I often wondered just how the other SPL clubs would respond to the absence of Rangers/Sevco in the league, the common train of thought was that Celtic would crush all before them and romp to a league title by Christmas…I didn’t subscribe to that theory, ala my theory appears more likely now.
You see, when the deceased Rangers team and Celtic occupied the SPL, the other teams looked on any points as a slight bonus but most would have planned to have dropped 12 points to each of the, then, big two. That is 24 points that they could ‘normally’ have expected rivals to also drop.
Now however the maximum expected dropped points tally, stands at most as 12 points…that is far less comfort when you look to rivals to be dropping precious points…the clubs have responded by being positive and raising the standard of their play against us.
Of course we are also now their only marquee fixtures and there is an increased level of importance on performing either as a team, or as an individual, in the four high-profile matches of your season. Teams are motivated to new levels.
That was most certainly the case today.
Celtic started at a fantastic tempo and looked extremely comfortable.
Indeed in the third minute, Kris Commons, easily Celtic’s player of the season so far, found the back of the net with an accurate, sure-footed strike with his trusty left boot. He dispatched the ball into the net with ease and at that point all appeared well.
Commons was playing in a very free-role and took up a variety of positions that seemed to perplex the St Johnstone defence, for the first fifteen minutes, the swagger was all Celtic’s.
What was, however, very noticeable, was that Celtic were being matched in a physical contest, St Johnstone were full of endeavour and even if sometimes crude in the application, the tackling was utterly committed.
Gregory Tade, the lone striker in the St Johnstone team, was one such player who utilised their physical attributes to full effect and he looked fairly lively in sending out the first real threat to Celtic, when in the seventeenth minute when he got in between Mulgrew and Wilson.
He took the ball on the turn and drilled his shot low inside of Fraser Forster’s right-hand post. An equalizer against the run of play and game on.
Celtic appeared shocked and for the next ten or so minutes it was St Johnstone who appeared in the ascendancy.
Slowly Celtic sought to find their previous level of performance but Commons aside, Celtic had lost their way.
New signing Miku, here on loan initially, looked to be finding his way into the contest but in fits and starts, service by and largely was restricted to him and strike-partner Hooper but both worked hard to find space, often dropping wide right and left in pursuit of the ball.
Chances of a clear-cut nature were few and far between but in the twenty-fifth minute Commons seized upon a slack back-pass and the last desperate defender, Anderson, lunged despairingly at the ball. He made no contact except with the attacker and Commons understandably, naturally tumbled under the weight of the tackle, it happened inside the box…penalty?! Red Card?! Surely, Anderson having been last man, it was all but a certainty.
Alas no! Somehow, Euan Norris, never a Celtic fans favourite, from an extremely decent position to observe the incident, decided that the ball was won fairly and waved play on.
Quite how he came to that conclusion though is beggars belief. Standing just yards behind play and looking directly at both the forward and defender, nobody in the stadium was better placed to judge that the ball continued on its natural course and therefore had not been played, added to that he could clearly see and ‘hear’ the contact on Commons.
Ah well, they moments while frustrating and angering, should not be the difference in whether we win games like today’s…our play must be of a higher standard, so lets move swiftly on.
In the remainder of the first half, we and indeed St Johnstone had a succession of half chances, as th game played entertainingly at a frantic tempo, only ever slowed down by the continual fouling of a combative afternoon.
Miku had an effort go over the bar and Commons regularly found space in which to get strikes on goal from the edges of the box, threatening perhaps, but in all probability these flashes at goal were as much a desperate sign as clear-cut opportunities were at a premium.
Young Peter Pawlett, on loan from Aberdeen, was easily St Johnstone’s best player of the first half and he was a constant menace with his pace and direct running, Aberdeen may well be monitoring his progress closely as the season commences.
Patrick Cregg, another player I admire and have done since his successful spell at Falkirk, looked to get St Johnstone moving forwards and he often sprayed short crisp passes around that prompted the counter-attacks throughout todays game.
Celtic though struggled on the tight pitch and having been shut down quickly and constantly by one of the hardest working teams we will face this season, they didn’t have the usual fluency that would utterly dominate the possession and take the sting out of the opponents.
I would usually spend much more time detailing the incidents of a match but suffice to say that the game continued in much the same vain during the second half, Celtic’s tempo and cutting-edge had fallen below standard and shots on goal were largely restricted to speculative ones from distance.
St Johnstone competed strongly and showed great fitness levels considering an apparent virus that had forced training to have been abandoned on Thursday.
Liam Craig, usually a set-piece expert for the home team, was very wasteful of the frequent opportunities afforded to him by way of Euan Norris’s charitable refereeing performance…suffice to say he didn’t endear himself to either manager , either set of players or either set of fans today.
The game remained largely scrappy and very much a test of physicality, actually to the degree that I began to suspect our players had one eye on not being injured ahead of Wednesday nights Champions League tie at home against Benfica.
Perhaps that best explains why Celtic failed to rise above the quite obviously sub-standard level of effort in Perth today.
Tony Watt, a truly inspiring player of late, came on to replace Miku in the fifty-eighth minute, he soon set about running the channels and sneaking into dangerous positions in and around the box. Unfortunately, he was by and largely starved of decent service and his considerable efforts were often in vain.
Hooper in the sixty-third minute got a chance in the penalty area, a good piece of play up the Celtic left saw Mulgrew and Commons combine, Commons then fed a cut-back into the path of Hooper and then, where usually the net would bulge courtesy of Hoopers clinical and instinctive finishing, the keeper and the three defenders, all within a yard or so of him, combined to crowd him out and a good old-fashioned ruck ensued.
Norris, as he did throughout the entire match, appeared to guess and reached for his whistle and to award a free kick for which reason as I’m sure he will yet to have conjured up for the purpose of his match report.
Brown, Mulgrew, Wanyama and Commons all had efforts, of sorts and of varying degrees of conviction, be saved or watched go harmlessly by the St Johnstone goalkeeper.
St Johnstone though remained positive and clearly fully embrasing of my theory on the SPL clubs mentality to games against us.
In the seventy-sixth minute, Steve Lomas, sent on Nigel Hasselbank in what proved to be an inspired attacking move.
Suddenly his trickery, pace and directness gave the by now entirely counter-attacking home team a new level of threat and a far greater purpose.
He was indeed involved in the move of the eightieth minute when Rowan Vine, the St Johnstone midfielder, found room on the edge of the box and with a neat touch or two he shifted the ball from his left to his right boot and curled the ball despairingly past the long outstretched arms of Fraser Forster in the Celtic goal.
2-1, an upset now seemed entirely plausible.
By now, Scott Brown had been replaced by new signing Lassad, however the game was so scrappy that he rarely featured and indeed Celtic stumbled towards the full-time whistle without so much as a real concerted spell of pressure.
In the very last-minute of the three added-on minutes, Tony Watt escaped the attentions of two St Johnstone markers and gathered a long over the top ball which landed neatly in between defence and keeper. He scampered after the ball but due to the angle and the proximity of the keeper he was unable to capitalise and he forced a corner.
The corner was taken and at that Euan Norris blew for full-time.
Not our greatest moment I’m sure of this season but in truth I quite enjoy the fact that Celtic are not romping away with every match as-per the doomsday scenario painted by Rangers fans and even those out with the mainstream media here in Scotland.
2-1 St Johnstone and I find it hard to say anything other than congratulations to Steve Lomas and his players on, what for them, was a remarkable performance, full of committment and desire.
Fair play to St Johnstone, a fairly well-earned three points.
Now we move swiftly on, Benfica at Celtic Park on Wednesday 19 September 2012, 1945 kick-off GMT.
See you there.