Celtic achieved their ultimate goal of reaching the top of the league. It just wasn’t in the swashbuckling way they might have envisaged. But then a 0-0 draw at Livingston is not to be sniffed at these days.
Celtic went from the high of a performance labelled by manager Brendan Rodgers as their best in Europe under him to coming up short at the Tony Macaroni Arena.
Still, the point is enough to see them usurp Hearts as league leaders on goal difference as they took over top spot for the first time this season.
It’s looking particularly ominous for their rivals since Celtic also have a game in hand.
Perhaps understandably, this display lacked the vigour of the dramatic, draining
victory over RB Leipzig in midweek. While they found a way to break down the big-spending German side, Celtic were endlessly frustrated by a gang of gold-shirted desparados otherwise known as Livingston FC.
The free-scoring visitors ran into a gridlock here in the West Lothian new town after five successive league victories where they racked up 21 goals.
Red Bull could be what fuels this Livingston side. Or, more likely, their doggedness is down to such good old-fashioned qualities as physical fitness and a fierce commitment to defending from the front.
Everyone knows their job, from the tireless Dolly Menga in attack to those in a Livi back-line that continues to excel.
They can, sometimes, overstep the line. Menga was very lucky to escape a red card for pushing his head towards Celtic midfielder Ryan Christie after a tussle in the box while the players waited for a throw-in.
This occurred just before the half-hour mark. It’s unlikely even Livingston could have coped with shutting out the champions for over an hour while down to ten men.
Christie, to his credit, did not throw himself to the ground nor did he draw attention to the incident. Referee Kevin Clancy only spoke to the pair.
There was a more serious clash of heads in terms of damage sustained later in the game when Kris Ajer, making his first league start since September, fell to the turf after an aerial challenge with Livingston skipper Craig Halkett. Felip Benkovic replaced him with just over 20 minutes left. The centre-half was later revealed to have suffered a fractured eye socket and could be on the sidelines until next year.
No blame could be attached to Halkett, whose committed performance typifies Livingston and is from where his side seem to draw so much inspiration.
Declan Gallagher, his centre-half colleague, won everything in the air. So accustomed is the defender to leaping to meet objects above his head it’s a wonder there are any lightbulbs left working at the Tony Macaroni Arena.
There was a passage of play in the first-half where Gallagher and Celtic goalkeeper Scott Bain, in for the injured Craig Gordon, enjoyed their own private duel during a series of corners. Gallagher won three headers in quick succession. Bain tipped the first two over and saved the third. Gallagher was equally commanding in the air at the other end.
Liam Kelly, the home goalkeeper, won man of the match. A twisting aerial save towards the end from Tom Rogic helped earn this point for Livingston, who drew 0-0 with Celtic on their first meeting in 2001.
Twenty straight defeats have duly followed. So this was a result to be celebrated against a side making their first visit for over ten years. As Rangers recently found to their cost, it’s a tricky venue.
“This is Livingston”, the sign above the players’ tunnel, does not have the same ring as “This is Anfield”, but the message must be respected all the same.
Despite the away fans vastly outnumbering the home ones, the stadium seems somehow inhospitable. Perhaps this has something to do with the artificial surface or the tight, bowl-like confines.
Noise is amplified while those times when quietness descends are made to seem more profound. The minute’s silence for Armistice day was mostly well observed with just a few forced coughs from one end of the stadium.
The admirable statement released by Celtic on Friday night underlining the club’s own losses in the First World War certainly appeared to have the desired effect.
Kick-off, following this show of respect, took place against a backdrop of cheers. Celtic were looking for a way to the top. Livingston, meanwhile, were striving for a route back into the top six.
A two-goal victory would have secured this. At times yesterday, certainly in the first half, a 2-0 home win didn’t look completely unattainable.
Gary Holt’s side were first to threaten. Mikael Lustig, who was continuing as skipper in the absence of Scott Brown, blocked Halkett’s full-blooded effort.
Kelly’s first taste of action of note was to block a Christie effort after a neat touch from Odsonne Edouard. Scott Pittman then blocked Rogic’s effort from the rebound.
James Forrest was the next player to come close when his shot just cleared the junction of bar and post a minute before half-time.
The winger was replaced by Lewis Morgan 15 minutes into the second half as Rodgers sought to try something different.
The substitute had a near immediate impact as he tested Kelly from distance with an effort that seemed to move in the air.
The goalkeeper watched it all the way, as he did when Rogic signalled danger when shifting the ball on to his left foot on the edge of the box with five minutes left.
It would have surprised no one if the net had bulged shortly afterwards but Kelly, again, intervened.