Celtic made improbably hard work of what had looked set to be the most routine of victories as they staved off a late St Johnstone fightback to maintain a 100 per cent start to their Scottish Premiership title defence.
Brendan Rodgers’ team were cruising when they led 3-0 through goals from Leigh Griffiths, Scott Sinclair and James Forrest at the end of a one-sided first half.
But just as they had in midweek against Hapoel Beer-Sheva, they saw that advantage cut to 3-2 as Tommy Wright’s men suddenly threatened to snatch a point.
Substitute Ryan Christie’s stoppage-time goal ensured Celtic claimed the victory they fully merited but left Rodgers with mixed feelings. “That could leave a little bitter taste in your mouth,” said the Celtic manager, “but I can’t forget how good they were today.
“For 99.9 per cent of the game, we were outstanding. I don’t think the scoreline reflected the game at all.”
McDiarmid Park is a venue which has proved more troublesome than most for Celtic during their recent period of dominance in Scottish football, having dropped 12 points in their previous nine visits to the stadium. But the prospect of Saints enhancing that statistic from their perspective on this occasion looked utterly remote by the interval. After a stilted opening period to the game, Celtic gradually converted their overwhelming control of possession into a commanding lead.
The home defence, without the services of several key performers including skipper Dave Mackay and veteran stopper Steven Anderson, were placed under additional pressure by the inability of their more advanced team-mates to retain the ball whenever it did come their way.
There was an inevitability of the resistance breaking, which it did in the 28th minute. Tom Rogic was actually slack with a pass wide to Kieran Tierney on the left but weak defending by Richard Foster allowed the Celtic full-back to secure the ball and surge into the penalty area. His cutback found Griffiths, celebrating his 26th birthday, whose left-foot shot took a deflection off the prone Murray Davidson and beat goalkeeper Alan Mannus via the underside of the bar.
Celtic doubled their lead five minutes before the interval. Rogic was the orchestrator, his incisive pass finding Forrest whose shot was parried by Mannus. Griffiths, who moments earlier had been booked for diving in a bid to earn a penalty from a Foster challenge, pounced but saw his effort also blocked by Mannus. But it was third time unlucky for the ‘keeper when he was beaten by Sinclair’s follow up shot.
The game was effectively up for Wright’s team when Celtic made it 3-0 just four minutes later. The Saints defence were badly exposed as Forrest latched on to a Griffiths flick and swept towards the penalty area. As Paul Paton backed off, the winger guided a superb shot with the outside of his right boot beyond Mannus’ right hand into the corner of the net.
Celtic appeared in the mood to seriously put their hosts to the sword as they began the second half in aggressive mood with Rogic thumping a shot against the crossbar with the beleaguered Mannus beaten.
But perhaps inevitably in such a seemingly comfortable situation, some of the urgency gradually drifted out of their performance. Even when Saints pulled their first goal back from the penalty spot in the 83rd minute, Danny Swanson converting the kick after he was clumsily tripped by Celtic substitute Liam Henderson, it looked little more than a minor irritation for the champions.
There was a sudden air of mild panic among the travelling support, however, when St Johnstone reduced the arrears to 3-2 six minutes later. Celtic were down to ten men at the time, Henderson off the pitch receiving treatment to a head wound which he claimed had been caused by a flailing elbow from Murray Davidson.
Swanson’s cross from the right caused confusion in the Celtic defence and MacLean bundled a close range shot beyond Gordon.
The signal for three minutes of stoppage time gave Saints hope of completing the most unlikely of comebacks but it was Celtic who struck again with Christie ramming in a close-range shot after a Sinclair effort was blocked.
“I’ve had better days,” said Wright who saw his team’s unbeaten start to the season come to an end. “There’s no doubt Celtic were excellent today but we gave the ball away far too often and conceded poor goals.”