St Mirren wilted to a 2-0 defeat this afternoon against SPL champions Celtic at Parkhead this afternoon. Goals from Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper either side of the interval were enough to seal victory against Saints, who frankly looked beaten from the first minute.
Lee Mair’s suspension warranted a personnel shake-up from Danny Lennon. Jon Robertson entered the fray so Jim Goodwin could partner Marc McAusland at centre back, whilst Sam Parkin was sacrificed for Dougie Imrie who stepped in to shore up the left wing. The cautious 4-5-1 formation was employed to best avoid a repeat of recent thrashings at the same venue.
From the first kick it was obvious what the day’s task was. That was to form a human wall in front of the St Mirren goal and pick up any scraps. Yet these scraps weren’t forthcoming as Celtic highlighted the huge difference between the sides – holding the ball succinctly, moving the ball on at pace, and a sweeter first touch were such examples of their dominance, not to mention the overwhelming share of possession. Although it was Saints who should have drawn first blood after a couple of minutes. Imrie failed to bury an early chance for the Saints when Gary Teale’s cross was flicked to the back post, but the midfielder took a touch instead of hammering a shot towards goal.
Celtic then had several penalty claims with which to trouble the referee. Of their two credible shouts, the first protestation occurred after some ricocheting inside the Saints’ penalty area, where Callum Murray adjudged that the ball in fact did not strike the arm of Jim Goodwin. Their second appeal came when Gary Hooper tumbled theatrically in the box, however Murray’s failure to penalise Hooper cost Saints from the resulting corner. Charlie Mulgrew’s in-swinger was well saved by Samson from Wanyama’s header, yet the Kenyan had time to stab home the rebound to put the hosts deservedly in front after 15 minutes of play.
From here, many Buddies in the away end dreaded another mauling at the hands of the Bhoys. And it did appear to be a case of when, rather than if, Celtic would add to their tally. Georgios Samaras caused a whole host of problems to both midfield and defence with stylish, penetrating runs. St Mirren’s back line were giving their opponent’s attackers far too much space and thinking time on the twenty-five yard line, and efforts from Wanyama, Ambrose and Samaras yielded no reward. The away support were unanimously praying for the half time whistle as they were cold, fed up and wishing to keep the scoreline respectable to aid a second half comeback. I doubt the majority resented the defensive style, but perhaps showed legitimate frustration at the ineptitude of the counter attack. Perhaps the use of wingers Teale and Imrie as defensive wing-backs stunted any attacking potency.
Celtic’s overwhelming supremacy in the first half predicted the programme of the second. Samaras’ cross formed the basis for the hosts’ next chance minutes into the second forty-five. His delicate chip to the back post was headed down by Hooper to Scott Brown, but the captain’s header was superbly saved on the line by Craig Samson. The home crowd screamed that the header had crossed the line, but the assistant referee was adamant that no goal was scored, and the ball was cleared to safety. Jim Goodwin looked the epitome of confidence in central defence, and further endeared himself to the Saints support with two goal saving blocks. He looked fearless of his opponents, and showed daring courage to literally put his body on the line for the cause.
With the score still somehow at 1-0, there was a clawing hope of resurgency. John McGinn came close to emulating the fortunes of elder brother Steven almost five years to the day, but his well-placed shot lacked the power to beat Fraser Forster.
The second half was a marginal improvement on the first. However Celtic were still first to every ball, and their nonchalant link-up play summarised the wealth of resources they have available to them. Yet Saints, Goodwin aside, looked afraid. They looked overwhelmed by the occasion and displayed little confidence while failing to create anything further of real ingenuity. The home support’s bizarre camera flash protest failed to light the path to a Paisley revival. Kenny McLean’s snap-shot flew over the bar and scuffed a shot towards goal, while Teale fired a shot well wide of goal when presented with space on the edge of the box. McGinn’s earlier chance appeared to be as good as things would get for the Buddies. An unrelenting but tired Steven Thompson was substituted for Sam Parkin to provide fresh strength up front.
Such frustration was compounded when Jim Goodwin picked up a ridiculous booking midway through the second half. His clean, sliding tackle won the ball cleanly from the path of Scott Brown yet referee Murray deemed the incident a foul, and worse yet a caution. The cynic in me would hedge his bets that if that tackle were made by any of the other twelve Buddies out there today, no such punishment would have been deemed necessary. In an attempt to chase the game, Jon Robertson was substituted for Lewis Guy to give the battling Buddies two strikers in their quest for parity.
And the final score remained thus. The score flattered St Mirren immeasurably - Celtic were given a taste of their own medicine similar to their home tie against Barcelona, where they restricted their hosts to unrelenting passing to break down a steadfast defence. Between the chances highlighted above, feel free to fill in the blanks using your memories of that game. In fact picture a cat pawing a defenceless mouse, dangling by its tail. What Barcelona failed to do that night, Celtic managed to do with ease this afternoon. At no point did they look rushed, flustered or by any means uncomfortable. By contrast the hosts were calm, concise, clinical…and above all they were patient.