ST JOHNSTONE must have thought they were going to be the unwilling victims of a modern Valentine’s Day massacre when Leigh Griffiths scored in 35 seconds.
The Perth club were on the ropes and Griffiths could have claimed a hat-trick in the opening half at McDiarmid Park.
Remarkably, though, Celtic had to rely on some world class goalkeeping from Craig Gordon to get out of Perth with all three points.
The comeback shotstopper produced an incredible double bit of magic to deny the Saints.
An exciting encounter was locked at 2-1 for the Hoops with the clock ticking down.
The champions rearguard failed to properly clear a high ball in the 89th minute and sub Brian Graham thought he had levelled with a close-ranger header.
Gordon threw out his right hand to claw the ball away.
However, it fell perfectly for Dave Mackay only eight yards out. It looked as though the defender must score as he made a blistering contact with the rebound.
However, Gordon leapt to his left and somehow got a hand to the effort to send the ball hurtling over the crossbar.
It was an amazing piece of goalkeeping and had the Perth side’s boss Tommy Wright applauding at the end.
Wright, a former Northern Ireland No.1, said: “That double save prevented us from getting a point, no doubt about it.
“It looked as though we must equalise, but Craig thwarted us.”
Yet, at the start, it looked as though Ronny Deila’s team was going to run amok.
The Saints kicked off and quickly lost possession. The ball was shuttled around the back four before Nir Bitton spotted Griffiths with the freedom of Perth smack in the middle of the Saints defence.
The Israeli sent a wonderful ball straight to the feet of the striker and he didn’t hesitate before rolling it wide of the exposed Alan Mannus.
Griffiths then contrived to miss another early chance when Virgil Van Dijk headed down a right-wing corner-kick from the hard-working Stefan Johansen.
The lively frontman didn’t make a clean contact from only two yards and the ball bounced off the relieved keeper.
And it was Griffith v Mannus shortly afterwards when he was sent clean through once more. The finishing shot was too close to the advancing goalie and it struck his heel and bounced to safety.
And the forward was out of luck again when he was put in a good position by Gary Mackay-Steven. Griffiths took aim before firing in an angled drive which Mannus pushed to safety.
And it was the Saints No.1 who rescued his team again in the 33rd minute when Mackay-Steven blitzed in a pulverising left-foot shot from outside the box. The keeper somehow stretched to the full extent of his frame, got a hand to the ball and touched it over the crossbar.
That effort was only put in the shade by Gordon’s double effort in the fading moments.
The Saints were dangerous on the break and sub Chris Kane gave the Celtic defence a wake-up call when he got in front of Van Dijk to nod a left-wing cross from Michael O’Halloran goalwards. The effort slipped just wide of the far post.
It looked as though the game was over as a contest when Johansen claimed the second only seven minutes after the turnaround.
Mackay-Steven picked out the lurking Griffiths in the box and he nodded the ball into the tracks of the Norwegian. He took one touch with his left and then fired a right-foot drive past the heroic Mannus from close range.
Give credit to the home team, they were making a game of it despite trailing by two goals.
Gordon surrendered in the 72nd minute when they snatched a goal – the first Celtic have conceded in 13 hours and 36 minutes of football.
Tam Scobie started it with a dangerous low ball from the left to the near post. Kane timed his run excellently to prod an effort goalwards. Gordon managed to block it, but, unfortunately for him, it broke straight to O’Halloran and the former Hoops kid thrashed it into the net.
It made for an uncomfortable ending to the game although Deila’s team could have scored when sub Liam Henderson, on for Stuart Armstrong, put two wide of the target.
The match ended with Gordon following up his two fabulous saves by getting down at his left-hand post to hold a cheeky free-kick attempt from James McFadden.
The SPFL champions are now six points ahead of Aberdeen who play at Hamilton tomorrow.
But they will look back at some stage and recall the outstanding reflex saves from a goalkeeper who was out of football because of injury this time last year.
TEAM: Gordon; Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven (sub: Ambrose 82), Johansen, Armstrong (sub: Henderson 68); Griffiths (sub: Stokes 62).
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