IN SOME ways, Celtic’s latest confident step towards the title could be considered emblematic of their league campaign. With the gap between Ronny Deila’s team and Aberdeen still at seven points, the numbers suggest a challenge that isn’t really there anymore.
Scorers: Celtic - Commons (44 pen), Johansen (64)
Likewise, the 2-0 scoreline last night could give the impression that Thistle ran their hosts close. In reality, Alan Archibald’s side were run ragged – even before a crucial red card and penalty just before the interval left them a man and goal down at the worst possible moment. The wonder of it was that only Stefan Johansen – the captain for the evening – added to the advantage gained by Kris Commons’ spot-kick after James Craigen had been sent off.
Throughout, the movement, marauding and slick interplay from the home team meant there was never any question of them registering the victory that represents another obstacle negotiated on their march towards a fourth straight championship. Such was the control of Deila’s side, that a defence that had conceded only three goals in their previous 16 domestic games was rarely placed under any pressure. Craig Gordon still produced two fine saves, mind.
The conviction that the title has been decided in all but arithmetical considerations certainly would appear to be shared by sizeable clumps of the Celtic support. The sizeable clumps that, on a fine spring evening during the holiday season, elected to ensure there were sizeable clumps of the seating exposed at Celtic Park.
In the websphere many of the club’s faithful are forever protesting how much they are enjoying the new Celtic as moulded by Deila operating in the new reality of a Rangers-free top flight.
This view does not seem to correlate to the numbers prepared to go and watch a side that are not only champions-elect but could be six weeks away from snaring a treble.
Last night, they could have brought up a different sort of treble in rapid order with a trio of decidedly convertible chances coming and going within the first ten minutes. Indeed, within two minutes Celtic had allowed the Thistle goal to lead a charmed life twice.
Storming forward from the first whistle, sharp passing allowed Stuart Armstrong to chip a ball into the front post where Virgil van Dijk was lurking. The big defender swished a foot out to flick the ball towards goal and, with keeper Scott Fox beaten, the nonchalant effort clipped the crossbar.
That was in 59 seconds. Within another 59 seconds a casual approach to getting his shot away when only eight yards out from Johansen allowed Conrad Balatoni to sprint across the box and block.
The Thistle defender clearly got a taste for putting his body in the way of goalbound efforts because after throwing himself at John Guidetti to head away the header he had set in motion, the centre-back then proved the rock on which a low accurate effort from Gary Mackay-Steven foundered.
This early pummelling from Deila’s men served to indicate that the drive within the Celtic side owes more to the promptings of the club’s ever-urgent captain Scott Brown. The Scotland midfielder was absent through suspension last night, and it was something of a surprise that the Celtic manager gave the armband to Johansen.
Thistle manager Archibald also proved less than predictable in going with two strikers for an assignment that had taken on a greater significance following Ross County moving to within a point of the fourth-bottom Maryhill side thanks to their win over St Johnstone on Tuesday night.
Three wins and a draw from their previous five games had been achieved through backline solidity evident in the fact that Thistle had gone more than 300 minutes without conceding a goal. Scoring them hasn’t always been straightforward.
Archibald’s boldness in fielding two forwards produced only one notable moment in their opponents’ penalty box across the opening period, Gordon requiring to hang in the air to slap his palm on an effort that seemed to be drifting towards his net that was the result of a real acrobatic hitch-kick from Kallum Higginbotham.
Luck, sweat and toil accounted for Partick Thistle remaining on terms for so long last night and the former deserted them when seconds before half-time Craigen mistimed a tackle to haul down Armstrong after the midfielder had engineered a one-two with Guidetti.
Craigen’s infringement made for that rarity – a penalty and accompanying red card for denying a goalscoring opportunity handed out by referee
Willie Collum that there could be no quibble over.
As certain as the dismissal was the subsequent spot-kick conversion by Commons, who drilled the ball in at Fox’s left-hand corner.
The anguished looks and turf thumping by Thistle players as an agonised Craigen made his way towards the tunnel were clear indications that the Maryhill side knew there hopes of taking anything from this Glasgow derby had evaporated. Yet the last rites took another 24 minutes to be administered with Johansen performing the ritual in eye-catching fashion.
There was a real stylishness to how the Norwegian back-heeled a ball to Guidetti from the left-hand edge of the box before darting forward and accepting a return that he despatched into the far corner with a low, accurate angled drive.
Celtic: Gordon; Matthews (Fisher 66), Denayer, van Dijk, Izaguirre; Bitton, Armstrong; Commons (Forrest 66), Johansen, Mackay-Steven; Guidetti (Griffiths 75). Subs not used: Zaluska, Ambrose, Stokes, McGregor.
Partick Thistle: Fox; O’Donnell, Balatoni, Frans, Booth; Craigen, Bannigan (Fraser 77), Osman, Lawless (McDaid 58); Stevenson (Taylor 55), Higginbotham. Subs not used: Gallacher, Richards-Everton, Wilson, Keenan.
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