ST JOHNSTONE 2
BRENDAN RODGERS watched Celtic score their 14th goal in their last three competitive games with this foursome joining the high fives against Motherwell and Hapoel Be’er Sheva.
However, the Hoops boss won’t have been entirely delighted after what should have been a stroll in the park in Perth turned into a jittery conclusion.
With goals from birthday Bhoy Leigh Griffiths, who celebrated turning 26, Scott Sinclair and James Forrest giving the team a 3-0 half-time advantage, they might have expected to cruise after the interval.
But, with one eye on Tuesday’s Champions League second leg in Israel obviously on their minds, the visitors took their eye off the ball in the fading moments and invited the plucky Saints back into the contest.
A penalty-kick from Danny Swanson in the 83rd minute was followed by another by Steven MacLean six minutes later to put the visiting players and fans somewhat on edge.
However, justice was done when Celtic, with massive possession throughout the game, settled the issue as sub Ryan Christie netted in stoppage time to wipe out any thoughts of an undeserved equaliser from the home team who were under the cosh for most of the confrontation.
If nothing else, the final moments of this game will serve as a reminder to the Celtic players, who conceded two goals in two minutes in midweek, that a game can turn so swiftly if concentration levels drop.
Rodgers decided to take no chances with Mikael Lustig’s minor ankle knock and left him out of the squad completely to keep him fresh for Tuesday.
The Saints, who went into this confrontation without losing a competitive game this season, were quite content to attempt to suffocate their opponents.
When Celtic were awarded a free-kick in the 14th minute after a rash challenge from Ricky Foster on Sinclair at the edge of the box, the ENTIRE Perth team were in their own penalty area.
Sinclair took the free-kick and fizzed a wicked, angled effort just wide of Alan Mannus’ left-hand post as the keeper threw himself across his line.
A minute later, Tom Rogic embarked on an ambitious 40-yard run that was only repelled when Mannus reacted well to his cutback from the left.
A goal just had to come and the Saints were undone in the 28th minute when Griffiths hammered in the breakthrough strike.
Rogic was heavy with a pass wide to Kieren Tierney who retrieved the situation to cross a dangerous ball into the box. It was frantically cleared by a defender and fell perfectly to the mighty left foot of the prolific marksman.
Griffiths crashed the ball back with awesome power and it took a nick off Brain Easton as it exploded high into the net.
With the Perth men forced to open up, the champions started to pick them off with Rogic making lung-bursting runs into enemy territory and Griffiths and Sinclair providing intelligent runs to drag defenders all over the place.
Tierney, always busy and always looking to be involved, was enjoying a lot of the ball as he rampaged down the left and Saidy Janko was charging forward, too, on the right.
Five minutes from half-time, the champions doubled their advantage after Sinclair overcame the heroics of goalie Mannus.
The Northern Ireland international made an outstanding save to push out a Forrest effort. The ball fell invitingly to Griffiths, but again the keeper managed to block the shot.
It ran to Sinclair and this time the instant fans’ favourite buried the ball into the corner of the net.
The goal of the game, though, was claimed by Forrest after a mesmerising virtuoso run from just inside his own half. He gathered a Griffiths knockdown and simply took off in the direction of the opposing defence.
He bamboozled Paul Paton with a drop of his shoulder before slipping a cute effort off the outside of his right foot beyond the helpless Mannus.
Controversial referee Craig Thomson, slated by many for “bottling” it last week when he refused to send off Harry Forrester at Dens Park, provoked a few responses from the travelling support as he booked three Hoops players in the first-half.
He was quick on the draw when Griffiths went to ground after a challenge from Foster inside the box in the 38th minute. The match official was convinced the Celtic hitman had taken a dive and produced a yellow card. Griffiths pointed out to the referee that he hadn’t dived and from CQN’s photograph you can see the point of contact. Leigh’s no cheat. Hopefully Thomson will issue an apology.
Janko followed Griffiths into the book four minutes later after tugging Swanson’s jersey and Forrest was also yellow-carded for celebrating in front of the supporters.
And yet Thomson looked the other way in the 42nd minute when Foster left a late calling card on Sinclair long after the ball had gone. It looked nasty from the defender, but, astoundingly, Thomson did even deem it worthy of a word of caution to the Perth player.
At least, he got it right when the thuggish Paton lunged at Rogic and, with both feet off the ground, the midfielder could so easily have seen red.
There was another moment of consternation later on when Thomson rightly booked Murray Davidson for a bad challenge on Janko. Nir Bitton protested and, ridiculously, his name went in the book, too.
Nine minutes after the turnaround, Rogic was right out of luck with a marvellous 25-yard left-foot drive that swept past Mannus, but thundered against the crossbar and rebounded to safety.
A minute later, Griffiths came off with Moussa Dembele being introduced to the action and shortly afterwards Bitton was replaced by Liam Henderson. Ryan Christie completed the substitutions when he was sent on for Forrest.
Celtic still bossed the game, but finishing was sloppy, particularly from Christie and Henderson who sent wayward shots into the crowd behind the goal.
The Saints were handed a lifeline in the 83rd minute when Thomson immediately awarded a penalty-kick when Henderson challenged Swanson. The Perth midfielder took the kick and placed it neatly wide of Craig Gordon’s right hand.
There still didn’t look any danger, but the defence fell asleep in the 89th minute when a Swanson low cross from the right was bundled in by Steven MacLean, who had just been booked, from close range. Gordon tried valiantly to scoop the ball away at the far post, but the momentum carried it into the net.
Celtic were down to 10 men at that stage when Henderson had to go off after being caught just above the eye by Davidson’s elbow.
The final say, though, went to the Hoops when Christie netted the fourth in the fading moments. Henderson threaded a pass through to Sinclair who saw his shot blocked.
The ball ran to Chistie who sold Mannus a dummy by looking to the keeper’s right before sinking it low in at the opposite corner.
Three points in the bag after a convincing and largely commanding performance, so job done.
But you can be sure Brendan Rodgers will be working on the ones that got away.
TEAM: Gordon; Janko, Toure, O’Connell, Tierney; Brown, Bitton (sub: Henderson 60), Rogic; Forrest (sub: Christie 71), Griffiths (sub: Dembele 55) , Sinclair.
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