’ claim that St Mirren are the best SPFL team Celtic have faced this season has caused a few ripples within Scottish football. We’ve had Steven Thompson quitting Twitter because of the flak he was taking for dismissing Rodgers’ suggestion, while BBC’s Sportsound programme dedicated a full 18 minutes to discussing it on Monday night’s show.

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Instead of regarding a throwaway comment with the indifference it deserved, punters are planting their flags. “How dare he say St Mirren are better than the likes of Rangers, Celtic, Hearts etc.” “Of course he’s right, did you see the game?” “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Delete your account.” Etc, etc.

Scottish football is a strange beast.

While the reaction may well have been over the top, it’s a fun debate to have. Have St Mirren really been the best team Celtic have faced this season?

Let’s have a look at how close some other clubs have come to stopping Celtic’s run. And, just to stoke some debate, we’ll put them in order of who provided the biggest test from the top flight teams.

6. Aberdeen, 0-1 defeat (Pittodrie, 29 October)

Celtic were made to work right until the final whistle after Aberdeen put them under considerable pressure in the closing stages, including a top save from Craig Gordon right at the end. There are a few games similar to this one, where Celtic have been in full control of a match but have been unable to put it to bed before facing some late tension.

5. Rangers, 1-2 defeat (Ibrox, 31 December)

Another game in which they were made to work until the full-time whistle, and the first example on our list of Celtic being a goal down. Kenny Miller put the hosts in front at a time when Mark Warburton’s side were well on top. Celtic would slowly begin to play their way back into the match, equalise through a cracking finish from Dembele, and dominate the second half. Although, they did have to survive a late scare when Kenny Miller hit the post.

4. Inverness, 2-2 draw (Caledonian Stadium, 18 September)

The only team to have taken points off Celtic deserve a place in this list. Inverness never led in the match, but they had have an excellent opportunity when Ross Draper went through on goal before going down under a challenge from Erik Sviatchenko. Replays suggested the midfielder had initiated the contact, therefore making it the right call, but most observers expected a foul and straight red card in real time. Once again, Celtic dominated the second half, but on this occasion they couldn’t find the killer goal, and a late Alex Fisher header rescued a point for the hosts.

3. St Johnstone, 2-5 defeat (McDiarmid Park, 5 February)

If we’re counting St Mirren for putting up a stern test for two-thirds of the match, surely St Johnstone earn consideration for being the “toughest test”? At least Celtic didn’t need a dodgy penalty to kick-start their comeback against the Paisley Saints. Tommy Wright’s side led before the half-time, reversing an early 1-0 deficit, and didn’t look overly troubled until Keith Watson was called for a nonsense handball decision, allowing Moussa Dembele to tie the game up. The roof caved in on St Johnstone shortly thereafter.

2. Hearts, 1-2 defeat (Tynecastle, 7 August)

Hearts are probably the only team who can say they’ve gone toe-to-toe against Celtic for the full 90 minutes. Having said that, it was the first day of the season, and the champions were still to get into their stride. Scott Sinclair started from the bench having completed his signing earlier in the day, and Dembele was not yet on sync with the rest of his colleagues. A poor penalty decision cancelled out an offside goal before half-time. Hearts were then looking the stronger of the two sides as the match wore on, before Leigh Griffiths and Sinclair combined to win it for the visitors.

1. Motherwell, 3-4 defeat (Fir Park, 3 December)

If we’re talking about one game only, this is the toughest test Celtic have faced in domestic football this season. It wasn’t just a case of Motherwell lucking their way into a 2-0 lead, the hosts were excellent in the first half. So much so that Emilio Izaguirre had to be hooked before half-time as Rodgers sought to change things around. Celtic pummelled them from the start of the second half, but just when they drew level Motherwell went up the other end and made it 3-2. Celtic would eventually win - because, obviously - though it took a last-minute stunner from Tom Rogic in which to seal the points.

St Mirren, if you’re generous could rank third in that list. They’re certainly up there and it’s great that a team from the Championship have managed to find themselves in such esteemed company. But Rodgers is probably suffering from recency bias if he puts them ahead of Motherwell or Hearts.

They were a couple of inches from being up 2-0 with just over half an hour remaining. No other team can say they held such a lead with so little time remaining. But then, neither can St Mirren. The ball didn’t actually go in, and you can’t bring ifs and maybes into it. The contest was also over for the final 30 minutes. Are we really discounting one-third of the game when considering this?

In fairness, if he’s judging all of the above on their aggregate performance, then St Mirren probably are the best. Motherwell have been beaten three times comfortably at Celtic Park, Aberdeen have only scored once in four games (and it came in a 4-1 defeat), Rangers were soundly beaten in the first Old Firm game and then dominated in the second, Hearts were skelped 4-0 at Celtic Park recently, and St Johnstone have shipped nine goals in two games against them at McDiarmid Park. As for Inverness CT, well, they can’t seem to even take kick-offs without giving away a goal when they play the champions-elect.

So maybe the Celtic boss is right after all.

READ MORE - Rumour Mill: Caixinha makes Rangers wait | Ibrox target quits | Ravanelli for Motherwell? | Forrest a doubt

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