Celtic finish shapeless and inept as Kilmarnock's plastic pitch and ghost of Shane Duffy reignite title race with Rangers

Rodgers has now lost four times at Rugby Park as champions slip up in Ayrshire

Celtic going down at Rugby Park once more under Brendan Rodgers will send the balloon up on the club faithful’s fears over a now truly ignited title race.

Kilmarnock, as true for their ousting of the Scottish champions from the Viaplay Cup at this ground in August, were ultimately exceptional, and fully warranted the 2-1 win that required them to storm back from falling behind just before the interval. Likewise, in the second period their visitors ended up as shapeless and inept as in that early dunt to Rodgers in his second spell, deficiencies they were supposed to have cast far behind. Instead, the Northern Irishman cracking the code on plastic pitch in Ayrshire is beginning to resemble an attempt to solve the Enigma version with an abacus. He has suffered only 10 domestic defeats across his two spells, and no fewer than four of these have come at Rugby Park. This latest loss – his fourth in five visits, and Celtic’s first league reverse of the season – leaves Rangers now trailing their rivals by only five points with a game in hand.

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Neurosis easily seeps into the collective consciousness of the Celtic support. It will run into overdrive over how meek they proved in the second period as Kilmarnock opened up to be all over their opponents like a rash. It left Rodgers reflecting on the inconsistencies from his team following the tongue-lashing he required to give them following an impoverished first period that gave way to a 3-1 win at St Johnstone the week before.

Celtic's Nat Phillips, Callum McGregor, Yang Hyun-Jun and Kyogo Furuhashi look glum after the loss at Kilmarnock.Celtic's Nat Phillips, Callum McGregor, Yang Hyun-Jun and Kyogo Furuhashi look glum after the loss at Kilmarnock.
Celtic's Nat Phillips, Callum McGregor, Yang Hyun-Jun and Kyogo Furuhashi look glum after the loss at Kilmarnock.

The Celtic manager said he couldn’t see their demise coming following their dominance of possession in an opening 45 minutes, in which they snared a 33rd minute lead through Matt O’Riley ramming high into the net on the follow up after Will Dennis could only push away a hardly ferocious Cllum McGregor drive. His Kilmarnock counterpart Derek McInnes too admitted the encounter had been a game of two halves in feeling his men were fortunate only to a goal down despite Danny Armstrong clattering the junction between bar and upright seconds before the opener and then Alistair Johnston producing a mad, back-turned, block on the line from a stinging Corrie Ndaba effort.

Yet, those moments meant a single-goal advantage never felt as if it would be enough for Celtic to prevail. No-one could have anticipated just what a duffing up the Kilmarnock would be able to mete out to their more illustrious opponents, though. Producing menacing delivery after menacing delivery from set-pieces – they had seven goal attempts in the opening ten minutes of the second period – it was a surprise they needed assistance to restore parity.

It came with Nat Phillips, following an opening period when he was sound as understudy for the rested Cameron Carter-Vickers, would have had the club’s faithful shuddering through how much his travails left him resembling another centre-back loanee of recent times in the hapless Shane Duffy, a man who could hardly do right for wrong in Celtic’s disastrous failed 2020-21 pandemic campaign. Phillips slid in to meet a Brad Lyons cross from the left 75 minutes in and merely knocking it beyond Joe Hart, the echoes of Duffy became all-too-acute.

McInnes said he could then “sniff” a winner for his men, as could all in the ground. It arrived when Celtic over-committed in pushing for a winner with Greg Taylor caught on the right-hand edge of the Kilmarnock box, which allowed the home side to break down his vacant left back berth. Armstrong slipped in Kennedy, who squeezed a low effort past the advancing Joe Hart, despite the keeper getting a touch.