Celtic eventually broke down a resilient St Johnstone side to come within 1 point of securing the SPL title.
Cha Du Ri and Victor Wanyama were suspended after being sent off in the previous SPL fixture at Ibrox. Mikael Lustig and Gary Hooper were their respective replacements, coming in at right-back and up front respectively.
Ki Sung-Yeung dropped to the bench with Kris Commons coming in on the right hand-side, and Charlie Mulgrew returned to left-back after Adam Matthews torrid time against Rangers, the Welshman dropping to the bench to allow Glen Loovens to start in the centre of defence.
Interestingly Thomas Rogne started his first game in the left centre-back spot, seeing as Loovens isn’t comfortable (isn’t capable of playing?) there.
Lennon opted for a 4-2-2-2 system, having rejected the overly negative 4-5-1 used initially last week.
St Johnstone Lineup
Steve Lomas had few injury concerns – Murray Davidson missed out thanks to a knee injury and left-back Callum Davidson couldn’t recover from a hamstring issue.
The big question was whether ex-Celt Derek Riordan would be ready to make the match squad following his free signing at the weekend – and the answer (almost disappointingly) was no. Elsewhere, loannee James Keatings wasn’t allowed to feature against his parent club.
Open match – few chances
With Lomas sticking to his preferred 4-4-2 formation, there were personal battles all over the park. This also meant no natural ‘free’ players for either side, making for a scrappy first-half. One player bucking the trend and breaking forward was Samaras – whose performances have been impressive of late, but also Commons was getting in on the act (albeit lacking the final pass).
The same could not be said for the Hooper/Stokes partnership up front, although Stokes did link up with Commons for one of the clearest cut chances of the half. Stokes delayed his pass expertly, releasing Commons who drilled his shot wide when he should’ve hit the target.
Apart from frustrating with the man-to-man approach, the Saints (like Rangers before) were defending with little vertical ‘depth’. Between the defensive lines and forwards couldn’t have been more than a quarter of the length of the pitch – making it extremely difficult for Celtic to play deck football. And again like the Glasgow derby, with wide midfielders determined to cut inside, the “active” football playing area was very congested.
Furthermore – the Saints strikers were dropping so deep as to actually press Celtic’s midfielders (rather than bother with the centre-backs).
Good spell from visitors prompts change
With the score tied at 0-0 and Celtic poor all the way through the first-half, the inevitable sustained pressure from the Saints (along with the inevitable Celtic lethargy) arrived early in the second half. The source was the height and movement of Sandaza andSheridan- with their midfield told to whip in crosses low, hard and most significantly early – before the defence were comfortably organised. It’s an excellent way to take advantage of ball-watchers, although the strikers were required to be sharp, to explosively cover ground (between the back-line and ‘keeper), and to gamble. Both forwards had decent opportunities in such circumstance.
The question for Lennon was – how to shake up the team? The only bright spark (of the front 6) was Samaras with the others equally tepid.
He decided to bring on Ki for Stokes – moving Samaras alongside Hooper, and the formation changing from 4-2-2-2 to the ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2. With the Greek “in one of those moods” and now closer to goal, he could really hurt the Saints defence. Irritated as much by his own teams inadequacy as an opposition challenge, Samaras doggedly drew out a foul – like a good targetman should. Commons whipped in the cross from the left, leaving Samaras to finish what he started – with Sheridan at fault, not paying attention.
Celtic’s moving up of Commons exposed St Johnstone’s own 4-4-2 – a system which has the inherent weakness of space between the lines. And now Commons could find space (as opposed to when double-marked out wide).
Celtic’s goal also spelled the end for Lomas’ plan – the defending (very) deep, hitting on the break and via set-pieces, and hoping to take a chance and sneak a goal. His side now needed to press ever forward, opening more space for Celtic to exploit. This was typified in the killer second, and credit has to go to Ki for his decision making. Taking the ball into his stride in the final third, he helped create an overlap by motioning in to shoot. This opened up space for Samaras out wide, whose cross-cum-shot was turned in by Millar.
The mid-match slump is a passage of play typical of Celtic’s latter form – and fortunate teams like Rangers, Kilmarnock and Aberdeen have taken advantage. In this case, Celtic finally got their own share of fortune, capitalising onSheridan’s really poor defending for a simple goal from set-piece. Lomas was further aggrieved in the buildup to Celtic’s second, where he correctly felt Craig was impeded by Commons. The solution is to remove the influence of luck (and alternatively referees) as much as possible – something Lennon’s side currently are not doing.
Much of Celtic’s recent problems have come from a lack of firepower up front – coinciding with the loss/breaking down of (POTY contender) James Forrest. With Samaras clearly man of the match (winning the free-kick for, and scoring the first and forcing the O.G. for the second) it’s therefore a testing time for the ‘Stooper’ combination. On-form, it’s an exciting and technical combination – but over the course of the season it’s proven too easy a pairing to inhibit.
The successful switch to the ‘lop-sided’ 4-4-2 along with a semi-resurgent Commons further backs the idea of dropping of one of Hooper or (more likely) Stokes.
This goes back to a problem that has existed for as long as Lennon has been manager – despite a numerically healthy squad in general, there are still clear weaknesses in depth in specific areas: if Samaras is now considered a left-winger, then there are two (target-man type) striker slots available. And aside from Forrest this season, no creative/attacking midfielder has really shone (apart from Samaras, again, whose position isn’t really clear yet).