If winning is the only concern in such a cross-city clash, then Celtic’s mission yesterday was undoubtedly successful, with victory sealed by Joe Ledley’s first-half strike from just outside the box.
However, the manner in which they secured the three points was not appreciated by sections of the home support, and neither did it gain the approval of manager Neil Lennon, who afterwards admitted that his side were flat and in need of fresh impetus.
A third consecutive 1-0 victory maintained Celtic’s 11-point lead at the top of the Premiership. It also meant that Fraser Forster equalled former Celtic goalkeeper Robert Douglas’s shut-out record of seven consecutive domestic clean sheets. Not since Niall McGinn scored while standing almost on the goal-line for Aberdeen at the end of November has the Celtic goal been breached in Scotland. Never mind beating the champions-elect, opponents are finding it nigh-on impossible to score against them, although Thistle came closer yesterday than others have in recent weeks.
Although the tempo shifted very much in Celtic’s favour in the second half, Forster had to work hard to preserve his record attempt in the opening 45 minutes. His stop at the near post from a Christie Elliott header midway through the first half was exceptional.
As against Hearts last month, he was helped by a well-placed colleague standing on his goal-line in the second half. Kris Commons was the man in the right position against Hearts, and yesterday Adam Matthews secured his place in the goalkeeper’s affections by clearing away a shot by Steven Lawless.
With Lyle Taylor, the recent loan capture from Sheffield United, making his first start, Thistle started brightly and like many yesterday, seemed to want to flush something out of their system – in their case the memory of Sunday’s 5-1 defeat by Motherwell. They certainly managed that. This was a performance deserving of the ovation given to them by their vocal supporters at the end. They roared their approval throughout, while also making pointed observations about the performance of Thistle’s hosts. “Boring, boring Celtic,” the fans chanted from their corner of the ground. The home supporters offered their own judgement at the end, booing after referee Kevin Clancy signalled the end of a less than riveting afternoon. It wasn’t completely certain who these jeers were being directed at.
It is unlikely to have been the referee who was being targeted, at least not by the home supporters. Clancy was responsible for allowing Celtic off the hook after Ledley had seemed to manhandle Elliott as the midfielder made his way into the box just after the hour mark. It was a clumsy challenge and one Thistle manager Alan Archibald later said would certainly have been given as a foul had it occurred elsewhere in the field.
It was fairly uninspiring again by Celtic, who are becoming expert in doing just enough to win football matches. The free-scoring days at the start of December seem a long time ago already. Lennon is trying everything he can to re-ignite the fire in his side and he made changes in the forward area. Teemu Pukki was restored to the starting line-up in favour of Anthony Stokes, whose own goalscoring productivity has been placed in question of late. Georgios Samaras also dropped down to the bench.
It was one of those afternoons when you felt Pukki really had to score in order to kickstart his Celtic career. His strike against Hearts, which itself ended a long run without a goal, is retreating into the distance. Lennon cannot be criticised for failing to support the Finnish striker, who has had numerous chances to shine. He came close to opening the scoring after just two minutes yesterday with a header that Scott Fox tipped over the bar, but while you might have supposed this would have given the striker some confidence, he appeared to struggle to impose himself again, despite support from Commons and James Forrest. The striker saw another shot saved by Fox in the second half but there was no surprise when he was replaced by Stokes after 67 minutes.
Ledley had already managed to breach the Thistle defence with a raking drive seven minutes before the interval. The well-struck shot flew across the wet surface and sped past Fox into the corner of the net. The Welsh international was a powerful influence on the game throughout and deserved his goal, though it was harsh on Thistle, who had looked the most likely team to open the scoring prior to Ledley taking a chance from distance.
Players such as Elliott and Aaron Taylor-Sinclair, reported to be a target for Celtic, impressed. Lennon certainly got a close look at what the latter can do as he scampered down the left wing during the first half, right beneath the Celtic manager’s nose. The full-back was the architect of the chance that fell to Elliott at the far post in the first half, sending in a dangerous cross that simply begged to be attacked by a Thistle player.
Elliott did well to direct a header down into Forster’s near-post area, but the goalkeeper made an excellent save to keep the effort out. The keeper was not tested quite so seriously again, but there were flurries of activity in front of him during the second half and no-one will convince the Thistle players and their manager that they should not have had a penalty when Ledley put an arm on Elliott and caused him to fall in the box.
Celtic: Forster; Matthews, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre; Commons (Biton, 90), Brown, Mulgrew, Ledley; Forrest (Samaras, 66), Pukki (Stokes, 66). Subs not used: Zaluska, Boerrigter, Balde, Fisher.
Goals: J Ledley, 39
Booked: S Brown
Partick: Fox, O’Donnell, Taylor-Sinclair, Muirhead (Wilson, 81), Balatoni, Craigen, Bannigan, Elliott, Piccolo, Taylor (Doolan, 65), Higginbotham (Lawless, 72). Subs not used: Gallacher, Forbes, Baird, Kerr.
Booked: A Muirhead
Ref: K Clancy