Brendan Rodgers gets teenage kicks in Celtic stroll

This game went exactly to plan for Celtic and manager Brendan Rodgers. With the Scottish Cup final and chance to clinch the treble drawing ever closer, the champions were able to rest a number of first-team stars, hand out a couple of debuts, and still rolled over St Johnstone with devastating ease.
Brendan Rodgers with Michael Johnston, left, and Anthony Ralston. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNSBrendan Rodgers with Michael Johnston, left, and Anthony Ralston. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS
Brendan Rodgers with Michael Johnston, left, and Anthony Ralston. Photograph: Craig Williamson/SNS

Typical end-of-season fare it was not. The hosts went at their opponents from the start, and while they may have been frustrated in the opening period, they showed their muscle to strike four times in 26 second-half minutes to keep their unbeaten domestic season intact.

Adding a level of intrigue were two 18-year-olds making their full debuts in the shape of right-back Tony Ralston and winger Michael Johnston. Fans always love to see a homegrown talent coming through the ranks, and they should feel optimistic that there’s more to come from both players.

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“With young players it’s just about timing,” said Rodgers. “I wanted to ensure they went in with other very good players, but also against a team that was a test.

“Looking at Tony, he was absolutely outstanding. He’s a very honest boy. He’s aggressive, he can defend, and he can pass the ball. He’s got good mobility, he’s quick, and he’s a hardy boy as well.

“With young Mikey, you see the profile of player I like. He’s an exciting player, he’s fast. His maturation level is not like Tony’s, there’s a lot of growth left in him. He’s dynamic and once he becomes a little bit better on the final pass, and can add goals, then he’s going to be a big, big talent.”

Even without the likes of Scott Brown, Mikael Lustig or Scott Sinclair in the starting XI, the hosts were well on top from the off.

Johnston, in particular, stood out during an impressive opening half hour from the hosts. Along with Tom Rogic, the pair seemed to be involved in every Celtic attack as they peppered Zander Clark’s goal.

Rogic was denied by St Johnstone’s keeper with a shot from distance just 38 seconds in. The Australian would force Clark into another save on 16 minutes, but not before he’d slipped in Johnston for his chance at a debut goal. Unfortunately for the teenager, Clark was equal to his effort. A short time later Johnston executed a lovely turn to leave Graham Cummins in his dust before scuffing his finish wide.

In a bid to stem the one-way traffic, Tommy Wright reshaped St Johnstone, going 4-2-3-1. Celtic still poured forward but there weren’t as many gaps, and a couple of shots from distance that trailed wide was all the champions could manage for the remainder of the first half.

In response, St Johnstone almost took the lead just before the interval. Blair Alston was perfectly placed to finish a Steven MacLean knockdown, but the midfielder blazed a half-volley over.

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The visitors would rue the miss just two minutes after the restart. Once more Johnston was at the heart of things, pushing the play up the park with a jinking run before feeding Patrick Roberts, who found the bottom corner with a fine finish.

Suddenly the game exploded into life. Saints got back on level terms almost immediately. Though Craig Gordon pulled off a wonder save to deny Cummins, there was nothing he could do when Alston’s follow-up spun into the path of MacLean to head home. It then became three goals in six minutes when Dedryck Boyata headed in Leigh Griffiths’ corner to put Celtic back in front.

Johnston was rewarded for an impressive debut with a standing ovation as Scott Sinclair came on in his place. The league’s top scorer missed a great chance but did lay the third goal on a plate for Roberts after Clark could only partially clear Griffiths’ shot. Sinclair’s fellow sub Callum McGregor then killed the game with an impressive solo run.