A mark of Neil Lennon’s teams, certainly in this second spell as Celtic manager, has been a tendency to build toward a crescendo rather than hit teams all guns blazing from the off. This was the case here – just without the grand finale.
This was meant to be another step towards an imminent title party, with the hope the celebrations might start as soon as Sunday depending on the result between Motherwell and Rangers. But this was not to reckon on the input from the awkward squad from Livingston. Gary Holt’s admirable side secured their second 0-0 draw against the champions this season and their first-ever clean sheet and point at Celtic Park.
This was far from the thunder Lennon promised before his first stint as permanent manager but then he’s here in the first instance to facilitate Celtic getting over the line league-wise. Next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final clash with Aberdeen will see the tempo ratcheted up. Lennon will relish the higher stakes and he will hope his team do too.
This was a little different. Floodlights on an April afternoon. There was little party atmosphere immediately obvious as Celtic looked to close in on title number eight. Their own number eight tried to lift the tempo as Scott Brown conducted his usual pre-match talk from the confines of the huddle. But things refused to ignite thanks in chief to Liam Kelly, the Livingston goalkeeper who has enjoyed a superb campaign.
On the one occasion he failed to gather a shot, Oliver Burke, who replaced Ryan Christie with seven minutes left, could not convert the rebound. The eye-opening miss came in three minutes of time added on and it would have been undeniably cruel on the visitors had the Scotland striker managed to score, but also typical of Celtic under Lennon in recent weeks when they have turned late strikes into an art form.
A “Get Well Soon Stevie G” banner was unfurled before kick-off. This was in response to the Rangers manager’s comments following last Sunday’s Old Firm defeat and referenced a message fans of the Ibrox club had delivered to Steve Clarke after the Kilmarnock manager had spoken out after being a target for sectarian abuse.
Rangers will now step out at Fir Park tomorrow afternoon knowing that whatever happens, they cannot surrender the title they so dearly wished to wrestle from Celtic until after the split.
The sight of Tom Rogic in a starting line-up for the first time since late December had provided a thrill for the home supporters, likewise Ryan Christie’s inclusion. The latter player enjoyed a scoring return from injury in midweek against St Mirren and was making his first start since a 4-1 win over Motherwell in February. Lennon, meanwhile, reconsidered a mooted plan to “shut down” Kieran Tierney in the last weeks of the season. The left-back was back in his usual slot after missing the victory in Paisley.
No matter the strength of the line-up, Celtic’s combined efforts were invariably met by a big black wall in Livi, who switched outfits from amber to noir but were their usual organised, resilient selves.
They might even have sneaked a lead in the opening minute but Craig Halkett’s flashing header from a corner was blocked. It was nearly all Celtic thereafter although Scott Bain was called into action midway through the first-half to tip over Dolly Menga’s 25-yarder, which had threatened to catch the ‘keeper off-guard.
Otherwise Celtic kept probing and Livi kept resisting them. Kelly, recently called up to the Scotland squad, was at the forefront, saving impressively when called upon to stretch himself and being well positioned to field less taxing efforts. Odsonne Edouard’s weak side-foot belonged among the latter after he was set-up by a slide-rule pass from James Forrest.
A trademark curling, left-footed effort from Rogic was certainly in the more testing category but Kelly was its match as he dived to his right to tip it past the post
Livi made a change at half-time. Ricky Lamie, who had been booked, was replaced by Hakeem Odoffin. They then replaced Menga, the focus of whatever attacks they were able to launch, with Scott Robinson, which left Livi without a recognisable striker and certainly one less physically imposing.
But they succeeded in choking Celtic, who created fewer chances in the second half than they had in the first. Kelly saved at the feet of Edouard. Substitute Oli Burke stabbed a shot wide after the ‘keeper had spilled an effort from Edouard. It was a dreadful miss and summed up the day for a sluggish Celtic.