Tuesday 22 August 2017

Stokes and Murphy maintain 'perfect' Celtic start

Kilmarnock 1
Celtic 2

Anthony Stokes is down but not out as he battles for the ball with Kilmarnock's Frazer Wright at Rugby Park. Photo: PA
Anthony Stokes is down but not out as he battles for the ball with Kilmarnock's Frazer Wright at Rugby Park. Photo: PA

Roddy Forsyth

They slipped off the top of the SPL table on goal difference and conceded their first league goal this season, but, in terms of results, Celtic maintained perfection with a 13th straight league win under Neil Lennon.

Scoring was an Irish monopoly. Former UCD player Connor Sammon fired Kilmarnock ahead, but Daryl Murphy equalised from the penalty spot shortly before the interval and then Anthony Stokes hit the winner with his first goal for the club since signing from Hibernian at the end of August.

Stokes had a mixed bag of a day and got himself cautioned for a hefty challenge on Jamie Hammill, but he was not the first to register in that department as Celtic demonstrated before most players had broken sweat.

Celtic knew that Kilmarnock's impact signing, Alexei Eremenko, was the principal threat to them and this warning translated into crude action when Glenn Loovens flattened him in front of the home dugout to earn their ire and a caution from Craig Thomson.

The Finnish international, mind you, seemed undaunted by fear of more of the same and after he picked himself up and shook his clattered limbs, he played a delightful pass ahead of Craig Bryson to put the Kilmarnock captain in for a shot which skipped past the far post.

It was a clear reminder of how Eremenko could set Killie in forward motion and he emphasised the point in the Ayrshire side's next break upfield when he gathered possession on the edge of the centre circle, neatly sidestepped Biram Kayal and fed Sammon, who rounded Loovens and strode on to draw Fraser Forster, whom he beat with a crisp low drive.

The speed of execution and thought displayed by their team in taking the lead encouraged the home support to believe that they were about to witness a productive afternoon, and they were further encouraged in this notion when Hammill slipped a prompt pass down the inside-right channel for Bryson, but the midfielder was thwarted by the outrushing Forster, who booted a clearance off his toe.

The ball did not go out of play, however and, when Eremenko trapped it out on the Kilmarnock right he tried to catch Forster out of his goal with a lob from ambitious distance.

Had Eremenko been accurate Forster could have done nothing about it and Celtic would have had an even tougher job on their hands, but the attempt was too high and fell into the front row of the stand.

By this stage of the contest, coming up to the 20-minute mark, alarm bells were ringing for Celtic across half the pitch, as Lennon acknowledged.

"We didn't start well because we kept giving the ball away cheaply under no pressure," said the Parkhead manager. "The goal we conceded was preventable. Their midfield player went on the wrong side of ours and then Glenn had his back turned by Sammon, although he had a good finish, to be fair.

"But it had to come to an end some time and once we got a stranglehold on the game we were okay."

As they closed the gaps, it became clearer that Celtic were meant to be in 4-4-1-1 shape -- something that had by no means been evident -- but they were then disrupted by an injury to Paddy McCourt.

It is always a lottery to guess what kind of performance McCourt will turn in -- and for how long he will provide it -- and the same goes for his injuries.

At Inverness on the first day of the season he had to be taken off, suffering from concussion, after he had scored a goal then bizarrely collided with Shaun Maloney, somehow managing to apply his skull to the ribs of the smallest man on the field.

This time he seemed to make innocuous contact with Eremenko close to the Kilmarnock goal and lay prone after he fell.

"He felt something go in his shoulder, although we have to wait and see if it's actually dislocated," said Lennon. "He's not lucky. He was in good form today and to lose him so early was a blow to him and to us."

Scott Brown also left prematurely and was, like McCourt, the victim of an odd occurrence. "Scott's momentum took him off the pitch and on to the AstroTurf at the side and he injured his ankle but, fingers crossed, he should be okay for next weekend," Lennon added.

By the time Brown crocked himself, Celtic had drawn level from a penalty kick, coolly despatched by Murphy after Stokes -- who had taken McCourt's place -- was brought down by Frazer Wright, who was in dangerous territory, having earlier been booked for an illegal tackle on Maloney.

Kilmarnock had so steadily withdrawn, or been compressed, into their own territory that it was no surprise they should concede a goal.

The question for them was whether they could restore some momentum after the break and the answer was swiftly supplied by Stokes.

Maloney's cute touch put Emilio Izaguirre beyond the Killie back line for a driven cross that Stokes smacked into the net with brio.

"Before we scored our goal we played the better football," said Kilmarnock manager Mixu Paatelainen.

There was sufficient invention to suggest that Kilmarnock should not find themselves as near the brink as they did last time, when it came down to the final day of the season and an attritional day at home to Falkirk.

As for Celtic, Lennon is still mixing and matching to discover his most potent line-ups and the combination of Izaguirre and Maloney on the left must have given him nourishing food for thought.

Of course, this was the league, where Celtic are unblemished. But, like the labourer who insisted on his mug of char, Lennon doesn't do cups. Inverness are next, in the Co-operative Insurance tournament on Wednesday -- another day, an intriguingly different challenge. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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