Aberdeen 1 - 2 Celtic: Kristoffer Ajer winner puts champions 17 points clear
Celtic produced a performance and result straight out of the “That’s why they’re champions” playbook as they plundered three points from an Aberdeen side who will feel aggrieved at ending the afternoon empty-handed.
This wasn’t vintage Celtic by any stretch of the imagination but they found a way to rack up their seventh straight Premiership victory since the winter break and remain firmly on course for a ninth consecutive league title.
Norwegian defender Kristoffer Ajer conjured up a finish of which any striker would be proud nine minutes from time to grab victory for Neil Lennon’s men who had seen Ash Taylor cancel out Callum McGregor’s early opener.
It was tough to take for Aberdeen but manager Derek McInnes would take comfort from a committed and aggressive display by his team which was in sharp contrast to their meek capitulation when they lost 4-0 on Celtic’s first visit to Pittodrie earlier in the season.
The swirling wind whipping around the stadium made life difficult for both teams with Celtic in particular struggling to find their customary fluency in possession.
Aberdeen’s energetic and more direct approach appeared more suited to the conditions and they could reasonably regard Celtic’s tenth-minute opener as coming against the run of play.
That said, the hosts only had themselves to blame for the concession which came as a consequence of fatally hesitant and weak defending.
The Dons allowed a relatively harmless long ball from Ajer to bounce and when Scott McKenna found himself on the wrong side of Leigh Griffiths, the danger was obvious. McKenna managed to partially atone for his error as he got back to halt Griffiths on the edge of the penalty area but the ball broke kindly for the striker who played it inside to Odsonne Edouard.
He squared it to James Forrest who worked himself into position for a shot which was parried by Aberdeen goalkeeper Joe Lewis. First to react to the loose ball was McGregor who rammed home his 11th goal of the season from close range.
Celtic were unable to build any momentum on the back of the goal, however, and were forced into a change in the 25th minute when wing-back Greg Taylor limped off to be replaced by Jonny Hayes.
Two minutes later, Celtic’s defending left much to be desired as Aberdeen equalised. After failing to properly clear a Niall McGinn free-kick, the visitors were ponderous in their reaction when Connor McLennan flighted the ball back in from the right.
Matty Kennedy was able to flick it on to Ash Taylor on the left corner of the six-yard box, the big defender was afforded all the time and space he needed to steady himself and drill a fine right-foot finish beyond the exposed Fraser Forster.
Aberdeen had their tails up and continued to play with a real sense of purpose. Funso Ojo cut in from the left to test Forster with a powerful shot which the big goalkeeper could only parry in the direction of McGinn who headed wide from around eight yards.
McLennan was among the most impressive performers in the home ranks but the midfielder embarrassed himself in the 39th minute with his risible attempt to earn a penalty under a non-challenge by Christopher Jullien. He was rightly booked for simulation by referee Andrew Dallas.
Having earlier appeared reluctant to produce his yellow card, that sparked a rash of cautions from Dallas before the break. He took Griffiths’ name for a petulant show of dissent, while Taylor could have no complaints about his sanction for a lunging foul from behind on Edouard.
Aberdeen remained on the front foot at the start of the second half with Celtic finding it difficult to make any telling progress out of their own half.
But while the Dons were dominant territorially, they found clear-cut chances hard to come by. Curtis Main, whose physicality caused problems for Jullien at the heart of the Celtic defence, cut in from the left to try his luck from distance but his shot was comfortably held by Forster.
Lennon made a change in the 58th minute, replacing Griffiths with Ryan Christie and altering formation to a back four. There was no immediate dividend for Celtic who lived dangerously in the 71st minute when Nir Bitton had to clear a curling McGinn cross from underneath the crossbar.
But the champions gradually began to make some attacking inroads with Lewis forced into his first save of the second half three minutes later, doing well to keep out a shot by Hayes who had been neatly set up by Edouard.
It was a piece of magic by the French striker which led the way to Celtic’s winning goal as Aberdeen were caught cold by a brilliant counter attack. Edouard’s instinctive backheeled pass to McGregor allowed the midfielder to set Forrest free on the left. The winger held the ball up intelligently before rolling a pass to the unmarked Ajer on the right of the penalty area and he slammed a fine finish high beyond Lewis from around 12 yards.
Edouard missed a simple chance to put added gloss on Celtic’s victory when he contrived to fire the ball straight at the grounded Lewis after being set up by Forrest but it mattered not as Lennon’s men closed the game out with relative comfort.