No strikers? No worries. A teenager effortlessly took the strain, scoring twice either side of half-time, as Celtic ensured a lack of forwards did not hinder their title hopes.
Mikey Johnston nascent Celtic’s career continues on an upward trajectory. The 19-year-old helped ignite his side with a double having already assisted their cause by gladly accepting manager Brendan Rodgers’ request for the winger to play through the middle.
Odsonne Edouard is likely to return to the side at Aberdeen on Boxing Day having been given a few days to rest a tight abductor muscle but Johnston’s display here – and in last week’s 3-0 win over Motherwell, when he also scored – means it’s not necessarily a formality.
This was a tale of two forwards at the opposite stages of their career. Johnston is just starting out. Kenny Miller, who turns 39 tomorrow, would have relished just one of the chances that fell Johnston’s way as he continues his bid to become Dundee’s oldest scorer. The veteran striker played the last 40 minutes after replacing Benjamin Kallman as Dundee’s lone attacking presence and has had easier shifts in his 20-plus years as a professional.
It feels slightly disingenuous to talk of a personnel crisis in relation to well-resourced Celtic. But they were down to the bare bones in the orthodox striker department following Edouard’s injury. Leigh Griffiths is also sidelined for the time being.
They were still able to field James Forrest, Scott Sinclair, Tom Rogic and Callum McGregor, who all know where the goal is.
But it took Johnston to get his side up and going. Centre-half Filip Benkovic even got in on the act after 68 minutes to score his second goal for the club and secure the points for a much-changed Celtic side. The on-loan Leicester City defender drilled in the rebound after substitute Ryan Christie’s shot was saved by Dundee goalkeeper Jack Hamilton.
Johnston, who scored his first goal against Motherwell on Wednesday, struck two minutes before half-time to ease fears it might be one of those days for Celtic. Dundee centre-half Ryan Inniss should have been tighter to his man following McGregor’s through ball but was too busy appealing for a possible off-side. Johnston wrong-footed the distracted Inniss with a neat turn and steered a shot inside Hamilton’s far post from the edge of the box. It was an accomplished finish that spoke of a player mature beyond his years.
Johnston was on the hunt for a perfect hat-trick shortly after half-time having put Celtic two in front with a header that came down off the bar after Sinclair’s chipped cross. The teenager had already hit the bar with a first-half side-footed volley. He was a lively presence throughout his time on the pitch and fully deserved to receive the acclaim of the home fans upon being replaced by Jonny Hayes after 75 minutes – Celtic’s last substitution. Celtic played the entire game without a recognised striker and still won comfortably. Hamilton helped keep the score at a semi-respectable level with a series of good stops and clean handling.
Those Celtic fans who jettisoned Christmas shopping to attend one of the less appetising fixtures on their card got their reward. Top versus bottom went pretty much as expected once Celtic eventually broke the seal. Dundee lived dangerously for much of the first-half and needed Nathan Ralph’s goalline clearance to prevent Sinclair opening the scoring after just seven minutes.
It was bad enough for those Dundee fans hemmed into a corner without hearing score updates that mean their side are suddenly detached at the bottom.
Both sides made several changes to help create the impression this was a fixture both wanted out of the way as quickly as possible. They each have more meaningful games in terms of their long-term ambitions on Boxing Day: Celtic away to title rivals Aberdeen and Dundee at home to Livingston.
Dundee can console themselves with the thought it doesn’t get much tougher than successive outings within seven days at Rugby Park, Pittodrie and Celtic Park. Conceding 11 times in total isn’t what they wanted but it could have been a lot worse yesterday. They could not, though, conjure the consolation goal they managed in Aberdeen and Kilmarnock.