Nadir Ciftci enjoyed his most satisfying and significant contribution yet in a Celtic shirt as the Scottish champions reasserted their clear advantage at the top of the Premiership table.
The Turkish striker has struggled to make an impact for Ronny Deila’s team since his £1.5 million summer move from Dundee United, with his less than stellar display in last Thursday’s Europa League match against Fenerbahce the latest to attract considerable criticism.
But in the continuing absence of top-scorer Leigh Griffiths through injury, Ciftci delivered a positive response yesterday with two goals in an ultimately convincing win over St Johnstone which leaves Celtic four points clear of Aberdeen with a game in hand.
Whatever the implications of their wretched European form this season, it has had no detrimental effect on Celtic’s domestic dominance. This was their tenth successive victory in matches immediately after a European tie as they handed Saints their first defeat in two months.
Tommy Wright’s men failed to capitalise on a positive opening, in which they looked the more threatening outfit, and were eventually overwhelmed by a Celtic side which grew in authority the longer the match progressed.
St Johnstone made by far the brighter start to the contest, playing with the kind of confidence and energy which had been generated by the seven-match unbeaten run they were seeking to extend.
They also had the incentive of moving into third place in the table with a victory and they should have taken the lead inside the first minute.
The pace of Michael O’Halloran has been a potent weapon for Saints this season and the striker raced clear of the Celtic defence as he latched on to Steven MacLean’s lofted pass. It left him one-on-one with Craig Gordon but his shot lacked conviction and was too close to the goalkeeper who made a solid save.
Gordon was less convincing in his attempts to deal with a couple of corners as Saints sought to build up some real momentum and there was a genuine sense of defensive vulnerability about the champions at this stage.
It took Celtic some time to find any semblance of attacking fluency of their own but, when they did, they passed up a clear scoring opportunity which mirrored O’Halloran’s early miss for the hosts.
Tom Rogic created the chance, displaying delightful footwork on the edge of the Saints penalty area before feeding a perfect pass into the path of Ciftci. The striker had only Alan Mannus to beat but directed his shot straight at the Saints goalkeeper who diverted it wide.
It did spark a much better spell for Celtic which also saw St Johnstone disrupted by the loss of Chris Millar to injury, the industrious and influential midfielder replaced by Liam Caddis.
Ciftci atoned for his earlier wastefulness when he put Deila’s men ahead ten minutes before the interval. A 25-yard effort from Mikael Lustig was deflected wide for a corner which Callum McGregor curled over from the right. It was flicked on by Lustig, the ball finding Ciftci at the back post who this time made no mistake with an emphatic close-range shot. If Celtic appeared flattered by their lead, they almost doubled it four minutes later when Mannus made a good save to keep out Dedryck Boyata’s header from a Stuart Armstrong corner.
Saints recovered their composure to end the first half back on the front foot. Gordon made a fine double save, keeping out shots from Murray Davidson and David Wotherspoon, then O’Halloran came close when he sprinted clear of Jozo Simunovic’s challenge to curl a shot narrowly wide. But Saints’ hopes of recovering the situation receded significantly when Celtic made it 2-0 with the simplest of goals four minutes into the second half. It was woeful defending from Wright’s men as Boyata was given all the time and space he needed to power home a close-range header from another McGregor corner.
Brian Easton almost provided an immediate response for St Johnstone when his thunderous shot from 25 yards crashed back off Gordon’s left-hand post but this was a match now firmly in Celtic’s control.
They erased any doubt about the outcome with their third goal in the 67th minute. Again, Saints were undone by a cross ball into their six-yard area as Lustig’s centre from the right was gobbled up by Ciftci as he headed in his second of the afternoon. In doing so, he doubled his tally for the season and perhaps suggested he may yet avoid his name being added to the list of failed striking recruits made by Celtic in recent times.
St Johnstone: Mannus, Shaugnessy, Mackay, Anderson, Easton, Wotherspoon, Millar (Caddis 34), Davidson, Craig, O’Halloran, MacLean (Kane 81). Subs not used: Scobbie, Sutton, Clark, McKay, Thomson. Booked: Mackay, Wotherspoon, MacLean.
Celtic: Gordon, Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Izaguirre, Johansen, Rogic (Cole 81), Forrest, Armstrong (Commons 72), McGregor, Ciftci (Allan 89). Subs not used: Ambrose, Mackay-Steven, Tierney, Bailly. Goals: Ciftci 35, 67; Boyata 49. Booked: Izaguirre, Johansen.
Referee: Crawford Allan.