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CELTIC BLANKED – BUT MOVE NINE POINTS CLEAR AT THE TOP

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CELTIC 0 ST JOHNSTONE 0

CELTIC fired blanks for the fourth time in the Premiership this season as the Perth outfit battled grimly for their second successive stalemate at Parkhead.

The Saints defied the champions during a frantic 90 minutes that saw Brendan Rodgers throw on substitutes James Forrest, Moussa Dembele and Kieran Tierney in an effort to break through a solid, stubborn rearguard.

But the visitors escaped a few times and remained vigilant to join Sevco Rangers, Hearts and Kilmarnock as a team to shut out the Hoops.

It was a frustrating afternoon for the home side and there was a lack of invention within the ranks against a team that defended in numbers.

On the plus side, Celtic have gained a point on Aberdeen at the top of the league and are now nine points ahead of the Dons and the Ibrox side who beat Hamilton Accies 5-3 earlier in the afternoon.

Rodgers, with an eye on Thursday’s Europa League return against Zenit St Petersburg, made wholesale changes to his line-up with only four – Dorus de Vries, Kristoffer Ajer, Eboue Kouassi and skipper-for-the-day Callum McGregor – starting from the side that beat the Russians 1-0 in the first leg.

Tom Rogic was welcomed back for his first start after his two-month lay-off with a knee injury while Cristian Gamboa returned at right-back for only his third appearance of the season.

The Hoops started on the front foot as they searched for an early goal.

In the fifth minute, Ajer, who didn’t put a foot wrong all day, came close with a header from a free-kick, but his effort was beaten away by Saints keeper Alan Mannus and Steven Anderson completed the clearance.

De Vries created some panic in the home penalty area when he spooned a kick high into the air and Jack Hendry, making his Parkhead debut, was forced to concede a corner-kick.

The Perth outfit, who got a point in a 1-1 draw in the east end of Glasgow in August, settled into the pattern of play and were pushing the champions back on occasion.

Blair Alston zipped in a right-wing cross that was met by David Wotherspoon, but the danger passed when he headed waywardly over the bar.

Mannus wasn’t being overworked in the visitors’ goal and he was happy to see a free-kick from Odsonne Edouard miss the target.

Perhaps understandably considering the amount of changes, Celtic were finding it difficult to find their rhythm and the first-half ended goalless.

The Hoops made an explosive start to the second period and should have been a goal ahead in the early moments.

Scott Sinclair robbed Chris Millar and raced menacingly for the danger zone. He picked out Odsonne Edouard with a neat pass, but the French youngster took a clumsy first touch and a marvellous opportunity was lost.

In the 53rd minute, Charly Musonda had a low shot saved by Mannus and then McGregor had a drive blocked by Murray Davidson.

On the hour mark, with the Saints camped in defence, a threatening cross from Calvin Miller on the left brought danger before it was hoofed to safety.

In the 61st minute, Rodgers changed things when he sent on Forrest for Rogic and moved Musonda inside to play off Edouard.

Only moments later, the Belgian playmaker had a scorching free-kick punched away by the Perth keeper.

Dembele was next to be introduced for Edouard in the 73rd minute and that was followed by a superb effort from Sinclair that was fisted to safety by Mannus.

Dembele then had a header just off target and it looked as though a goal just had to arrive as the Hoops pummelled the visitors’ rearguard.

With 11 minutes to go, Tierney came on for Miller to resume his left-wing partnership with Sinclair who was doing his best to inflict pain on the Perth club.

Gamboa combined with Forrest to fire over a right-wing cross, but it was well held by Mannus.

Then Kouassi threaded a superb ball into the tracks of Dembele, but Jason Kerr made a last-ditch tackle to clear the danger.

Rodgers’ men tried desperately to snatch a winner and in the fading moments Tierney and Sinclair combined on the left with the Englishman whipping over an inviting cross into the packed penalty area.

Alas, it was missed by friend and foe and drifted harmlessly to safety.

And with that went Celtic’s last chance of a win.

An identical scoreline in Russia next week will be warmly welcomed.

CQN Man of the Match: Kristoffer Ajer

TEAM: De Vries; Gamboa, Hendry, Ajer, Miller (sub: Tierney 79); Kouassi; Musonda, McGregor, Rogic (sub: Forrest 61), Sinclair; Edouard (sub: Dembele 73)

 
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