Scorers: St Johnstone - O’Halloran (72); Celtic - Griffiths (1); Johansen (52)
His men ultimately may have been pushed far more than he would have liked before racking up an eighth straight win. Only a last-gasp save from Craig Gordon that drew universal superlatives may have allowed them to hang on, having earlier established a comfortable two-goal lead. Yet, in his cheerleading for Scottish football the other day, Deila made the bold claim that the enthusiasm shown by teams in the Scottish top flight made for a contrast with some boring games in the gold bullion-franked English game.
The encounter at McDiarmid Park backed up Deila’s assertion that the willingness of teams to give it a go can create compelling spectacles. St Johnstone had no right to make a game of it yesterday after only a string of saves from Alan Mannus prevented Leigh Griffiths adding a couple more to a 35-second opener, before Stefan Johansen bagged his third goal in three games early in the second period.
On assembling such leads, Celtic have been ruthless in ransacking opponents’ competitiveness since the turn of the year. It seemed the second 45 minutes then would be pipe and slippers time for a Deila side whose goal had not been breached in the eight games. But the refusal of Tommy Wright’s men to accept that a 2-0 deficit meant the jig was up made for a thrilling climax to a contest that throughout was notable for the home side’s willingness to throw punches as well as take a volley of them.
After Wright had attempted to effect change in bold fashion by sending on James McFadden for the toiling Lee Croft, a cross from Tam Scobbie on the left precipitated a moment not witnessed in 13 hours and 36 minutes of Celtic action: a goal from their opponents. Gordon could only block with his knee after Chris Kane touched Tam Scobbie’s centre towards the keeper and that allowed Michael O’Halloran to ram in from point-black range.
Celtic looked far from invincible in defending set-pieces from that point on, which will prove a cautionary note for Deila considering Inter’s prowess in that department. And from a corner the Perth club kept alive with seconds of normal time remaining, only Gordon’s astonishing reflexes prevented Celtic’s perfect record of 2015 being ended.
It was impressive enough for him to slap a right hand on a header bashed in by Brian Graham from four yards. But his ability to then thrust out a left hand to block Dave Mackay’s vicious volley of a follow up was a sight to behold. Johansen joked that he had seen saves like that before… “not in real life” but his FIFA computer game. “I think the first one is a good save but the second one is an incredible save,” said Wright of Gordon’s octopus arms.
The St Johnstone manager expressed satisfaction with his team’s display but admitted they had to “weather a storm” after “a quality pass” and good movement left his side trailing inside the first minute. The quality pass came courtesy of Nir Bitton’s vision and craft, the Israeli midfielder splitting the St Johnstone centre-backs to allow Griffiths to smartly clip a first-time effort beyond the advancing Alan Mannus. “There was a mix-up and I have to hold my hands up, it’s probably my fault. I didn’t track Griffiths’ run,” said Scobbie. “It was a lack of concentration and they punished us.”
With new signings Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong again adding a vibrancy to Celtic’s forward forays, Celtic carved out a range of openings. But not until the 52nd minute did any of these end with the ball in the St Johnstone net. Once more, the alacrity with which the ball was shuttled around proved too much for the home side, with a neat chip from Armstrong allowing Griffiths to direct a header into the path of Johansen, who controlled the ball on his chest, flicked it up with his left foot, then finished with his right. Such movement and mastery of the ball will be pre-requisites if Celtic are to have any hope of upsetting Roberto Mancini’s men on Thursday.
St Johnstone: Mannus; Mackay, Anderson, Scobbie, Easton; Millar: O’Halloran, Lappin, Davidson (Kane 14), Croft (McFadden 66); MacLean (Graham 76). Unused substitutes: Banks, Wright, Caddis, Miller.
Celtic: Gordon; Matthews, Van Dijk, Denayer, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Armstrong (Henderson 68) 6, Johansen, Mackay-Steven (Ambrose 82); Griffiths (Stokes 62). Unused substitutes: Zaluska, Ambrose, Guidetti, Scepovic, McGregor.
Referee: K Clancy. Attendance: 6,727.
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