Celtic missing Kris Commons’ touch

IT MAY have been regarded by some observers as needlessly presumptuous, but few people would dispute Ronny Deila’s confident assertion last week that his Celtic side will definitely win the Scottish Premiership this season.

John Guidetti celebrates after putting Celtic 2-1 ahead against St Mirren on Saturday. Picture: SNS

St Mirren 1-2 Celtic

Scorers: St Mirren - McLean (50); Celtic - Guidetti (42, 63)

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With due respect to the impressive current form of early season pace-setters Dundee United and Hamilton Accies, it would still represent a shock of serious Richter scale proportions if Celtic do not retain their title.

But of far greater significance to Deila will be how they win it in his first season as manager – both in terms of the margin of their triumph and the standard of the football they play.

On current form, it is difficult to imagine Celtic discovering the consistency which saw them romp home a massive 29 points clear of the pack last season. In their two previous title wins under Neil Lennon, they finished 16 and 20 points ahead of the rest.

Those are the standards which have been set in this one-horse race era of the Scottish game as Celtic have adapted to life without the traditional challenge of Rangers. Anything less than a double-digit gap between his team and the rest will inevitably place a negative slant on Deila’s debut campaign.

Celtic remain five points behind leaders Dundee United with a game in hand and now face a home game against second-placed Accies next Sunday which is more intriguing than could have been anticipated when the fixtures were first published.

On Saturday in Paisley, he at least saw his players discover the crucial formula for winning ugly on the road, something which had eluded them on their previous road trips to Inverness and Dundee when points were dropped.

This was a display which lacked the tempo and fluency of their League Cup victory over Hearts last Wednesday night.

It also highlighted, not for the first time this season, just how much Celtic rely on Kris Commons to provide them with inventiveness and cohesion in the attacking third of the pitch. In the absence of the playmaker, sidelined with a pulled muscle in his backside which may threaten his involvement in Thursday night’s Europa League tie at home to Dinamo Zagreb, Deila tried out Callum McGregor in the central attacking midfield role.

The 21-year-old, who remarkably is the only player to have featured in all seven of Celtic’s league games under Deila, by no means delivered a poor performance but was simply unable to exert the same level of influence on his team’s work as Commons is almost invariably able to do.

A dreary first half, enlivened briefly by St Mirren midfielder Thomas Reilly’s thunderous 25-yard shot against the crossbar in the fourth minute, appeared to be drifting to a goalless conclusion when Celtic scrambled their way into the lead.

If the SPFL still employ a dubious goals panel, their input may be necessary to settle the arguments over who scored this one at the end of a neat move involving Anthony Stokes, Emilio Izaguirre and Scott Brown down the left. John Guidetti claimed it although St Mirren defender Jim Goodwin, who slid in alongside him as the ball 
ricocheted into the net from close range, seemed to get the final touch.

Whoever scored it, Celtic could not build on the advantage it provided. St Mirren began the second half brightly and equalised in the 50th minute with their first home league goal of the season. A mis-directed throw out from Craig Gordon was the catalyst, allowing John McGinn to find space on the left. Although Gordon beat away Jason Naismith’s shot, he was left helpless by Kenny McLean’s close range follow-up.

Deila’s response was a tactical change, switching from his favoured 4-2-3-1, which plainly wasn’t functioning properly without Commons, to a more orthodox 4-4-2 which saw Stokes join Guidetti up front. That paid a quick dividend, Stokes producing a delightful reverse pass to set up Guidetti for a left foot shot which Saints ‘keeper Marian Kello allowed to squirm through his grasp at his near post.

It was enough to secure all three points as St Mirren, after playing extra-time in their League Cup defeat at Partick Thistle in midweek, were unable to summon up the energy needed to place Celtic in any danger of conceding a second equaliser in the final half hour.

“Maybe we all started to tire towards the end,” admitted St Mirren midfielder McGinn. “The 120 minutes we played on Tuesday started to show. In addition to that, some of us had been floored by a virus and were just recovering. In that last half hour, I was like the Tin Man 
out there.

“We are gutted not to get a point from the game. The manager had drilled us brilliantly for it and we were playing so well. But we just reached a stage where gaps started appearing and Celtic got chances. They have got a striker who has started to score goals and they deserved the win in the end.

“Before the game, we knew Guidetti would be a danger. He is top quality and he has just had a tough time with injury at Manchester City in the last few years. Unfortunately we gave him two chances to score and he’s put them away. You can’t give Celtic chances like that.”