Saturday 24 June 2017

Strength of squad keeps Celtic in poleposition to recapture title

St Mirren 0 Celtic 2

Ewing Grahame

As Neil Lennon was quick to point out after a hard-fought and barely deserved victory, the road to the title is rarely smooth.

This encounter was certainly a bumpy ride. Celtic's Fraser Forster was the busier goalkeeper and most observers' choice for the afternoon's best performer.

Lennon admitted afterwards that beating Saints had been more difficult than prevailing against Rangers last month and few would argue with that.

Of course, championships are won and lost on afternoons like this. With the home side looking sharper and more purposeful for the bulk of the game, it would have been easy for Lennon's players to use the swirling wind and driving sleet as an excuse for dropping points.

That they refused to do so speaks volumes for their mental toughness and two late goals, (a mis-hit shot from James Forrest and an exquisite curler from club captain Scott Brown) gave them a 12th successive league victory.

They weren't to know it at the time but it would also increase their lead over rivals Rangers to four points. In so doing, they revealed the strength in depth which should see them finish in pole position for the first time in four years.

The game turned in Celtic's favour following the introduction, just before the hour, of Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes, who added urgency and penetration to the visitors' attack.

Commons scored 29 goals last season while Stokes has 15 goals to his name in the current campaign.

Leaving aside the 17 goals from Nikica Jelavic (who is expected to be sold before the transfer window closes) Stokes' tally matches the total of the 15 outfield Rangers players stripped for action against Aberdeen.

With Steven Naismith out for the remainder of the season and Kyle Lafferty not due to return from injury until late next month, it's difficult to see Rangers, who have now dropped 13 points in their last 10 fixtures, mounting a comeback.

Celtic's Norwegian defender, Thomas Rogne, certainly believes that the quality of those on the periphery at Parkhead ought to work in the Hoops' favour.

"One of our strengths is that we have such a big squad, which means we can rotate a little bit," he said. "The subs did really well to turn things round for us here.

"We know that if things aren't quite working for us then we have people on the bench who can come on and change things."

Rogne conceded that, on this occasion, Lennon's side had not scaled any heights but there was nonetheless a quiet satisfaction taken from closing out the game against awkward opponents.

"St Mirren played well and fought well and the conditions also made it difficult," he said. "It was a tough game. Of course, we'd like to play brilliant football in every game and win comfortably but that's a fairy tale -- it's not going to happen.

"Sometimes you need to just dig in like we did today. It's not always going to be pretty but I thought we showed character today."

Irish Independent

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