Kilmarnock 0 - 1 Celtic: Armstrong extends lead at the top

Celtic's Stuart Armstrong celebrates his goal. Picture: SNS
Celtic's Stuart Armstrong celebrates his goal. Picture: SNS
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It is unlikely to occupy much footage on Celtic’s end-of-season DVD marking what already looks certain to be a sixth consecutive title triumph but Brendan Rodgers’ men did just enough to stretch their lead at the top of the Premiership table to 13 points.

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Stuart Armstrong’s strike a minute before half-time secured victory against a spirited and often enterprising Kilmarnock side.

It was far from the most cohesive or eye-catching display Celtic have produced under Rodgers but a seventh consecutive domestic clean sheet would provide him with considerable satisfaction.

The Scottish champions are already disappearing over the horizon in what, even at this stage of the season, can scarcely be described as a title race any longer.

Armstrong’s goal was a reward for persistence rather than sustained excellence from Celtic at the end of a first half in which their dominance of possession was not translated into too many clear-cut chances.

There was some adapting for Rodgers’ side to do on the night, both to the artificial playing surface at Rugby Park and the re-jigged formation which saw Dedryck Boyata come in from the cold to join Mikael Lustig and Erik Sviatchenko in a three-man defence.

It was Boyata’s first competitive appearance for Celtic since his less than auspicious contribution in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Rangers towards the end of last season.

The Belgian was preferred to Kolo Toure, who was among the substitutes, perhaps with Wednesday night’s Champions League assignment against Barcelona in mind.

Celtic opened up on the front foot with top scorer Moussa Dembele getting his first sniff of goal in the sixth minute when, under pressure from Kilmarnock defender Will Boyle, he screwed a close range shot wide from James Forrest’s cutback.

Scott Sinclair saw a 20-yard effort deflected wide as the visitors continued to probe for an early breakthrough, the winger delivering the resulting corner from which Sviatchenko headed just wide.

Kilmarnock, whose manager Lee Clark was determined would be far less open than when they were humbled 6-1 at Celtic Park in September, gradually edged their way into the contest with Irish midfielder Gary Dicker an intelligent lynchpin in their solid 4-1-4-1 set-up.

But they were indebted to goalkeeper Jamie MacDonald who made a fine one-handed save, diving to his right, to keep out a rising shot from Forrest.

In response, Killie produced their most threatening moment yet when Greg Taylor found space on the left for a cross which on-loan Huddersfield Town striker Flo Bojaj headed wide at the near post.

Celtic had the ball in the net through Dembele but the French striker’s typically emphatic finish was in vain on this occasion as his captain Scott Brown was in an offside position.

Sinclair, a player hardly renowned for the physicality of his work, was exceptionally unfortunate to receive the first booking of the night when referee Don Robertson penalised him for a ball-winning challenge on Luke Hendrie.

Just as it appeared Kilmarnock would succeed in frustrating Celtic going into the interval, they were caught out by the 44th-minute sucker punch. Dembele collected the ball from Forrest on the right and played a piercing pass through the home side’s backline, who failed to pick up Armstrong’s run into the penalty area. The midfielder was composure personified as he slotted his right-foot shot past the exposed MacDonald.

Celtic looked to press home their advantage immediately after the restart with MacDonald making a smart save with an outstretched boot to deny Callum McGregor, who had burst clear down the left.

The Killie goalkeeper then had to react swiftly to keep out an inventive chipped effort from Patrick Roberts.

It was a rare moment of impact from the otherwise subdued on-loan Manchester City winger who was replaced by Tom Rogic when Rodgers made his first change of the night.

Clark’s introduction of Nathan Tyson for Bojaj revitalised Kilmarnock in attack with the former Nottingham Forest striker’s physical presence unsettling the Celtic defence. Craig Gordon was forced into a rare save when he got down well to turn the ball wide after Adam Frizzell’s cross had been deflected towards goal off Armstrong.

The game became increasingly stretched as Killie committed more players to their pursuit of an equaliser and Celtic tried to take advantage on the counter-attack. Scott Boyd cleared a Forrest effort off the line at one end before Frizzell’s was comfortably held by Gordon after excellent hold-up play from Tyson.

Lustig almost settled late nerves for Celtic when his 20-yard shot struck MacDonald’s left-hand post but the visitors survived some frantic late pressure from Kilmarnock to head back up the M77 with all three points.

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