ALISTAIR JOHNSTON was the unlikely matchwinner on a day when Celtic toiled to impose their superiority over stubborn Highland opposition in an uncomfortable afternoon at Parkhead.

The defender claimed his first goal of the season to make sure the champions maintained their five-point advantage at the top of the Premiership after their nearest challengers from Ibrox won 1-0 over St Mirren in Paisley earlier in the day.

Brendan Rodgers watched his players make life difficult for themselves and nerve-ends were not soothed when Luis Palma had an incredible double miss from the penalty spot.

It was that sort of encounter when the hosts could not finish off County which made for some anxious moments as the clock ticked down.

Not a vintage showing from Celtic, but they’ll welcome the three points – and get to work on their finishing before they face Aberdeen at Pittodrie a week today.

Johnston got the hosts off to a flying start in the opening minute. The Canadian World Cup right-back, whose only previous strike for the Hoops came in a 5-1 win over St Mirren in Paisley in March, pounced after a shot from Liel Abada ricocheted into the path of the defender on the edge of the box.

Johnston thumped it goalwards and a wicked deflection off a County defender sent the ball spiralling past the stranded George Wickens, the keeper on loan from Fulham, low down at his left-hand post.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS…Alistair Johnston netted his breakthrough goal against the Highlanders.

VAR stepped into check if the Israeli winger was onside as he moved onto a pass from Alexandro Bernabei, making his first start of the campaign in place of the injured Greg Taylor.

There was the customary delay before referee Euan Anderson pointed to the centre circle to signal a goal.

In the 19th minute, the fans should have been celebrating a seond strike, but Paulo Bernardo blazed high over the bar when it looked as though he couldn’t miss.

Wickens got down well to his left to push away a drive from Matt O’Riley, but the ball was directed straight to the Portuguese ace who was lurking practically on the penalty spot. He should have tucked away the rebound.

However, he lacked composure at the crucial moment of impact and skied his right-foot effort wildly off target.

There was a double moment of drama when Palma contrived to squander TWO penalty-kicks!

In the 24th minute, comeback captain Callum McGregor was flattened by Simon Murray for a stick-on spot-kick and the Honduran stepped up to take the award.

The winger struck the ball to the keeper’s right and was horrified to see the rookie No.1 get down swiftly to push the ball away.

VAR spotted the three of the English netminder’s team-mates had encroached in the area just before Palma hit the ball and ordered a retake after reviewing the incident.

DOUBLE AGONY…Luis Palma can’t believe he has squandered two penalty-kicks.

Once again Palma took the effort. Once again he placed it to the right. And once again Wickens dived to save.

Palma, who also missed with an identical effort in the 1-1 draw with Motherwell earlier in the season, may have taken his last penalty-kick for the Hoops.

There was a fright for the Hoops in the 39th minute when Joe Hart fluffed an inswinging left-wing corner-kick from Yan Dhanda.

The normally-reliable shotstopper flapped as the ball came in and was helpless as Will Nightingdale sent in a header that crashed against the face of the crossbar and bounced to safety.

It was a let-off for the champions who were failing to maintain a high tempo against eager opponents who were snapping into challenges.

A couple of minutes before the interval, Palma had yet another mystifying miss. He gathered a diagional pass on the left-hand side of the box to slam a low shot at goal.

Yet again, he was denied by Wickens who pushed his drive straight back to the winger. He rushed his second attempt and somehow screwed the ball hopelessly across the face of the goal and the danger was gone.

The touchline operator won’t reflect on his first-half performance against County with any fondness.

WATCHING BRIEF…Brendan Rodgers keeps an eye on the action.

The Hoops were mystifyingly off the pace at a subdued stadium as the visitors worked hard at making life difficult for the champions.

In the 53rd minute, Cameron Carter-Vickers came close to doubling the team’s advantage, with a raging header from a Palma corner-kick.

Remarkably, though, the centre-back, making his first appearance of 2024, was denied by a reflex save from the rival keeper who was enjoying his debut visit to the home of the champions.

Just after the hour mark, it was the agile Wickens to the rescue for County once more as he punched a Johnston cross to safety.

In the 64th minute, £3million new Bhoy Nicolas Kuhn was given a warm reception as he came on for Palma at the same time Maik Nawrocki replaced the tiring Carter-Vickers.

Twelve minutes later, Mikey Johnston got the nod to take over from Abada who was also displaying signs of fatigue after being out for a prolonged period.

David Turnbull also joined the throng in the 89th minute when he took over from Bernardo who looked shattered after a tough shift.

A sensation was averted in the fading moments when Hart got down swiftly to his right to push away a netbound effort from Jordan White and then complete the save by diving on the rebound before a County opponent could take advantage.

The full-time whistle was greeted more in relief than joy by the home support.

Boss Rodgers is in for a busy week ahead.

TEAM: Hart; A Johnston, Carter-Vickers (sub: Nawrocki 64), Scales, Bernabei; Bernardo (sub: Turnbull 89), McGregor, O’Riley; Abada (sub: M Johnston 76) Kyogo and Palma (sub: Kuhn 64).

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