Celtic 2 St Mirren 0 – Carter Vickers (54), McGregor (81)
With Celtic in the uncharacteristic position of coming into this evening’s game having dropped points in their last league fixture – and having gone two games without hitting the back of the net – all eyes were on the Hoops tie with St Mirren at Celtic Park tonight to see if Celtic were in the midst of a minor blip or if there was more to worry about. In the end the Celtic won the game but did so without entirely convincing.
The manager clearly wasn’t concerned by the weekend’s goalless draw with Hibs, as he made only one change from that game at Easter Road, as Matt O’Riley replaced Tom Rogic in the starting line-up, with the only other real concern being Giorgos Giakoumakis’ omission from the squad altogether, as the Greek striker struggles to return from illness. Although the welcome return of Albian Ajeti to the match-day squad after a long-standing Hamstring injury offered Ange Postecoglou attacking options from the bench, as Daizen Maeda started up front, looking to add goals to his otherwise impressive performances to date.
Celtic began the game with a better tempo than the weekend, however much of the early exchanges were in haste, and indeed the only chance in the opening 10 minutes came courtesy of Saints’ Charles Dunne striking his own crossbar with an attempted clearance, although Maeda’s pace and movement was causing the St Mirren defence problems without the end product.
The chances soon started rolling however with Liel Abada having the first chance of Celtic’s own making after 18 minutes, as from a Jota cutback the Israeli winger’s shot was placed too centrally and Alnwick saved well.
And immediately Saints responded, as O’Shaughnessy required Joe Hart to save at feet to deny St Mirren, although Carl Starfelt’s timely front post challenge took the sting out the opportunity, before Josip Juranovic blazed over the bar for Celtic, with the execution needing just a touch of subtlety.
Bar Charles Dunne’s second attempt to put the ball past his own ‘keeper, only a glanced header wide from Daizen Maeda, a swerving effort from Jota, and a weak headed effort from the same player right on half-time, bothered Jack Alnwick in the Saints goal, as Celtic, despite Celtic’s territorial advantage produced too much huffing and puffing and not enough genuine penetration in the opening 45 minutes.
With a lack of central space opening up, responsibility in the second half had to fall to both Jota and Abada to find accuracy from cross balls, something neither had managed to do in the first half. Either that or something unusual had to happen.
In the end both miraculously occurred ten minutes into the second half, as a rare experience for Celtic – a goal from a set piece – broke the deadlock, when a Jota delivery from Celtic’s left wing was nodded down in the area by Carl Starfelt and Cameron Carter-Vickers produced a superb left footed volley put Hoops into front, as Celtic Park exhaled in relief as much as jubilation. And the tails were up now as a lofted free-kick saw a volleyed effort from Maeda almost immediately result in a second.
It took Celtic until ten minutes before time to seal the win, as a superb Juranovic cross was met by a Jota header, and although the chance was blocked, captain Callum McGregor saw the gap and arrowed a superbly executed low drive past Alnwick to seal the points.
There was an argument to say Celtic required a performance as well as a win this evening, and in parts Celtic did just that, with a much improved second 45 minutes than the first half offered, but in truth at this stage of the season it was all about three points, particularly with theRangers scoring early in their win at Perth and that seeming to transfer to the Celtic Park crowd tonight.
Celtic now head to Livingston this weekend with a three-point advantage protected in the title race, and having returned goalscoring habit, this on the back of a comfortable and solid win. And even if not accompanied by convincing a convincing return to form just yet, at this stage of the season does that really matter? Possibly not.