Aberdeen make their point to end sluggish Celtic’s perfect home run

Michael Johnston rues a missed chance late in the game against Aberdeen. Picture: SNS.
Michael Johnston rues a missed chance late in the game against Aberdeen. Picture: SNS.
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If there is any downside to the remarkable standards Brendan Rodgers set for Celtic in domestic football, it is the difficulty in sustaining them.

The first goalless draw between Celtic and Aberdeen for 25 years hardly constitutes a black mark on the CV of Neil Lennon as he strives to extend his return as manager of the Scottish champions beyond the end of the season.

It was a result which maintained Celtic’s eight-point lead at the top of the Premiership, with just nine games to play, and Lennon remains firmly on course to carry out the task set for him when he answered the call to replace Rodgers a fortnight ago.

Yet there was a sluggishness about Celtic’s performance on Saturday which Lennon will be keen to ensure is not repeated over the coming weeks as he attempts to successfully conclude the club’s quest for a third consecutive domestic treble.

It was the first time this season that Celtic dropped points at home, ending the perfect run of 14 Premiership victories overseen by Rodgers before his abrupt departure to Leicester City.

With closest challengers Rangers having failed to exert any pressure at the top when they could only draw at Hibernian on Friday night, the lack of intensity in Celtic’s display was perhaps as much psychological as it was physical.

This was a drab 90 minutes which will drift quickly from the minds of most who witnessed it, although that should not take any credit away from an Aberdeen side who performed with outstanding tactical discipline throughout. Derek McInnes’ men might even have nicked all three points had substitute Stevie May not headed over from close range when he was presented with the clearest chance of the match in the closing stages. For Lennon, addressing the deficiencies in energy and creativity which were apparent in Celtic’s play from middle to front will become easier when Callum McGregor, Tom Rogic and Ryan Christie make their returns from injury.

Lennon certainly couldn’t be accused of failing to be proactive on Saturday, making a double substitution at half-time in a bid to ignite his side as Ewan Henderson and Scott Sinclair were replaced by Odsonne Edouard and Michael Johnston.

Teenage winger Johnston came closest to conjuring up a winner for Celtic, his 86th-minute drive into the penalty area ending with an inviting ball across the face of the six-yard box which Timothy Weah was unable to convert.

“I was just looking for someone to make the run across the ‘keeper so they could get a tap-in,” reflected Johnston. “It was just unlucky, Timo nearly got on the end of it.

“The game was really frustrating. But it’s not too negative from our point of view because the league is still in our hands. So we can’t be too down about it.

“A lot of teams do the same thing as Aberdeen did against us, sitting in, but we need to be able to break teams down and score goals.

“People outside are saying the title is already won but it’s the same sort of pressure a lot of people in our dressing room have dealt with most years, so it’s familiar for a lot of them.

“The league is still open but it’s in our hands, as long as we play well and don’t take anything for granted. Everyone is motivated to win the title again, it’s huge for us.”

Johnston is adapting to life under Lennon after the exit of Rodgers who played such a key role in his breakthrough at Celtic and saw him sign a new five-year contract last November.

“Not a lot has changed really,” said Johnston when asked to compare his old and new managers. “I can’t come to a conclusion yet because the new gaffer is not long in the door. “When he said I was going on at half-time, he just told me to go out and do my stuff, beat the full-back and try and get us a goal.

“He has spoken to me since he came into the club, giving me confidence, but nothing big. I didn’t really know him before. I played at youth level when he was the manager before but I was only 13 or 14 so didn’t work under him at all.

“I wasn’t too down [when Rodgers left]. The old gaffer liked me and gave me opportunities, which I was really grateful for. But managers moving on is a part of football and it’s just something we have to deal with.”

The arrival of Rodgers’ January loan signings Weah and Oliver Burke, below, have restricted Johnston’s recent first-team outings. But he believes time is on his side and also refuted the notion he needs to bulk up physically if he is to establish himself as a regular in the Celtic starting line-up. “I’m still young, I’m just working hard and trying to bide my time,” he added. “Hopefully I will get the opportunities. I’ve always been more slightly built. That’s a part of my game. I don’t think it holds me back. It’s something I can use to bring out the best in me.”