CELTIC finally discovered a cure for their post-European hangovers as they moved steadily, if unspectacularly, towards the summit of the Scottish Premiership.
Having dropped league points immediately after their previous four European fixtures this season, Ronny Deila’s side secured victory over Kilmarnock through goals from new-look strike pairing John Guidetti and Stefan Scepovic.
It was another far from compelling display from Celtic who benefitted from the straight red card correctly shown to Kilmarnock captain Manuel Pascali 12 minutes before half-time. But it is results which matter most for Deila at this stage. Celtic have leap-frogged Kilmarnock into fourth place in the table and are now just three points off the top with a game in hand.
As turning points in a match go, they don’t come much more definitively than Pascali’s dismissal here. It came just as Kilmarnock were enjoying their most threatening spell of a first half in which Celtic had once again struggled to find the tempo and fluency which Deila hopes will be the trademark of his tenure.
In his efforts to inject a greater attacking threat in the wake of a series of fairly insipid home performances, Deila strayed from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, switching to an orthodox 4-4-2 in order to accommodate both midweek Europa League goalscorer Scepovic and the returning Guidetti in attack.
But Kilmarnock coped comfortably with Celtic’s early efforts to impose themselves on proceedings and looked more menacing themselves on the counter-attack. Had Tope Obadeyi showed sharper reactions, he might have got the better of Craig Gordon in the fifth minute rather than have the ball nicked off his toes in the penalty area by the Celtic ‘keeper.
Alexei Eremenko also fizzed a shot wide during the initial stages as the visitors suggested they were capable of making this another uncomfortable 90 minutes for the champions.
Having broken his scoring duck in the Europa League win over Astra, the platform had been laid for Scepovic to start living up to his £2.3 million transfer fee. But the Serbian international continued to lack conviction too often, as when he headed a Stefan Johansen corner wide from close range in the 24th minute.
Mubarak Wakaso, brought into the starting line-up for the injured Anthony Stokes, is another summer recruit who has yet to convince for Celtic. The Ghanaian winger should have done better than head a Callum McGregor cross straight at Kilmarnock ‘keeper Conor Brennan.
As Kilmarnock grew visibly in confidence, they ended one excellent passing move in the 33rd minute with a stinging drive from Eremenko which had Gordon diving to his left to make a fine save. But that was when the match was turned on its head as Celtic immediately countered with the move which led to Pascali’s red card. He had no complaints about the decision as he pulled Scepovic down just outside the penalty area as the striker tried to race onto McGregor’s through ball. Pascali may have served his team better by taking the risk of allowing Scepovic a shot at goal.
Kilmarnock sacrificed the creative talent of Eremenko, bringing on central defender Lee Ashcroft to fill the gap left by Pascali, and then suffered the further blow of seeing Celtic take the lead from the free-kick awarded for the foul. Guidetti struck it sweetly, the ball curling beyond the grasp of Brennan into the corner of the net.
It had suddenly turned into a damage limitation exercise for Johnston’s men. They were fortunate to reach the interval only 1-0 behind, Scepovic having a shot cleared off the line by Mark Connolly and then Guidetti forcing a terrific save from Brennan to keep out a powerful effort from the confident Swede.
Unsurprisingly, Celtic continued to dominate territorially in the second half, although their often ponderous work in possession was a source of frustration for the home support who clearly expected much better against short-handed opposition.
Kilmarnock were resilient in defence but also rode their luck on more than one occasion. Guidetti was left holding his head in disbelief after one frantic attack saw his first shot strike Brennan’s left-hand post before his follow-up effort was superbly saved by the young Northern Irishman.
The comfort of a second goal finally came Celtic’s way in the 63rd minute. Wakaso used his pace to telling effect for once, finding room on the left to pick out Scepovic with a fine cross. The striker, who moments earlier had perpetrated a horrible miscue from the edge of the box, made no mistake this time with a side-footed finish from close range. Scepovic should have added another to his tally three minutes later when he latched onto an underhit back-pass from Sammy Clingan, but his tame attempt to chip Brennan was cut out by the ‘keeper.
It was Scepovic’s final contribution before being replaced by Leigh Griffiths.
The home side were unable to further bolster their goal difference as they eased their way to the final whistle.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; McGregor, Brown, Johansen (Mulgrew 67), Wakaso (Tonev 79); Guidetti, Scepovic (Griffiths 67) Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Lustig, Kayal.
Kilmarnock: Brennan, Barbour, Connolly, Pascali, Chantler; Clingan, Hamill; McKenzie, Eremenko (Ashcroft 34), Obadeyi; Magennis (Ngoo 71). Subs not used: Mackay, Johnston, Slater, Westlake, Muirhead.