Point fails to draw concern for Celtic

WHILE Philadelphia lawyers trawl over the newly-released plans for a league shake-up, one thing remains crystal-clear to every fan.

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Efe Ambrose celebrates after putting Celtic into a first-half lead
Efe Ambrose celebrates after putting Celtic into a first-half lead

No amount of revamping, redistribution of payments and re-numbering of divisions is going to bring the rest of the teams anywhere near Celtic.

Not even being held to a 1-1 draw by St Johnstone will change that, as Motherwell's defeat at home to Dundee United ensured the Hoops extended their advantage at the top to 19 points.

Neil Lennon's side are defending champions of the SPL – won initially when Rangers were still around to challenge – and will continue to lead the rest a merry dance for the foreseeable future, such is the strength in depth of their squad.

It will take something much more radical than the current proposals being discussed by the SPL and SFL clubs to make the title race a competition in the truest sense of the word.

The draw at McDiarmid Park was another reminder of how the Bhoys in Black can fall below their own high standards, but remain beyond the reach of the rest.

Saints won the corresponding fixture in September, then drew when they visited Parkhead, and are entitled to be proud of the fact they have now recorded a hat-trick of positive results against Celtic this season.

They will now hope they can stay in the top six to get a fourth crack at them after the split.

By then, Celtic are more than likely going to be celebrating having retained their crown. Lennon is already looking beyond flag day – estimated time of arrival the end of March – and is making plans for next season.

Last night, he took the chance to try out a 3-4-3 formation, with Efe Ambrose, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew at the back, Adam Matthews, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley and Emilio Izaguirre in the centre, and Gary Hooper, Kris Commons and Lassad Nouioui up front.

The result, while not producing the goals it promised as the Hoops pummelled Alan Mannus' goal in an opening barrage, will give Lennon more food for thought and another entry in his ever-growing play book.

The breakthrough did not arrive until eight minutes before the break, Celtic having lost their early cutting edge as Saints got to grips with their system, then regained it for the remainder of the first half as their quality began to shine through.

A short corner from Commons to Izaguirre caught the home side sleeping, and the Honduran flighted a perfect cross on to the head of Ambrose, who continued his action-packed couple of weeks with a glancing header to leave Mannus helpless.

There were only 5352 souls in the ground to witness this latest chapter in the Nigerian defender's Bhoys' Own Story, but they were kept well entertained.

Saints have plenty to play for, trying hard to grab a top-six place, and with it, the possibility of a Uefa Cup spot.

With the introduction of Gregory Tade at the break and Nigel Hasselbaink soon after, against a tiring Celtic side, they did look more dangerous than they had been in the first half.

Indeed, the ball was in the net 11 minutes after the break, but Steven MacLean had already been flagged offside before he connected with Mehdi Abeid's free-kick.

To the consternation of the home players and fans, the same assistant was waving away soon after when Frazer Wright thought he had equalised.

But their plucky effort was rewarded eight minutes from time when sub Hasselbaink cut across sub Thomas Rogne from the left and fired a wicked shot into the far corner of Fraser Forster's net.

Over the piece, it was no more than Saints deserved, especially when you consider the strength contained in the Celtic side and bench.

Anthony Stokes – who dropped out of the starting XI after discovering one of his friends had died – Tom Rogic, Beram Kayal, Rogne, James Forrest and Paddy McCourt are all full internationals, who would get a game in any other SPL side.

Forrest came on for Commons to try and stretch Saints, while Rogne was introduced for Matthews in an attempt to nullify the aerial threat brought to the game by the physical Tade.

Stokes was also pitched into the fray in the closing stages for the disappointing Lassad.

Lennon must now use the hunger of those who want to be involved and the desire of the men in the side to retain their places, to ensure that the head of steam his side has built up is not allowed to dissolve.

That will become even more of a challenge after the title is won, and the vast empty spaces in the stands last night are likely to become even wider as the season continues.

The colourful boots can't be swapped for flip-flops just yet, and thoughts of putting their feet up must be kept away. But that finishing line is one point closer.

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