TOMOKI IWATA eased through his first start as Celtic were forced to grind out a 2-0 win over Ross County in Dingwall yesterday.

The J-League Player of the Year took a role in the team’s engine room with compatriot Reo Hatate and Australia World Cup ace Aaron Mooy both sidelined with injury.

Iwata, who was recruited from Yokohama F Marinos for a bargain £1million at the turn of the year, was a dominant presence at the Global Energy Stadium.

ON THE BALL…Tomoki Iwata in control in Dingwall.

Understandably, the 25-year-old four times-capped international showed some signs of slowing down 15 minutes or so after the interval, but, remarkably, discovered a second wind to complete the 95 minutes strongly.

Ange Postecoglou had no hesitation in playing Iwata against the Highlanders as the champions restored their nine-point advantage at the Premiership pinnacle with eight games to play, continuing with the visit of Michael Beale’s Ibrox outfit to a sell-out Parkhead on Saturday.

A penalty-kick from Filipe Jota in first-half stoppage-time and a ferocious left-foot drive from substitute Alexandro Bernabei, who had replaced the crocked Greg Taylor, made certain of the Hoops’ 28th victory in their last 29 domestic outings.

Reflecting on the debut Bhoy’s display, Postecoglou admitted: “Tomoki was great. He was the one who looked most sure-footed in terms of the pitch and the handling of the ball. He’s so clean technically.

“He really helped us considering it was his first 90 minutes after three months. He finished strongly at the end. I was really pleased I got him out and he showed his qualities out there.”

BLOCKED…South Korean striker Oh Hyeon-gyu is defied by Ross County keeper Ross Laidlaw.

The Greek-Australian gaffer has been patient with Iwata and other January arrivals Oh Hyeon-gyu and Yuki Kobayashi and insisted: “I think he will get the benefit. Last year, we found with Daizen Meada and Reo, who we threw in quite early, they started strongly, but fatigued towards the end of the season.

“They have come off a full season, so it’s a different feel for them at this stage of the season. So, my inkling if it worked out was to get those three boys embedded slowly and give them opportunities along the way.

“Hopefully, in the last bit of the season, they will be really strong. We will see the best of them after they’ve had a pre-season, but after looking at it, Iwata looked really strong.”

Reflecting on the action, Postecoglou, speaking to the Daily Record, added: “It was a good challenge. The conditions and the way Ross County play, we knew it wouldn’t be an easy afternoon.

“There wasn’t a lot of space to play for the most part, but we still had discipline and focus within the structure. We were wasteful in front of goal and that keeps them in the game.

“It’s then edgier than it should be, but overall the lads handled it okay.

“With the conditions the way they were it isn’t going to be a free-flowing game of football. But, aside from the football, there was steel and character in the group to get the job done.”


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