Celtic 0-0 Kilmarnock: Champions draw a blank at home

Celtic midfielder Stuart Armstrong watches as Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald dives to save his close-range effort. Picture: SNS
Celtic midfielder Stuart Armstrong watches as Kilmarnock goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald dives to save his close-range effort. Picture: SNS
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The only aspect of this nothingy – in all respects – game worth registering was that it continued a surprising trend. As dominant as the, now, seven-in-a-row champions have been under Brendan Rodgers, the scoreless encounter with Kilmarnock was Celtic’s third at home inside only five games. Surprising when it is considered they scored in every single domestic encounter for a year-and-a-half.

As if any of this matters in the grand scheme of things, of course. However, what will matter to Kilmarnock at least is that draw means they have shared the spoils with their more illustrious opponents in the Premiership this season with a win, two draws and only one defeat – that pre-Steve Clarke’s arrival – in their four meetings.

Aside from preserving a home domestic unbeaten record that stretches back two-and-a-half years, there was little in last night’s game for Celtic. With the title safely stashed, they are effectively marking the time until they start their preparations in earnest next week for the Scottish Cup final. The composition of the team reflected the fact that Rodgers is thinking beyond the Premiership commitments, which took Kilmarnock to Parkhead last night and will bring Aberdeen to Glasgow’s east end for the champions’ title party.

There was no sign of Moussa Dembele, the one fully-fit striker in the Celtic squad. The Frenchman is probably being fitted out for a bubble wrap suit with the cup final ten days away. Rodgers hauled him off as soon as Odsonne Edouard was lost to a season-ending hamstring pull in Sunday’s win over Hearts, and his caution is understandable with Leigh Griffiths having being hospitalised with tonsillitis.

The absence of this attacking trident meant on-loan Manchester City winger Patrick Roberts being played through the middle, and supported by Scott Sinclair and James Forrest on the flank. Forrest was one of this season’s mainstays to be stripped from the first whistle last night, with captain Scott Brown, Callum McGregor and Kristoffer Ajer the others.

Centre-back Jozo Simunovic made his first start since his red card in the dramatic derby win at Ibrox in March. The fact he, like Stuart Armstrong, Roberts and Sinclair, could be cast as an understudy being afforded a rare central role told of the quiet evolution in the Celtic ranks this season.

All four men were pivots in Rodgers’ debut season treble. In the chase for an unprecedented second successive clean sweep of the Scottish honours – in part because of injury – they have become peripheral figures.

Any action of note felt like it was peripheral in a first 45 minutes that passed slowly, tediously slowly. That would probably have pleased Kilmarnock’s Clarke. The former West Brom manager has achieved very great things this season in transforming the Ayrshire club from relegation prospects to certain fifth-place finishers across seven months in charge. But he has not been a man to lose sight of his team’s limitations and, as with the narrow loss at Ibrox on Saturday, he clearly set out with the aim of suffocating his Glasgow hosts last night.

Three post-split defeats for a Killie side that hadn’t lost in their previous 12 league encounters might have encouraged a certain retrenchment from Clarke when setting out his team.

It sort of worked, even if it was a case of Celtic doing a whole lot of push and Kilmarnock doing a whole lot of standing firm for the first hour. The one occasion Rodgers’ men seemed to have disrupted that cycle came after half an hour when they had the ball in the net after Simunovic headed on an Armstrong 
free-kick from the left. Celebrations were cut short when it emerged that Ajer had got a touch on the effort of his fellow centre-back when in an offside position.

Forays down the left and right from Sinclair and Forrest gave Killie the most to think about in the opening period. From one, the Englishman dinked an effort that rolled across the face of goal, while Forrest lofted a header just over the bar.

Jamie MacDonald made a fine block from Armstrong as Celtic demonstrated the greater urgency early in the second period. Not enough for the liking of Rodgers, though, who sent on go-to men Kieran 
Tierney and Tom Rogic for the last 25 minutes. They made Celtic more likely to score. As did debutant Ewan Henderson with a bright cameo. But the breakthrough would not come – even when Jack Hendry was able to rise unchallenged to meet a McGregor corner in the 81st minute. The defender inexplicably failed to find the target with that stretching out in front of him. He was left holding head in hands. Come the final whistle, plenty others inside Celtic Park were left shaking theirs at the non-event they had witnessed.