Celtic get St Johnstone job done after Milan woe
Celtic 2-1 St Johnstone
Scorers: Celtic - Pukki (11), Mulgrew (26); St Johnstone - Caddis (81)
Referee: A Muir
So dominant had Celtic been in the opening 45 minutes against a desperately timid St Johnstone side, that the 2-0 lead gained through goals by Teemu Pukki and Charlie Mulgrew was the very least they deserved. And even some of the excellence of the home side’s work did not prevent proceedings drifting into the realms of sheer tedium.
But, happily for those who like their football matches to at least resemble a contest, St Johnstone did actually wake up before it was all over and delivered a dramatic finale, although it would have been little short of a travesty had Celtic not taken all three points, such was their almost effortless superiority for so long.
Neil Lennon’s players, however, seemed to be lulled into what almost proved a false sense of security before their visitors, sparked by substitute Stevie May, finally found some purpose and ambition. After scrambling a goal back via Liam Caddis, they came agonisingly close to snatching a point when May struck a post in the final minute.
Such was May’s impact, it begged the question why St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright had not included the Scotland under-21 international striker in his starting line-up.
The Northern Irishman preferred Steven MacLean as the lone front man in a compact formation and May was carefully diplomatic when quizzed about the situation afterwards.
“You want to start every game but the gaffer has told me I won’t start every game and I understand that,” he said. “There are going to be games that won’t suit me as much, like when we play one up top.
“The thinking behind it was that Steven MacLean’s hold-up play and experience meant he was better suited to the game.
“From a personal point of view I want to play as many minutes as I can, but the gaffer is developing me as a player and is trying to protect me so all I can do is perform when I get the chance and try and give him a problem.
“We’ve got a good squad and some games will suit me more than others. When there is one up front, Steven MacLean is experienced and I know I can learn from him. I’m looking forward to the season ahead. I trust the gaffer, as do all the boys.”
Despite the late scare, it was a satisfying day for Celtic, who are already five points better off in the league than they were at this stage last season. Lennon’s call for more domestic consistency around their Champions League efforts is being heeded.
There was no sign of a European hangover after their midweek disappointment in Milan as Celtic exerted a firm grip on possession and territory from the start. Finnish international Pukki marked his first starting appearance for the club with the 11th minute opener, accepting a pass from Anthony Stokes and driving a low shot through Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus.
Stokes was also the architect of Celtic’s second goal 15 minutes later, his reverse pass rebounding off David Wotherspoon into the path of Mulgrew, who struck a magnificent left-foot shot beyond Mannus’s left hand from around 25 yards.
The goal capped another fine individual display by Mulgrew in the more central holding midfield position where he has shone for both club and country in recent weeks and he said: “Maybe it could prove to be my best position, you never know.
“I like getting on the ball – it’s one of the strong aspects of the game – so we’ll just have to wait and see if I keep playing in there.
“I was pleased with my goal, because I’d had a chance from a similar position against AC Milan at the San Siro but I chose to pass the ball instead. It’s not been out of my mind since. So, when I got the first chance against St Johnstone, I was always going to shoot and, thankfully, it went in.
“The first half was a good performance, we created a lot of chances and managed to get two goals, so we were happy with that. But we never got a hold of the ball enough in the second half and made it hard for ourselves.
“I think there might have been a bit of tiredness from the Champions League game in midweek but I just felt we never kept the ball enough. I just don’t think we got a hold of the ball. If we’d got a hold of the ball and had more possession, it might have been a bit easier.
“St Johnstone kept coming and we kept giving the ball away and then, when they got the goal, it gave them the psychological edge and we were hanging on a bit, so we made it difficult for ourselves and we have to improve on that.”
Celtic were also disrupted by the loss at half-time of the injured Adam Matthews, the balance of their side altered by his replacement, Israeli midfielder Nir Biton, who struggled to make a positive impact on his home debut.
In a frantic closing spell, Caddis forced home a cross from his captain, Dave Mackay, to drag Saints back into the match in the 81st minute.
Celtic survived a penalty appeal against them when MacLean went down under Stokes’ challenge, then breathed a huge sigh of relief when May turned a Gary McDonald cross against Fraser Forster’s left-hand post.
“I just threw a boot at it,” said May. “I thought it was in. We came into the game in the last 25 minutes or so and maybe even deserved something. We can be proud of ourselves for that, but we know the first half wasn’t good enough.”