St Mirren 1 - 2 Celtic: Workmanlike win for Neil Lennon’s men
James Forrest supplies winner but 10-in-a-row chasing champions are far from impressive
It is only a matter of weeks since the threat of falling 11 points behind Rangers was being presented as a very real one for Celtic in this 10-in-a-row chasing season. The 2-1 win they were required to dig-out against an obdurate St Mirren last night now means that, if Neil Lennon’s men beat Livingston at home on Saturday, they will go top of the Premiership table – for at least 24 hours.
That will be the hot takeaway from a match in which the Scottish champions were largely tepid. Lennon will be relieved his team were able to recover from the loss of a goal in the opening minutes. He will take hearts from a second goal in as many games from Shane Duffy putting them on their way, before a rare, ripper of a header from James Forrest allowed them to seal the points.
Yet, there was no disguising that Celtic were far from impressive, even if they would have won more comfortably but for on-loan Hearts man Bobby Zlamal – the man St Mirren sent out the SOS call to in the midst of their Covid-19 keeper crisis – hadn’t saved a penalty from Odsonne Edouard, and made several other fine blocks.
The trust that Lennon has been expressing in the depth of his squad was reflected in some surprise changes to his starting line -up in Paisley. The volume of games ahead for the Scottish champions rather than early glitches in the performance that garnered a 5-0 win against Ross County were no doubt at play.
Still, it was unexpected to see Patryck Klimala replace the goal-every-30-minutes Albian Ajeti. Similarly with Hatem Elhamed being drafted into a three-man central defence .
The Celtic manager might quickly have been wondering about the wisdom of his recasting – which also included Greg Taylor and Ryan Christie earning starts – while his counterpart Jim Goodwin patted himself on the back over his notable selection.
Lee Erwin must have been chuffed at earning a first start for his new club in the stead of the club’s main goal source, Jonathan Obika. Within three minutes, he justified his selection with the assistance of slapdash defending from the visitors. Both Duffy and Kristoffer Ajer seemed to mistime their jumps as a Jamie McGrath corner from the left was flicked on by Joe Shaughnessy. It dropped to Erwin at the back post but, despite the striker struggling to get a good contact on the ball, he still had time to bundle it past Vasilis Barkas.
Celtic looked rattled by that shambolic moment, with Duffy left vigorously shaking his head over his part in it. It proved a different shake of that bonce that altered the complexion of an encounter following a period wherein the Scottish champions struggled to turn their nine-tenths possession into penetration. Their movement of the ball from side-to-side was matched by their opponents’ shape-shfiting to prevent Lennon’s side playing through them.
Goodwin will curse then then that their good work was undone by a set piece. Yet, it wasn’t any old set-piece. The whip and dip that Christie applied to his free-kick from wide on the right meant that Duffy was only required to stoop to guide it into the far corner of the net.
Gary Been’s claim that the Republic of Ireland captain had put his international career under threat by leaving Brighton for the backwater of Scottish football might have been unfair, but the former Irish midfielder might have been on to something when suggesting the loanee could reach double figures for
Across his first two, scoring, displays the understandably rusty 28-year-old has impressed more in that department than in his primary role, it must be said.
St Mirren rarely tested the Celtic backline following the 21st -minute equalier and there was an inevitability about the visitors adding a second. If not the circumstances. Christie’s delivery was again central with a ball worked to him on the left resulting in him curling in a cross with pace. James Forrest contorted his body to meet it and sent a monstrous header flying high past the helpless Zlamal.
The period ended with St Mirren going berserk over penalty appeals for a handball. There was an expectation the second half would see Celtic going to town, but St Mirren were able to hang in as Lennon’s side never quite got into their stride.
Never was that truer than when they were awarded a spot-kick 17 minutes frm normal time when McGrath needlessly shoved Christie over at the byline. Odsonne Edouard’s stuttering run-up might have worked for him on Saturday but he seemed more distracted by the slo-mo approach than the man he had to beat, Zlamal guessing right to push away down to his right.
In ensuring Celtic retained only a one-goal advantage, the stop allowed St Mirren to give Celtic a few nervous moments in the closing stages, but that proved all.
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