GARY Mackay-Steven could have entranced on the back of a flaming chariot and made less of a first impression than he managed last night, when scoring after just 38 seconds of a fine debut. By comparison Stuart Armstrong,
Scorers: Celtic - Mackay-Steven (1), Armstrong (30), Johansen (66)
Celtic’s other transfer window signing from Dundee United, had a quieter first appearance – he took nearly half an hour before finding the net.
While, ostensibly, this was a match between Partick Thistle and Celtic, it quickly grew to become a tale of two young Scottish debutants. Mackay-Steven and Armstrong had barely broken free from their first huddle before they were slipping into gear for their new club. The hosts might have been meek but Celtic were clinical in the extreme as they pulled three points clear of second-placed Aberdeen, who have also played a game more.
It is beginning to look slightly ominous for those in the chasing pack. After first-half goals from Mackay-Steven and Armstrong, Stefan Johansen wrapped up the points with a third goal on 66 minutes. However, even the in-form Johansen will be happy to defer to his two new teammates when it comes to the matter of plaudits following their bright start to life at their new club.
The last time Celtic crossed the city to Firhill they secured the league title with a 5-1 win. Nothing was guaranteed by last night’s victory but with two new high-impact signings strengthening them further, Ronny Deila’s side currently look unbeatable.
Only a fine one-handed save from Scott Fox prevented Armstrong from scoring after five minutes, by which time Mackay-Steven had made his mark in remarkably swift fashion. He had already set-up John Guidetti with a scoring chance. The striker’s effort was deflected for a corner and when the home side failed to clear, Nir Bitton touched it towards Mackay-Steven, who drilled a shot past Fox. Only 38 seconds had elapsed.
Celtic looked in imperious form from the start. Indeed, title challengers Aberdeen, Inverness and Dundee United could only look on with a sense of deflation. Nowhere was the feeling of desolation more marked than on Tannadice Street, the home of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven’s former employers.
They had hoped to be able to withstand the advances of Celtic until the end of the season, even though they knew the Parkhead club had tied up Mackay-Steven on a pre-contract. But negotiations on the last day of the window saw not only Mackay-Steven depart for Glasgow, but also Armstrong. The one consolation for United is that neither player is eligible for the pair of cup clashes between the teams that awaits next month.
Mackay-Steven and Armstrong were quick to make up for lost time after being excluded from Saturday’s Scottish Cup victory over Dundee because of their involvement in the previous round for United. Delia was forced to shake-up his side in any case due to injuries sustained by Kris Commons and Mikael Lustig. Leigh Griffiths was also absent after reportedly injuring an ankle in training. His place was taken by John Guidetti, himself eager to make an impression after nine games without a goal.
The on-loan striker might have struck in the opening seconds but for a desperate block from Conrad Balotoni. Although Stefan Johansen’s subsequent corner was poor, Thistle failed to clear with any conviction and Bitton nudged the ball into Mackay-Steven’s path.
Even though it was within the first minute of his first game for the club, the 24-year-old was composed enough to shoot past Fox. It was quite a start for a player who then went on to further light up the game. Thistle defender Frederic Frans had to make an untidy challenge at one point to stop his advances and was fortunate not to earn himself a booking.
One wondered whether Armstrong was feeling a little miffed at his friend’s instant impact. He had to wait until the half hour mark to appear on the score-sheet, although, in truth, he had already displayed his class. His drive after five minutes brought a good save from Fox while Armstrong also actually played a pivotal role in the run-up to his goal, as did Mackay-Steven.
The latter’s pass to Armstrong was helped on to Guidetti, who looked as though he had made a mess of the opportunity but had the presence of mind to find Armstrong, whose finish into the far corner was immaculate.
Sadly for Thistle, this was another outing that saw Craig Gordon barely tested. The Celtic goalkeeper has not been beaten since before Christmas and had to wait fully 48 minutes before saving Thistle’s first shot on target, which was a weak effort from distance by Declan McDaid.
Celtics, who made it eight games without conceding a goal, were never really tested at the back until midway through the second-half. Lyle, on his first start since returning to the club, was well marshalled by Jason Denayer and Virgil van Dijk but Thistle became to exert some belated pressure and were loud in their appeals for a penalty when Emilio Izaguirre charged down a shot from Stuart Brannigan.
But Johansen’s goal midway through the second-half signalled an end to this spell of modest pressure. The Norwegian received a pass from Guidetti and swept the ball past Fox from the edge of the box. He was later replaced by Liam Henderson and left the pitch to a rapturous reception.
However, there was no doubting who the stars of the night were even if McDaid, the Thistle striker, was rather impishly named man of the match. Mackay-Steven was rightfully loudly applauded from the field when he was substituted after 83 minutes, for Callum McGregor. Armstrong, meanwhile, lasted the pace and both him and his former Dundee United teammate look set to become players of some substance for their new side.
Partick Thistle: Fox, O’Donnell, Booth, Frans, Elliot, Osman, Balatoni, McDaid, Bannigan, Taylor, Stevenson. Subs: Craigen, Doolan, Lawless, Gallacher, Higginbotham, Richards-Everton, Fraser.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Denayer, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Biton, Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Armstrong, Guidetti. Subs: Ambrose, Stokes, Scepovic, Zaluska, Fisher, McGregor, Henderson.