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St Johnstone 1 Celtic 1: Champions-elect sprint out of blocks nullified by Hasselbaink

IT has been disclosed that Neil Lennon is promising early holidays to his players as soon as the title is won.

His charges last night romped towards that target as if they had collectively booked all-inclusive deals in Martinique with Beyonce recruited to slap on the suncream before being slowed down by the speed bump that is Nigel Hasselbaink.

A fine Efe Ambrose header in the first half had given Celtic a lead that seemed slim but unassailable given the dominance of the champions but Hasseelbaink came on to earn his side a point with a marvellous finish eight minutes from time.

It is difficult to state precisely how quickly Celtic came out the blocks. They resembled a pack of greyhounds who have just spotted a hare with a limp. Indeed, inside the first three minutes Gary Hooper had missed two chances, both one-on-one with goalkeeper Alan Mannus, to render the rest of the match irrelevant.

Celtic, playing a 3-4-4 system, exerted such pressure on St Johnstone that there was more than mild surprise at half-time to reflect that only one goal separated the teams.

Stripped of Anthony Stokes, who started on the bench after a bereavement kept him from training until yesterday, Celtic threw Hooper, Kris Commons and Lassad Nouioui at an increasingly besieged St Johnstone defence. The home side, with Murray Davidson missing through injury, were forced forlornly to hope for some joy on the break.

The first half was almost entirely one-sided with the interventions of Mannus and the sloppiness of Celtic in front of goal combining to render Ambrose's goal the solitary counter. The defender capitalised on sharp thinking by Celtic when Emilio Izaguirre received a short corner from Commons and crossed perfectly for Ambrose to head past Mannus.

The Nigerian was also involved in the most prominent of the attacking interventions from St Johnstone in the first period.

First, he showed Africa Cup of Nations form when he quickly intervened to deny Mehdi Abeid. He then showed Juventus form when he carelessly allowed Abeid to regain possession in the area but the St Johnstone's player's shot hit the side netting.

For the rest, Celtic, exploiting the pace of Adam Matthews and Izaguirre out wide, kept St Johnstone pushed back into an increasingly crowded spot of Perthshire.

The chances came and were scorned and there was always the suspicion that Celtic would pay for such profligacy. Joe Ledley tarried when put through by an exquisite pass from Victor Wanyama, the Welshman drove wide from a good position outside the box, Lassad drew a magnificent save from Mannus and there was an incident where the ball swirled about the Saints area like a diabolical game of bagatelle with Celtic shots being met with increasingly desperate blocks.

Steve Lomas, the St Johnstone manager, reacted to this first period under the cosh by bringing on Gregory Tade at half-time to replace Michael Doughty who had spent an evening chasing the merest of scraps.

There were then glimmers of hope for St Johnstone. First, Steven MacLean headed in from an Abeid free-kick but was ruled offside. Then Frazer Wright headed back from the back post, forcing Fraser Forster to contrive a frantic juggle to keep his goal intact. Again, Wright headed in from a free-kick with the assistant referee’s flag raised.

With Hasselbaink sent on to replace the ineffective Rowan Vine and James Forrest taking over from Commons, both managers sought to impose  an attacking momentum on the match.

A mass of Celtic possession could not force the goal that would give them a comfortable leeway and a deflected cross from Charlie Mulgrew that swirled beyond the back post was the most threatening of their moments.

Lennon, aware of the bustling presence of Tade, brought on Thomas Rogne for Matthews in an attempt to close the game out but Celtic were almost caught out when Hasselbaink quickly took a free-kick but Liam Craig blasted the ball over the bar.

It was then that the match entered a period of attrition. St Johnstone could not force Celtic on to the back foot for a consistent period and the champions could not quite manufacture the sort of clear chances that came so readily early in the match.

They paid for this inability when their slimmest of advantages was obliterated by Hasselbaink’s superb strike after the forward stepped across Rogne. Forrest attempted to restore Celtic’s advantage with a swipe that curled past a post and Craig’s inadvertent header from a Mulgrew cross was palmed away by Mannus.

Celtic frenetic late spell thus replicated the early moments of the match but they were left to rue an evening when they again were denied by St Johnstone, who have two draws and a victory against Celtic in the league this season.
The holidays are still coming, however. Motherwell’s defeat last night leaves Celtic 19 points clear. The flights may not be booked but the trunks have been looked out.

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