Celtic wrap up three valuable points

LIKE leftover Christmas pudding, Celtic found things a bit sticky when they tried to help themselves to another dollop of points on Boxing Day.

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Virgil van Dijk is all heart alongside Anthony Stokes after his solo run and goal which proved winner against St Johnstone
Virgil van Dijk is all heart alongside Anthony Stokes after his solo run and goal which proved winner against St Johnstone

The fare at McDiarmid Park was very much of the stodgy variety, with the banquet of goals served up in the Hoops' recent visits to Tynecastle and Fir Park off the menu.

There, a selection box of players popped up to find the net. But, just like the pre-Christmas home matches against Hibs and Hearts, this was a real struggle in front of goal.

Eventually, the Hoops headed back down the road with a hard-earned 1-0 win and all the points, thanks to an exceptional goal from Virgil van Dijk after five minutes.

The Dutchman's solo run from his own half and accurate shot had Neil Lennon purring with pleasure.

It should have provided the platform for a much more comprehensive win.

But there was no comfort and little joy for the pyro-less fans, who were left asking for more as the goals dried up.

Only a Kris Commons effort deep into the second half, turned round for a corner by Alan Mannus, looked like doubling their advantage.

With St Johnstone finding their feet and courage to press further forward, the final 45 minutes provided much more of a challenge for Lennon's Bhoys, though their streak of five clean sheets in domestic competitions never really looked to be under serious threat.

Celtic were simply in no mood to hand out post-Christmas gifts. The fans were allowed to bring in some banners, carefully vetted for content. But, in truth, there was not much of a party atmosphere generated, and certainly no fireworks, on or off the pitch.

Only Van Dijk's goal lit up the occasion. However, Lennon was content to see how willing his players were to dig in when life was not as easy as it has been in previous games.

And he saw reassuring signs that maintaining their unbeaten run in the league - now standing at 17 games - is as important to them as it is to him.

The Hoops boss was delighted to discover this steadfastness had allowed them to stretch their lead at the top of the Premiership to 11 points, with a game in hand over their nearest challengers.

Some might say that's exposing the weakness of the competition, though Lennon would prefer to believe it underlines how focused his side are this time around.

And, if the gap is bad news for the rest, the Hoops boss has a less-than-charitable outlook, even in this season of goodwill to all men.

"I don't care - that's not my problem," he said of the bleak prospects for everyone else in the race if the leaders are already almost a lap ahead.

Lennon continued: "I just want to make this team better and make them hard to beat with a good mentality and a will to win.

"Some of the newer boys having looked at that yesterday will have been given a good idea what Scottish football sometimes is really like. Our players were not prepared to allow any points to slip."

Indeed, even though they were firing on well below full power, Celtic were still too tough a nut for Saints to crack.

Not that Lennon is prepared to let the performance slide past without picking the bones out of it.

"I didn't think we passed anywhere near as well as we should have done," was his main misgiving.

"What we should have done was turn St Johnstone a little bit more. That's alien to some of them because they want to play football all of the time.

"When teams press you, sometimes you just have to flip it over them and make them face their own goal. We didn't do that enough in the first part of the second half.

"But once Nir Biton came on, and we changed the shape a little bit, we looked more in control of the game again."

Indeed, the introduction of the Israeli for Georgios Samaras with 20 minutes to go did help dilute the enthusiasm then beginning to flow through the Saints side.

As the confidence started to seep into their ranks, and Nigel Hasselbaink and Stevie May combined in a way which had been beyond them in the first half, Saints managed to make Celtic's rearguard forget about trying to join in with the attack and defend instead.

Van Dijk had to look sharp to snuff out a few half-chances created, and was strong enough to prevent May reaching a dangerous cross from Brian Easton, though the striker did make a claim for a penalty which was rightly waved away.

At the same end in the first half, assistant referee Stuart Stevenson had made an even bigger call when he flagged Scott Brown offside as he played in Anthony Stokes, who rammed the ball into the net.

Had that effort stood - and it was a dubious call - the second half would have been much more comfortable for Celtic.

But they held out and Lennon must take some of the credit for this with his awareness of the need to alter their set-up.

"We were a little bit too open at the back," he reflected. "And, to be fair to St Johnstone, their two frontmen were full of running in the second half.

"We were getting a little bit outnumbered in midfield, and that's why we put Biton on to match it up in there."


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