While Benfica had a weekend off to prepare for Wednesday’s crunch Champions League group opener, Celtic fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of St Johnstone in Perth. Kris Commons’ early opener appeared to set Celtic on their way, but instead the reaction was complacency with Gregory Tade and then Rowan Vine earning St Johnstone the deserved 3 points.
Neil Lennon faced a swathe of selection problems. Efe Ambrose hadn’t returned from international duty, Thomas Rogne was benched after speaking to the media while away with Norway and the injury list piled high: Adam Matthews, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras, Dylan McGeouch, Paddy McCourt and Anthony Stokes were all unavailable. The one positive though, was the return of Scott Brown having missed out on international duty through his ongoing hip problem.
St Johnstone lineup
The big news at Mcdiarmid Park was of the flu virus that had decimated training earlier in the week. 7 players had suffered, though by kick-off a full-strength side was assembled – at least on paper.
Callum Davidson missed out through a knock, and Murray Davidson was substituted after only 21 minutes having failed to shake off that illness.
Opening the scoring after only three minutes, Celtic’s early eminance was down to playing confident deck football, making use of Commons and Hooper. It’s this sharp and smart passing that has long-term enabled Celtic to take advantage of a four man midfield. The strikers can make penetrating runs against a defence unsettled in open play, and the midfield can spray passes across the width of the pitch.
But the positivity was short-lived, very quickly descending into a sluggish complacency. The Saints by contrast had four main areas of success:
- Taking advantage of exposed full-backs (James Forrest and Kris Commons guilty of not tracking back)
- Tough ‘borderline’ tackling and sensible professional fouls
- Inability to deal with Tade (not directly linked to goal)
- Vine’s really clever movement between right-back and right centre-back
Aside from Celtic’s careless attitude, the first point is probably the most preventable. The other three were more down to St Johnstone’s own accomplishment.
Tade and Vine
Vine’s gravitation from left-wing to second striker, prompted by Steve Lomas, defined the Saints formation.
His job was to unsettle Mikael Lustig (often overloaded with the help of Tade, Liam Craig or Dave Mackay) drifting towards Kelvin Wilson to make two up front, and then dropping into any gaps left by Lustig.
This movement was best demonstrated in the equaliser. Forrest lost the ball weakly on the half-way, with Lustig out of position. Vine drifted into the space vacated by Lustig dragging Wilson out wide.
Tade was left one-on-one with Mulgrew, with essentially the width of the 18-yard box to play with – Izaguirre inexplicably not in a position to drop in and team-up with Mulgrew to make 2 vs 1.
This man-for-man approach when clearly prevailing in every personal battle, coupled with lazy tracking back meant St Johnstone could attack with ease.
Tade’s contribution apart from the goal was to give the Celtic centre-backs a horrible time. A ball of restlessness, scrapping for every long-ball put his way, and when the ball is put over the top or in behind, the tenacity to not allow Celtic’s centre-backs to calmly resume possession and build an attack.
Second half struggles
At 1-1 and in the ascendency, St Johnstone actually came out after half-time in a traditional defensive 4-1-4-1 formation. In part perhaps, to weather a Celtic storm that never arrived, in part due to the threat of the virus restricting energy levels, but also because they were so comfortable. There wasn’t a need to press high and risk opening gaps when the chances were already coming easily.
Celtic’s frustration only increased, with Wanyama and Commons guilty of petulance. At stages late one, Wanyama was consumed by red-mist, dishing out vigilante justice against Craig, and Commons tried to let fly with a 45-yard set-piece with the entire team out of position. To add insult, in trying to stop the counter-attack he fouled again, earning a poor yellow.
Vine’s hugely deserved winner was a sublime curled finish, but again poorly defended. Mulgrew’s challenge was soft, and with (substitute) Thomas Rogne and Wilson again chasing shadows, Vine was left one-on-one with Lustig in a seriously dangerous area. Frazer Forster’s very bad positioning, tight in at the near-post opened space and encouraged the wicked finish.
It’s fitting that it has taken this long to mention Nicolas Fedor’s debut, because he had almost zero impact on the match. Tony Watt’s late cameo added a bit of mischief, with Celtic in the end shaping up in a kind of 4-1-3-2.
For all the technique and trickery within that final side, Celtic hardly looked like breaking even – all composure had completely vanished.
Commons might point to a missed penalty opportunity with Steven Anderson pushing him over in the box, but St Johnstone were the better side all over the pitch and merited the win.
Lennon thought it may be a case of one eye on Europe, yet with the injury situation most of the starting XI will still expect to play.
“They will be all right for Wednesday and up for it but that’s the wrong attitude to take, they should be up for these matches as well.
“Today’s performance was needless and I am very disappointed for the first time in a long time with them.”