Those who confidently predicted there was no way back for Dedryck Boyata as a Celtic player were confounded as he made a match-winning return to Brendan Rodgers’ side at the start of a pivotal week for the Scottish champions.
Scoring the only goal of the game and helping your team keep their first clean sheet in seven outings is certainly as good a way as any to start reintegrating yourself. Boyata remains persona non grata in the eyes of some Celtic fans for his alleged refusal to play in recent matches after he was denied a move to the English Premier League earlier this month.
But, having been accepted back into the fold by his manager and team-mates, he responded with an outstanding all-round display which ensured Celtic secured all three points against a gritty and gutsy Hamilton Accies side.
With further home games against Suduva in the Europa League and Rangers in the Premiership to come over the next seven days, Celtic are now in a position to alter the negative narrative which has surrounded their start to the season.
With Jozo Simunovic and Jack Hendry both sidelined by injury, there was an element of necessity about Rodgers’ decision to reinstate Boyata to the heart of his defence.
Regardless of the circumstances, the big Belgian’s inclusion was always going to prove unpopular with a section of the Celtic support. A banner unfurled in the Green Brigade section of the ground just before kick-off left him in no doubt about how his recent non-participation has been perceived.
‘Boyata – Not Fit To Wear The Jersey’ was the message sent. His first few touches of the afternoon elicited jeers from the same group of fans, although those of a more forgiving nature in other parts of the stadium responded with encouraging cheers for Boyata.
Just 30 seconds into what was his first appearance for Celtic since the Scottish Cup Final at the end of last season, there was an uncomfortable moment for Boyata and his central defensive partner Kristoffer Ajer when Hamilton striker Mikel Miller burst into the penalty area and forced Craig Gordon into a smart save at the expense of a corner.
It was a rare moment of attacking intent from the visitors who set out to smother the life out of proceedings with their 5-3-2 formation. With Congolese midfielder Delphin Tshiembe deployed as the spare man at the back for Accies, they diligently policed and frustrated the Celtic front pair of Moussa Dembele and Leigh Griffiths, pictured, in a largely pedestrian first half.
Griffiths’ first sight of goal came in the fourth minute but he was denied by an alert and well-timed interception from Ziggy Gordon which was typical of the visitors’ defensive work in the opening 45 minutes.
Clear-cut chances were few and far between for the champions who forced Gary Woods into his first save in the 15th minute. After Dembele had set up the shooting chance for James Forrest, Accies ‘keeper Woods did well to touch the effort on to his left-hand post.
Tom Rogic did his best to bring some creative spark to the contest, his clever footwork occasionally threatening to disrupt Hamilton’s rigid but effective game plan. The Australian midfielder’s skill created another opening for Forrest on the right of the penalty area and this time the winger’s shot was deflected wide off Ziggy Gordon.
Hamilton had scarcely crossed the halfway line since the early chance for Miller, but they forced Celtic on to the back foot again in the 29th minute when Steven Boyd forced his way into the box and saw his shot diverted for a corner by Mikael Lustig.
Celtic were soon dominating possession and camping in the Accies half once more and Rogic wasn’t far away with a curling shot from distance after a slick move involving Lustig and Griffiths, pictured left.
Dembele twice came close to breaking the deadlock just before the interval, first of all heading wide from close range after Forrest had picked him out with an inviting cross, then cutting in from the left and clipping the top of the crossbar with a dipping shot from 20 yards.
Celtic tried to inject some much needed urgency into their play at the start of the second half and Callum McGregor should have done better than scoop a shot over after latching onto Kieran Tierney’s cut back.
Opportunities began to occur more regularly for the hosts and Dembele passed up another couple in quick succession. He dragged a shot wide of Woods’ left-hand post after being picked out by the increasingly influential Tierney, then headed over from close range from a Lustig cross.
Having defended so robustly for so long, Accies were now showing signs of vulnerability. Celtic finally found a way through in the 63rd minute from a set piece. Griffiths’ corner from the left was flicked on by Dembele and found its way to Lustig who nodded the ball back across goal to provide Boyata with a simple close-range tap-in.
Boyata’s celebration of his 14th goal in Celtic colours was of the muted variety as he accepted the congratulations of his team-mates, including goalkeeper Gordon who ran the length of the pitch to join the show of unity. In the 77th minute, Boyata should have scored again when, after Accies were again unable to properly clear a corner kick, he scooped a shot over from around 12 yards.
Aside from Aaron McGowan flashing a shot wide for Accies with five minutes remaining, there was little to concern Celtic as they saw the game out in relative comfort to move into second place in the Premiership table.