TIRED CELTIC blew the chance to go nine points clear of Aberdeen as they toppled to a shock home defeat against St Johnstone.
No-one saw this one coming and it just might be the wake-up call the team need before they step onto the Scottish Cup tightrope against Dundee United at Tannadice on Sunday.
Danny Swanson, on loan from Coventry City, fired in a pulverising strike in the 54th minute to inflict a first domestic defeat of 2015 on the Hoops.
The former Dundee United winger was perfectly placed when Virgil Van Dijk headed out David Wotherspoon’s corner-kick. He let fly from 25 yards and Craig Gordon didn’t stand a chance as the ball raged high into the top corner.
Ronny Deila’s side never hit the form that had earned them 10 successive domestic wins in a row this year and Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus was a hero for the Perth side with some crucial saves at vital times.
Anthony Stokes was back in the starting line-up with Kris Commons and John Guidetti sitting it out. The Republic of Ireland international almost got the breakthrough goal with a curling effort that sailed wide following a neat one-two with Leigh Griffiths.
Shortly afterwards, Mannus tipped over Gary Mackay-Steven’s first-time effort and Griffiths fired just wide from 30 yards.
Gordon was called into action to clean up shots from Dave Mackay and David Wotherspoon as the game frustratingly got bogged down in midfield with little inspiration to create chance for the front players. To be fair, the Perth outfit were well organised at the back and were quick to snuff out dangerous situations.
Just before the interval, Stuart Armstrong took it upon himself to put a dent in the rearguard as he raced forward in menacing fashion, but his long-range drive was pushed wide by the ever-alert Mannus.
Mubarak Wakaso, who spent the first part of the year on African Nations Cup duty with Ghana, made his first Hoops appearance for three months after Adam Matthews failed to come out for the second-half.
Efe Ambrose switched to right-back and winger Wakaso came in at left-back and quickly set up a good chance for Mackay-Steven, but the former Dundee United winger volleyed off target.
The Saints retaliated and their pressure led to the fateful corner from which Swanson stunned Celtic Park with his ferocious first-time drive for the winner.
Celtic tried to respond and Stokes hit a low drive from the edge of the box, but it was too easy for Mannus as he flopped on the ball.
The SPFL champions got a fright when Steven Anderson had a great chance to double his side’s advantage moments later when Wotherspoon’s deep corner-kick found him unmarked, but the defender volleyed wide of the post.
Deila made the rest of his substitutions in the 59th minute when James Forrest and Nir Bitton replaced Mackay-Steven and Stokes, but it took the hosts a while to rediscover their attacking impetus.
And, when they did, they found Mannus on top form. The Northern Ireland goalkeeper made an excellent parry from an Ambrose header, held the ball after blocking Bitton’s effort and then held Armstrong’s powerful long-range strike.
Celtic made a late surge to salvage something, but Van Dijk headed wide from a corner and a dreadful touch from Griffiths denied him the chance to convert a pass from Scott Brown.
A repeat of this display on Sunday at Tannadice could see Deila’s dreams of a treble in his first season in Scottish football in tatters. It’s back to the drawing board for the Norwegian. One positive about tonight is the fact that the defeat will be unlikely to cost Celtic’s “Triple” ambitions any harm. Tannadice awaits Celtic, then Hampden. Win and win again.