Slick start by Celtic undoes spirited Saints
For all those who criticise the Scottish game, it should be said that this was a highly entertaining match full of good football, for which much of the praise must go to St Mirren, who did not collapse after their dreadful start. Rather, they got their tails up and showed the disappointingly small 6,223 crowd what they could do.
Celtic could, and perhaps should, have been five up after 12 minutes, such was the alacrity they showed in attacking from the kick-off.
Anthony Stokes was through on goal after just 75 seconds of play, but hit his shot wide. He had the ball in the net a minute later but was penalised for a foul on Marc McAusland. Video showed that referee Willie Collum had called it wrong, the jostling being of the 50-50 variety.
Stokes played his part in Celtic’s opener, picking up a pass inside from Gary Hooper and returning it with interest into the St Mirren box, where Hooper steadied himself and slammed the ball low past Craig Samson.
There were just six minutes on the clock and such an early goal steadied Celtic’s nerves but shredded those of St Mirren.
How else to explain an error by Paul McGowan, formerly of Celtic, who misdirected an overhit pass by David van Zanten, another former Celt, straight to Hooper, who needed no second invitation to run away and score after 12 minutes.
Since Daniel Majstorovic had missed a sitter, heading over a Charlie Mulgrew free kick from six yards when unmarked, Celtic could indeed have had five before St Mirren had even forced a shot at goal.
That duly arrived in the 16th minute, when the excellent Nigel Hasselbaink played an adept through ball to McGowan, whose fierce shot was deflected wide by Fraser Forster, the big goalkeeper standing tall and narrowing the angle in textbook fashion.
However, he could do nothing about Lee Mair’s header off a McGowan volley two minutes later which the Celtic fans behind the goal were glad to see settle among them, rather than in the net.
At this point, Celtic were playing some lovely one-touch football with dummies and feints thrown in, and Cha Du Ri’s runs down the right were a feature in attack, but the home side had definitely woken up and they began to play some impressive football.
Danny Lennon’s side have been a revelation with their passing play this season, and despite the obvious drawback of being two goals behind, they continued with their game plan and great credit to them for that.
Celtic knew a third goal would finish the match, however, and first of all Hooper headed wide before James Forrest, who was looking lively down the left wing, fired in a long-range effort that went wide.
From the midway point of the half, St Mirren gradually pinned Celtic back, pressing upfield yet never creating gilt-edged chances.
After 33 minutes, following yet more good play by Hasselbaink and the impressive Jeroen Tesselaar, Steven Thompson had a goalbound effort blocked inadvertently by colleague McGowan, before Hasselbaink very nearly connected with a Tesselaar cross for what would have been a certain goal.
Hasselbaink was giving Mastorovic nightmares, and Celtic had barely created an opportunity worthy of the name for much of the latter part of the half, but they emerged into the swirling breeze for the second half determined to blow away the Saints, just as they had done in the first period.
Stokes was allowed to run unchecked into the St Mirren box and only an outstanding one-handed save by Samson stopped the Celtic forward from scoring.
At the other end, Tesselaar’s powerful free kick was saved low at his near post by Forster, before Stokes was allowed another run, Samson saving St Mirren again.
By now we had a marvellously open game of end-to-end football, and had Kelvin Wilson’s header back to Forster gone the other side of the post for what would have been a ludicrous own-goal, we might have seen Saints mount even more attacks than they did.
Yet Celtic knew they had the two-goal lead in the bag, and were content to defend deeply so that for all the prettiness of St Mirren’s play, there was only rarely any serious penetration into the visitors’ area.
Beram Kayal, Wilson and Majstorovic could count themselves lucky that referee Collum was in generous mood as all three committed bookable offences, and that was perhaps a sign of the pressure St Mirren were exerting.
Steven Thomson’s cross to Steven Thompson should have been turned into the net by the striker, and Thompson should also have done better than head the ball straight at Forster after 73 minutes. Yet the emphasis changed in the closing minutes, as Celtic broke from defence on several occasions and had chances for a third, Samson saving from Ki Sung Yeung and then pulling off a real point-blank save to deny Forrest.
In the end, no-one could have begrudged St Mirren a share of the points if the match had started in the 13th minute.
Unfortunately for the Paisley side, they had already thrown in at away by that point.
St Mirren: Samson, van Zanten, Mair, Goodwin (McLean 89) Thomson, Thompson, McGowan, Hasslebaink (McKee 79) McAusland, Teale (McShane 70); Tesselaar. Subs not used: Carey, Haddad, Kennedy, Smith.
Celtic: Forster, Cha, Majstorovic, Kelvin Wilson, Mulgrew, Brown, Ki (Ledley 86), Kayal, Forrest, Hooper, Stokes. Subs not used: Zaluska, Matthews, Wanyama, Samaras, Maloney, Commons.