Reports of Celtic’s demise may have proven somewhat exaggerated. For now, at least.
There was nothing particularly commanding about the display that sent them through to the Betfred Cup semi-final, but in rediscovering their forcing and foraging qualities during a chancefest of a second period they got the job done. In doing so they relieve the pressure that had been building on them and their manager Brendan Rodgers.
A third goal in as many games for Leigh Griffiths - the only scorer for Celtic across their past three encounters - six minutes from normal time was enough to see off opponents who clung on and no more as the tie wore on.
Nothing runs entirely smoothly for the double treble winners these days, it would appear. And on the night of Rodgers’ 20th straight domestic cup win that extended to the loss of Dedryck Boyata to a straight red-card in the 90th minute for what appeared to be his transgression of giving a mouthful to referee John Beaton.
Rodgers’ has experienced a buffeting in recent times over an “indifferent” start to the season but a pre-match radio interview in which he revealed he turned down an offer to coach in China, believed to be worth a staggering sum, appeared to be a means to illustrate an unbending commitment to his position.
Celtic’s inability to rouse themselves from the rut of repetitively meandering performances certainly couldn’t be considered the consequence of being all-too-committed to keeping certain player in their positions. As he had for the loss against Kilmarnock at the weekend, the Irishman made six changes to his team for last night’s trip to Perth.
He tweaked the system in departing from his orthodoxy of a central striker in essentially field two forwards. Odsonne Edouard playing wide on the left with Leigh Griffiths through the middle. Pivotal performers from the previous two seasons such as Callum McGregor and James Forrest were also reinstated after the weekend. Yet all these alterations made not one whit of difference in the early stages. Celtic were ponderous with their shuttling of the ball passive rather than penetrating.
Rodgers may have given Kris Boyd a flea in his ear for effectively suggesting that teams now know how to play Celtic, and that the Scottish champions are not playing for each other with divides in their camp. The Kilmarnock striker maintained teams believe they can sit deep in the knowledge that Celtic will not be able to play through them. His criticisms seemed valid again in the opening stages last night. A Perth side entitled to be feeling vulnerable after their 5-1 loss away to Rangers on Sunday, were content to stay compact and let Celtic play the ball in front of them.
The upshot was a first half hour that lacked the fizz expected of a to-the-death cup tie. It had all the effervescence of a bottle of milk, indeed, as St |Johnstone demonstrated little interest in creating openings as their visitors were gripped by an inability to do so.
The pattern began to change in the 30th minute. An Edouard diagonal ball in from left flank found Griffiths right on top of Zander Clark inside the six yard box. However, as the Scotland international tried to glance a header downwards, his proximity to the keeper resulted in him directing it straight into the body of the St Johnstone no.1.
Shortly afterwards Celtic lost Kristoffer Ajer when he was left clutching his hamstring following a collision. As he limped off, the travelling support stopped singing about the IRA and groaned at the appearance of his replacement Jack Hendry, who they have come to consider a symptom of all their team’s ills.
The period ended with what should have been an opening goal for Rodgers men, McGregor sent through by a perfectly-weighted ball from Ntcham. The midfielder had time to set himself at the left-hand edge of the area but, with only Clark to beat, he inexplicably tugged a low shot wide of the far post.
As Celtic suddenly discovered an energy and thrust following the break, it was only their inability to beat the St Johnstone keeper that kept the home side in the tie. Three times in the opening minutes of the period Clark was required to extend himself to deny opponents who had thrown off their self-imposed shackles. He smartly pushed a low drive from McGregor round the post, and was then quickly flying to his left again to claw away an arcing effort from Ntcham, before repeating the acrobatics to thwart Griffiths.
Celtic’s encampment in the St Johnstone final third thereafter seemed as if it couldn’t fail to produce a goal. Yet, as the final minutes approached, this had eluded them, with another one-on-one crafted by a Griffiths run in behind the defence inspiring another superb Clark block, on this occasion with his outstretched foot.
The Perth club could not continue to survive, though, and in the 84th minute their defences were finally breached when a Tierney cross scooped in from left led to a Forrest header being blocked on line by Scott Tanser. Amid appeals for penalty, Griffiths rammed the ball in from eight yards for his third goal in as many games.
St Johnstone: Foster, Kerr, Shaughnessy, Tanser; Craig; Wotherspoon, Callachan, Alston, Wright (Swanson 66) ; Watt (Kane 46). Subs: Mitchell, Anderson, McMillan, Nydam, Kennedy.
Celtic: Bain; Lustig, Boyata, Ajer (Hendry 34), Tierney; Brown; Forrest, Ntcham, McGregor (Rogic 75); Griffiths, Edouard (Morgan 66). Subs: Gordon, Mulumbu, Christie, Sinclair.
Referee: John Beaton