ROSS County maintained their unbeaten home record against Celtic this season but were unable to earn the victory they needed to keep the outcome of their bid to qualify for Europe within their own hands.
Scorers: Stokes (3), Vigurs (40)
Derek Adams’ men are now four points adrift of third-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle and will need their local rivals to slip up next week if they hope to set up a potential Highland shoot-out for the final Europa League slot on the last day of the SPL season.
A magnificent goal from Iain Vigurs, cancelling out Anthony Stokes’ fourth minute opener for Celtic, earned County their fifth point of the season against the champions. A share of the spoils was just about right on a treacherous pitch, although Neil Lennon’s team could feel aggrieved that a Tony Watt strike which would have put them 2-1 in front was wrongly disallowed for offside.
Celtic’s early breakthrough came from a corner which was cheaply conceded by Andre Hinault. To be charitable to the Canadian international defender, the wretchedly poor playing surface may have been a factor in his miscued and overhit attempt to
pass the ball back to his goalkeeper Michael Fraser.
The home side, in any event, were guilty of further unconvincing work when Kris Commons whipped the set- piece over from the right towards the near post. County’s failure to clear saw the ball break to Stokes, who turned sharply and drove a firm left-foot shot beyond Fraser from close range.
County’s lack of cohesion at the back continued to offer Celtic plenty of encouragement as the champions made by far the brighter and more threatening start to the contest. Hinault was having an especially torrid time trying to cope with Stokes’ movement and conceded a free-kick right on the edge of the penalty area with a trip on the Irish striker. But Stokes could not take advantage this time, driving the ball into the defensive wall.
With Commons making the most of a roving role, County took some time to disrupt Celtic’s initial dominance and gain a foothold in the match. They finally forced Lukasz Zaluska into serious action for the first time in the 23rd minute, the Polish goalkeeper comfortably holding Martin Scott’s shot after Emilio Izaguirre had been hustled out of possession by Ivan Sproule.
That seemed to spark County into life and Zaluska was extended two minutes later when he did well to dive to his left and keep out a well struck free-kick from Vigurs, the uncomfortable Izaguirre having conceded the set-piece with a clumsy foul on Mihael Kovacevic.
Now with the momentum in their favour, County drew level four minutes before the interval courtesy of a stunning effort from the eye-catching Vigurs. The opening came from a free-kick conceded by Efe Ambrose on the right edge of the Celtic penalty area with a foul on Scott. County captain Richard Brittain played the ball short to Vigurs who, from around 25 yards, swept a magnificent, dipping left-foot shot past the despairing Zaluska high to his left.
Celtic were extremely unfortunate not to regain the lead on the stroke of half-time. Dylan McGeouch engineered space down the right and drove over a low cross which was tapped in from close range by Watt, only for the Scotland Under-21 striker to have the effort wrongly chalked off by assistant referee Dougie Potter.
Celtic looked to reimpose themselves on their hosts in the early stages of the second-half and Fraser had to make a smart save in the 53rd minute to deny Stokes. That signalled a spell of sustained pressure from Celtic, who came close again five minutes later when Ambrose rose to meet a Commons corner from the right with a thumping header. Fraser was beaten but rescued by his skipper Brittain on the line.
County were living dangerously but remained committed to trying to get on to the front foot and had an excellent chance in the 63rd minute. Sproule delivered a cross for Steffen Wohlfarth at the near post but the German striker guided the ball wide of Zaluska’s left- hand post. Wohlfarth then lacked the awareness and commitment to get on the end of a dangerous low cross from left-back Evangelos Oikonomou.
County looked the likelier to claim all three points and midfielder Paul Lawson drove a 30-yard shot narrowly over and then forced a save from Zaluska with another long-range strike.
Celtic: Zaluska, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Gershon, Wilson, Lustig, Commons, Ledley, McGeouch, Stokes, Watt
Subs: Noring, Rogic, McCourt, Kaya, McGregor, Keatings, Atajic
Ross County: Fraser, Munro, Hainault, Ikonomou, Kovacevic, Lawson, Brittain, Vigurs, Scott, Sproule, Wohlfarth
Subs: Gallacher, Boyd, Kettlewell, Cooper, Ross, Fotheringham, Porritt