ROSS COUNTY 1 CELTIC 2
ANTHONY RALSTON scored a remarkable stoppage-time winner for 10-man Celtic in Dingwall tonight.
It looked as though Ange Postecoglou’s men had thrown away two points against a rugged Ross County side in a controversial confrontation in which Carl Starfelt has seen red in the 78th minute with the score deadlocked at 1-1.
Despite having a man short, the Hoops went for the jugular in the pursuit of two more precious points in their quest for their tenth title in 10 years.
News had filtered through that St Johnstone had lost 2-0 at Ibrox, so the visitors knew it was all or nothing as the clock ticked down.
Postecoglou waved his men forward and they got their last-gasp reward when Ralston managed to get his head to a cute right-wing cross from Tom Rogic to send an effort flashing into the net.
HEADS I WIN…Anthony Ralston rises above the County defenders to bullet in the points-clincher in stoppage-time.
The visiting fans roared with joy as the jubilant Celts rushed to congratulate the defender who had pushed forward all night.
Starfelt had been banished after picking up two quickfire yellow cards to exit the action in a dramatic finale.
The Swede could feel aggrieved after picking up a first booking for complaining about getting an elbow in the face. Blood flowed from his nose, but referee Alan Muir still waved a yellow at the grounded defender.
And the match official was quick to react again when he punished the visiting player for a challenge on winger Regan Charles-Cook.
Postecoglou’s side took the lead through Liel Abada, but allowed the Highlanders back into the game after the interval before Ralston’s welcome last-gasp intervention.
The Hoops claimed a penalty-kick in stoppage-time when a Callum McGregor drive looked to be blocked by a hand, but, unsurprisingly, the referee was having none of it and awarded a corner-kick instead.
PICK IT OUT…Liel Abada turns in a left-wing cross from Liam Scales to leave keeper Ashley Maynard-Brewer helpless to give the Hoops the lead.
But no-one was complaining when the game went into seven minutes of stoppage time and Ralston headed the points-clincher for the gallant Parkhead side.
In the 11th minute, the Hoops were denied by a wonder save from keeper Ashley Maynard-Brewer who dived full-length to his left to fist away a six-yard header from Nir Bitton after a well-struck left-wing corner-kick from David Turnbull.
Abada, leading the line in the absence of a host of crocked frontmen, took up a great position in the team’s next attacking move, but Josip Juranovic’s right-wing cross was wayward much to the annoyance of his team-mates.
Celtic claimed the breakthrough goal in the 21st minute with a sweeping move down the left with Adam Montgomery and McGregor combining before the captain found Liam Scales racing clear.
The young Irishman picked out Abada smack in front of goal and the Israel international didn’t hesitate as he struck the ball first time beyond the helpless Maynard-Brewer.
Five minutes later, Juranovic set up McGregor on the edge of the box, but his low left-foot effort was well held by the diving netminder.
UP AND OVER…Liel Abada clears grounded keeper Ashley Maynard-Brewer after firing in the opening goal.
On the half-hour mark. the Hoops came so close to doubling their advantage when Juranovic sent Abada scampering clear. He rounded the outrushing keeper, but dragged the ball too wide and rushed an angled shot at goal which was mopped up by a defender.
A bit more composure by the makeshift striker would have brought greater dividends.
Ralston picked out Juranovic running free on the right, but for the third successive occasion the final cross from the Croatian was wildly off target. Postecoglou, on the touchline, was clearly unimpressed.
The Hoops had the bulk of possession, but without the likes of Kyogo Furuhashi and Filipe Jota there was a lack of a cutting edge to capitalise on the superiority.
On the stroke of the interval, McGregor completed a neat sequence of play by rolling the ball enticingly in front of Scales, but the left-back struck the ball high over the bar from 16 yards.
Four minutes after the break, Turnbull twisted and turned to drag the ball to his right foot on the edge of the box and his cunning effort left the keeper stranded, but dipped just over the crossbar.
Moments later, Bitton joined the attack to fire in a rasping 20-yard drive that was just off target with Maynard-Brewer again breathing a sigh of relief.
ON THE RUN…David Turnbull races after Ross County winger Regan Charles-Cook.
In the 56th minute, Ralston blocked a drive from Dom Samuel, but the Hoops were undone when the corner-kick came in from the left. Scales was slow to see the danger and Jack Baldwin was unchallenged as he drove the ball first-time past Joe Hart from six yards.
It was a dreadful goal to concede and came after a passage of sloppy play by the visitors in which Scales was culpable at the start of the move with an inaccurate pass inside to Cameron Carter-Vickers that forced the on-loan Spurs man to hammer the ball out for a throw-in.
In the 63rd minute, Postecoglou made his first change when he sent on debutant Owen Moffat for Montgomery who had drifted out of the action.
THE BIG NOISE…Anthony Ralston yells with delight after his header had thumped into the net for the winner.
HIGHLAND FLING…Anthony Ralston is about the be joined by a joyous Cameron Carter-Vickers as he races away in delight.
THE END GAME…Anthony Ralston leads the Celtic players in a salute to the celebrating Celtic fans.
Starfelt then took an elbow in the face from Jordan White in the 69th minute and was booked by referee Alan Muir for protesting about the robust challenge from the County frontman.
Blood spurted from the wound as the Swede received treatment while lying on the ground. Starfelt had to leave the field to change his stained shirt.
Rogic came on for Bitton in the 75th minute as Postecoglou attempted to change the flow of the game.
With 12 minutes to go, Starfelt was red-carded when the match official flashed a second yellow card after a tackle on Charles-Cook on the touchline. The County winger was theatrical as he went to ground and the ref was quick on the draw to send off the Celt.
IN WITH A SHOUT…Joe Hart celebrates with the visiting supporters after a dramatic winning finale.
Maynard-Brewer then dived to his left to divert a 20-yard free-kick from Juranovic as the Hoops pushed for the winner, but Hart was called into action at the other end to make a smart save after taking the sting out of the initial shot.
However, it was hero Ralston who had the final say with his athletic leap and winning header in the fading moments.
Now all eyes are on Hampden for the Premier Sports League Cup showpiece showdown with Hibs on Sunday.
Celtic proved again this evening they are not a side who will accept anything less than a win.
TEAM: Hart; Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt, Scales; Juranovic, Bitton (sub: Rogic 75), McGregor; Abada, Turnbull, Montgomery (sub: Moffat 63).