Olivier Ntcham will have fonder memories of grounds. He missed a penalty last night having been sent off in the first-half of a 0-0 draw at St Mirren’s Simple Digital Arena earlier this season.
Neither episode inflicted lasting damage. Celtic are now just two wins away from an eighth successive title. Indeed, they could lift it as soon as Sunday providing they dispose of Livingston on Saturday and Rangers lose to Motherwell the following day.
The greatest threat to their ambitions could be said to be some of their own fans. A flashbang thrown on to the pitch from the away end after substitute Ryan Christie secured the points five minutes from time saw St Mirren goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky, who saved Ntcham’s penalty, require some treatment. He seemed understandably distressed and shocked.
Fortunately for everyone concerned, he was able to resume but this was another incident to blight a season where there have been too many such controversies, off the park and on it.
Neil Lennon will reflect on a serviceable display against a much-changed St Mirren side with bigger battles left to face. The Tannoy announcement that Dundee had lost 2-0 to St Johnstone got one of the biggest cheers of the night from the home fans.
The hosts remained contenders for a point until deep into the second-half. Manager Oran Kearney sensed this. He sent on Brad Lyons, who played a main part in Saturday’s crucial victory over Dundee, and then Simeon Jackson, the club’s top scorer this season. Duckens Nazon should have equalised after a quick free-kick while Scott Bain tipped Cody Cooke’s effort round the post.
Celtic also turned to the cavalry. Christie replaced Ntcham with just under half an hour to go for first appearance under Lennon after five weeks out injured. Odsonne Edouard replaced match winner Weah with just under 15 minutes left and likewise helped Celtic to another level.
Kearney had made six changes to the side that secured the vital weekend win in the hope the squad had sufficient strength in depth to cope with the champions-elect. Another six pointer against Hamilton Accies looms on Saturday.
Lennon, by contrast, made just three changes, which he attributed to weariness following the exertions of Sunday’s Old Firm clash. Oliver Burke was one of them, coming in for Odsonnne Edouard. Timo Weah was another, in for Jonny Hayes, and he got Celtic underway with a contentious goal after 15 minutes.
James Forrest played Lustig in and while his shot was saved by the onrushing Hladky the ball spun up into the air. Weah was the first to react and headed the ball towards goal. It hit the bar and came down before coming back into play again but referee Don Robertson awarded the goal, on the advice of his far side assistant Graham McNeillie.
The goal was the least they deserved but the visitors were guilty of some sloppiness in front of goal. Kristof Ajer should have burst the net rather than blaze high over after Lustig found him in space and with time to boot after an astute through ball. At least he has the excuse he is a defender. Burke started through the middle like an old-fashioned centre forward but while he caught the eye with his pace he struggled to provide the finishing product. Callum McGregor’s ball left him with ample time to pick his spot but he slashed his shot wide shortly after Celtic went in front.
But the chance of the opening half fell to Ntcham, who really did have all the time and space any footballer should require to score. Jim Kellermann was desperate to impress in what was his first start for the club despite having signed for Jack Ross, as many as three managers ago. His last start was while on loan for Fylde against Dover in December. So it was unfortunate indeed that he should be the one penalised for a harsh handball offence when the ball struck his arm as he attempted to clear.
Ntcham took the award and hit the ball too close to goalkeeper Hladky, who managed to block. The ball rebounded to Ntcham and he compounded things by hitting a shot just over but when under greater pressure this time.
Burke started the second half as he did the first – by failing to find the finish required. Another McGregor through ball saw him one on one with Hladky but the ‘keeper did well to save with his feet.
But St Mirren were far from out of the picture. Indeed, they could and should have drawn level when Mihai Popescu played a quick free-kick through to Nazon, who dithered when trying to round Scott Bain and was eventually crowded out. Bain had earlier tipped Cooke’s effort round the post.
Christie almost scored with his first touch after replacing Ntcham shortly after the hour mark but saw his effort blocked by Hladky. He took just a few minutes more to make his mark in what was an energetic cameo, scoring via a deflection after a drive into the box.