Celtic - 3
Mackay-Steven 9, 54; Armstrong 44
St Johnstone - 1
Goals, plural, plundered by an attacker and his name wasn’t Leigh Griffiths. It will never catch on. Double scorer Gary Mackay-Steven, though, suddenly seems to be catching on.
His season was going nowhere fast until his surprise recall for the 8-1 midweek mauling of Hamilton. Now, with his confidence patently coursing once more, the winger appears to the lightning rod for the electric scoring form that has ensured Ronny Deila’s side will take a six-point to challengers Aberdeen when they resume Premiership duties a week on Wednesday.
Ably abetted by his former Dundee United confrere and fellow scorer Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor, Mackay-Steven has helped Celtic rediscovered an incisiveness and attacking cohesion which blossomed when he and Armstrong arrived from but seemed to go missing in this campaign.
In a chancefest to which St Johnstone were notable contributors, it was a tale of two wide men. Michael O’Halloran was a constant menace for the visitors, showing a focus that his manager Tommy Wright felt had been sufficiently fuzzied by two failed bids from Rangers to leave him out the previous week.
It will be of little comfort to St Johnstone that they were competitive enough to keep the scoreline respectable, that partly down to an off-day from Griffiths that meant his team have only netted the 15 goal in their past three games.
“We can see much more sharpness in the team now,” Deila said. “I think we are developing every day and today we created a lot of chances again. We were not so effective in taking them but you have to be pleased.”
The Norwegian was especially pleased with the scoring renaissance enjoyed by Mackay-Steven and Armstrong. The former opened the scoring in ninth minute when he punished a sleepy St Johnstone defence with a hooked shot that followed the ball bouncing up off Alan Mannus after he saved from Griffiths. His second, to make it 3-1, came early in the second period. Stefan Johansen sprinted forward and aimed a pass for Griffiths that Mackay-Steven pounced on - fouling Brian Easton in the process St Johnstone fumed - before punching a low drive into the corner of the net.
For his part, Armstrong smeared a delicious volley high past Mannus from a Mikael Lustig chip cross a minute before the interval, putting Wright’s side behind after the had levelled the scores after an O’Halloran run and cross down the right that left Kieran Tierney spinning allowed Steven MacLean to force in at the front post.
“Leigh had his chances but it is very important we have other players scoring as well, wingers especially,” said Deila of his scorers on a day when Ryan Christie made his debut late on. “Then you need to get into the box between the goals that is where 90 % of them are scored. They do that and I think both of them played very well, Callum as well. Stuart looks very sharp so I am pleased with that.
“It is tough here. We have many players coming from smaller clubs. It is one thing to come in and everything is positive but then there is expectation and it takes time to deal with that, to deal with all the things that comes with being at Celtic and play with freedom. Gary has done that, Stuart as well and Callum who had a long period out as well. It takes time to develop players and people but if you worked the right way you get the credit in the end.”
Wright was full of credit for O’Halloran, with the 25-year-old unlikely to move before the club’s semi-final against Hibernian at Tynecastle on Saturday - 24 hours before Celtic face St Johnstone at Hampden.
““I was really pleased with his performance, he was excellent throughout, when we put him up top as well he was a threat, the St Johnstone manager said of the Rangers target. “I didn’t have to speak to him because he’s been in good form all week. It was difficult the previous week because the speculation became an interest and that snowballed in the press, and he just wasn’t right mentally. But he certainly was this week.”
Wright was far from disheartened with a display that brought a first goal in six matches, with another goalbound effort blocked on the line by Johansen. “I’m pleased with how we played but we probably didn’t help ourselves by conceding just before half-time. The third goal killed the game but I think everyone in the stadium could see it was a free-kick clearly on Brian Easton. What compounds it is Mackay-Steven finishes it off. We created one or two opportunities but I thought they were excellent.”