ST JOHNSTONE 1 CELTIC 2
GIORGOS GIAKOUMAKIS was the last-gasp hero as Celtic were forced to stage a grand finale against the Perth Saints in a nerve-shredding climax this afternoon.
It looked as though the champions had carelessly thrown away two points in an unconvincing performance when Alex Mitchell made it 1-1 three minutes into stoppage-time.
Remarkably, the defender was allowed time and space smack in front of Joe Hart when the defence failed to clear an Ali Crawford free-kick. In the midst of jostling and shirt-pulling, the ball dropped, Mitchell took a touch and then placed an effort wide of the exposed keeper.
It was a wretched goal to concede at such a crucial stage of the game with the clock ticking down.
PERTHQUAKE…Giorgos Giakoumakis turns the ball behind St Johnstone keeper Remy Matthews for Celtic’s stoppage-time winner in a dramatic finale.
However, Celtic are not champions for nothing and, in truly breathtaking fashion, they staged one last assault on the Perth rearguard.
James McCarthy, who had come on as an 81st-minute substitute for Sead Haksabanovic, deserves great credit for some awesome battling qualities on the left wing.
He refused to give up the ball and managed to squeeze a pass to the ever-willing Alexandro Bernabei who zipped a low cross into a packed penalty area.
And there was Giakoumakis, who had been non-stop all afternoon as he led the line with energy, zip and power, flying in to touch the ball beyond Remy Matthews.
The full-time whistle went inside a minute afterwards to bring down the curtain on a stupendous conclusion to a confrontation where the visitors were never anywhere near the form that saw them decimate opponents earlier in the campaign.
In truth, they made this a lot more difficult for themselves than should have been the case and allowed their opponents into the contest when they should have been on their knees at the interval.
Cameron Carter-Vickers deservedly finished on the winning side in his first game as captain in place of the injured Callum McGregor.
In the first-half, it took an own goal from Andy Considine three minutes from the interval to provide the Hoops with the breakthrough their domination deserved.
BREAKTHROUGH…Sead Haksabanovic looks on to see Andy Considine deflect his low drive into his own net.
Ange Postecoglou had watched from the touchline as his players had the majority of possession, but it looked like it might be one of those days when Dame Fortune was snarling in their direction.
Matt O’Riley saw an effort tipped onto the post, Liel Abada had a Miss of the Season contender before he also clipped the crossbar, a reasonable penalty claim was waved away and the impressive Bernabei had a drive tipped away by Matthews with referee Euan Anderson, a late substitute for Kevin Clancy, ignoring an obvious corner-kick.
The crucial opening goal came from an unusual source, but no-one could argue that the champions were worthy of a little slice of luck.
The Hoops built a patient move on the right with O’Riley knocking a pass to Anthony Ralston who played the ball in front of the clever Reo Hatate.
The Japanese midfielder turned inside before a reverse pass released the rampaging Haksabanovic as the Swede timed his run into the box with absolute perfection.
NO GOAL…Giorgos Giakoumakis thumps a header into the net from a Matt O’Riley free-kick, but is given offside.
He whipped in a shot towards the near post with Abada in a good position. However, veteran defender Considine got there first only to see the ball ricochet off his boot and into the net behind the helpless Matthews.
The opener could have arrived a lot earlier in the seventh minute when Bernabei worked a slick one-two with Hatate and arrowed in on goal from the left. The left-back, the first-ever Argentine to play for the Hoops, drilled in an effort towards the far post.
Matthews got down in a flash to get a fingertip to the effort to edge it wide of the up right, but neither ref Anderson nor his assistant spotted the touch and Celtic were denied a corner-kick.
Sixty seconds later, Abada made a mess of a perfect opportunity after some brilliant lead-up play from Bernabei and Filipe Jota. The Portuguese box of tricks place the ball in front of the Israeli winger, but, inexplicably, he blazed the ball waywardly off target from eight yards.
AIR WE GO…Giorgos Giakoumakis shows his despair at his offside effort, but his mood changed later in the game.
No wonder the player held his head in disbelief. So did just about everyone who witnessed a truly astonishing miss.
In the 15th minute, Giakoumakis was manhandled to the ground by Considine who clearly had a hold of the striker’s shirt as he moved onto a ball from O’Riley. The referee was not interested in the Celtic pleas for a penalty-kick.
It was all one-way trafic at this stage and O’Riley sent in a cunning low drive from outside the box, but the keeper threw himself full-length to his left to touch the ball onto the post and beyond for a corner-kick.
Just before the half-hour mark, Haksabanovic sent Abada clear inside the box on the right and the raider clipped the top of the bar with a lobbed attempt.
The Saints eventually capitulated when Considine deflected in Haksabanovic’s fiercely-driven effort.
CROWDPLEASER…Giorgos Giakoumakis is mobbed by the celebrating fans after his stoppage-time winner.
Daizen Maeda replaced Jota on the left for the start of the second-half. In the course of the afternoon, he would be joined by Oliver Abildgaard, Aaron Mooy, James Forrest and, of course, McCarthy.
Inside five minutes of the restart, the visitors had a goal chalked off when Giakoumakis raced onto an O’Riley free-kick to bullet in a diving header. It was tight, but the champions were not surprised not to be given the benefit of the doubt.
There was another opening for Abada in the 64th minute when he was slid through by Haksabanovic, but the Israeli again lacked composure and hit the ball off the advancing netminder.
Four minutes later, Abada, O’Riley and Hatate were removed with Forrest, Abildgaard and Mooy being introduced.
Moments later, though, a fine diving save from Hart defied the Saints an unlikely leveller. Stevie May was allowed to run free into the box from the right and it looked as though he must score as he rattled in a low angled drive.
However, the experienced last line of defence reacted with lightning reflexes and got down to his right to push the ball onto the far post and it was eventually smuggled to safety.
ROARING SUCCESS…Giorgos Giakoumakis yells in delight after his late winner.
It had been a warning sign for the Hoops and Postecoglou reinforced his midfield by sending on McCarthy for Haksabanovic who had worked tirelessly right from the off.
In the 87th minute, Maeda turned in a through ball from Ralston, but was given offside.
A minute later, the home side passed up a glorious chance to level. Connor McLellan found himself on his own at the back post when a May cross from the right dropped at his feet.
Like Abada earlier at the same goal, he wildly blitzed the ball into the crowd when it looked as though he had to hit the target.
Hart was called into making another timely save after a diabolical back pass from Maeda had created all sorts of danger for his own team.
Then came the enthralling crescendo to a game where Celtic walked a tightrope and came so close to a wobble before reaching their destination.
TEAM: Hart; Ralston, Carter-Vickers, Welsh, Bernabei; Haksabanovic (sub: McCarthy 81), O’Riley (sub: Abildgaard 68), Hatate (sub: Mooy 68); Abada (sub: Forrest 68), Giakoumakis, Jota (sub: Maeda 46).