St Johnstone 0 - 0 Celtic: Europe hope alive for Saints

ST JOHNSTONE spurned a glorious opportunity to significantly enhance their hopes of Europa League qualification as they had to settle for a stalemate against under-strength Celtic.

Celtic's Scott Brown battles with Steven MacLean. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Scott Brown battles with Steven MacLean. Picture: SNS

The point earned by Tommy Wright’s side may yet prove valuable in their bid to beat Dundee United to fourth place in the SPFL Premiership and the possibility of bringing European football to Perth for a fourth successive season.

But they really should have claimed all three against Ronny Deila’s much-changed Scottish champions, missing a hatful of premium chances in front of goal.

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It was a night when motivation understandably came far more easily to St Johnstone as they continue to pursue that Europa League slot and that was evident in their approach from the opening moments.

Celtic's Scott Brown battles with Steven MacLean. Picture: SNS

Celtic were without five first-team regulars in Craig Gordon, Emilio Izaguirre, Virgil van Dijk, Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen. Deila’s decision to rest some of his key men inevitably contributed to a diminished tempo and rhythm to much of their work.

Saints were eager to pose questions of a recast Celtic defence in which 17-year-old Kieran Tierney made his first starting appearance for the club at left-back.

Michael O’Halloran seemed to be at the heart of most of the promising situations the home side managed to carve out but his finishing left much to be desired.

He wasted his first chance of the evening in the seventh minute, blazing a shot over after finding space on the right side of the Celtic penalty area.

The visitors responded by forcing a corner, taken by Stuart Armstrong and flicked on by Efe Ambrose, from which Leigh Griffiths should have opened the scoring. Celtic’s top scorer, however, drove his close-range shot straight at Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus.

Making a rare start as Gordon’s deputy at the other end, Lukasz Zaluska then made a fine save when he dived to his left to keep out a sweetly-struck 20-yard shot by Murray Davidson.

St Johnstone were very much on the front foot and O’Halloran fluffed his lines again when he failed to connect cleanly with a close-range header.

Celtic’s defending was of the last-ditch variety at times, Ambrose scooping the ball over his own crossbar after Gary Miller had nodded a Danny Swanson corner towards goal.

O’Halloran was the source of further anguished groans by the home fans when he failed to test Zaluska with another close-range header from Steven Anderson’s cross. The out-of-touch forward was then sent clear by David Wotherspoon’s through ball but drove his low shot straight at Celtic’s Polish ’keeper.

The visitors threatened to make St Johnstone pay for their profligacy, Kris Commons driving a 22-yard shot narrowly wide of Mannus’s left-hand post.

There was no shortage of goalmouth incidents to keep both sets of supporters interested.

Saints came close once more when Zaluska made a double save to deny Wotherspoon and Davidson after fine lead-up work by Swanson.

Celtic continued to struggle for fluency on a bumpy playing surface but captain Scott Brown almost made the breakthrough five minutes before half-time when his header from a Commons corner was cleared off the line by Chris Millar.

Celtic made a change at the start of the second half as Charlie Mulgrew made his return to first-team action after five months on the sidelines with a knee injury. The Scotland international replaced Denayer in central defence.

St Johnstone immediately renewed their pursuit of the opener and Anderson might have done better than head wide from Wotherspoon’s inviting corner.

Celtic were unconvincing in their defence of set pieces but were let off the hook again by Saints’ lack of a cutting edge when Tam Scobbie sent his free header from a Chris Millar free-kick straight at Zaluska.

The home fans must have been fearing their team would be punished for their failings in front of goal and that dread was almost realised when Brown scooped a shot just over the top after being played in by Armstrong.

Although they were still some way short of imposing themselves on the match, Celtic were gradually more threatening and Mulgrew almost marked his comeback with a goal when his header from Armstrong’s free kick was saved by Mannus.

Celtic introduced Izaguirre and the lesser-spotted Stefan Scepovic for the closing stages, while Wright sent on former Scotland forward James

McFadden in search of the inspiration required to claim all three points.

McFadden so nearly obliged in the 83rd minute, rising to meet a Swanson corner from the left and sending his glancing header against Zaluska’s left-hand post.

In a remarkable aftermath to that incident, Anderson saw his shot blocked before Celtic broke forward with a rapid counter-attack which left James Forrest one-on-one with Mannus. The winger deftly took the ball around the ’keeper before contriving to shank his shot wide of the empty goal.

In a dramatic finale, both teams came close to snatching a winner in stoppage time. Davidson struck Zaluska’s left-hand post with a low shot at one end, before Mannus made a terrific diving save at the other to prevent Griffiths striking what would have been the cruellest of blows to Saints.

St Johnstone: Mannus, Miller (Caddis 70), Anderson, Scobbie, Easton; Davidson, Millar; Swanson (Lappin 87), O’Halloran, Wotherspoon; MacLean (McFadden 79). Subs not used: Banks, Wright, Graham, Kane.

Celtic: Zaluska, Matthews, Ambrose, Denayer (Mulgrew 46), Tierney (Izaguirre 69); Brown, Armstrong; Forrest, Commons (Scepovic 71), Mackay-Steven; Griffiths. Subs not used: Fasan, Guidetti, Rogic, Fisher.