APART from the late lapse in concentration that allowed substitute Connor Smith to pull back a consolation goal for St Johnstone, the Celtic defence functioned effectively at Parkhead on Saturday.

Cameron Carter-Vickers slotted back in at centre half after recovering from a slight hamstring strain and dovetailed well with Stephen Welsh in the heart of the home team’s rearguard during the comfortable 3-1 victory.

Carter-Vickers, Welsh, Alistair Johnston and Greg Taylor are all fine footballers who perform at a consistently high level for the Scottish champions both domestically and in Europe.

But was there another reason they nullified the threat which St Johnstone posed in Glasgow at the weekend so impressively? Could the timely return to form of Kyogo Furuhashi have been a factor? Did facing the Japanese internationalist at Lennoxtown last week ensure they were in the zone?

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Welsh certainly believes that he has developed as a result of squaring up to the £4.5m forward on a daily basis. “He’s an absolute nightmare to play against in training,” he said. “It definitely makes you a better player facing him. The quality we’ve got in the team and training every day can only improve you.

“I feel bad for defenders every Saturday watching them because I know exactly how they feel. He’s a brilliant wee player and he does so much for the team off the ball as well. It’s the same with Daizen (Maeda). The both of them run their socks off. Their running stats are incredible when you look at them after a game.

The Herald: “They know they get the benefit when they do the defensive stuff. We win the ball up high then they can go and score their goals. We scored a goal like that against St Johnstone when we won the ball up high and got it to Jamesy (Forrest).

“In the last two years, he (Furuhashi) has been among the top two or three players in the team. For him to come back in against St Johnstone and do as well as he did was excellent for him and I’m delighted for him as well.”

Furuhashi’s first half opener on Saturday took his tally for club and country in the 2023/24 campaign to 16. But it is fair to say the PFA Scotland and Scottish Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year has not had his usual sparkle of late. January signing Adam Idah was preferred to him in the matches against Dundee, Hearts and Livingston as a result.

At the weekend, though, he was very much back to his brilliant best. The 29-year-old looked faster, sharper and hungrier than he had done for some time. He took his goal well when he got on the end of a diagonal Nicolas Kuhn cross and headed beyond Dimitar Mitov. He could easily have plundered more.

So why did he produce such a vastly-improved personal display? Welsh suspects that shouldering so much responsibility perhaps takes a toll on his team mate from time to time. He thinks that being removed from the front line for a spell by Rodgers has reenergised the fans’ favourite just in time for the final title push. 

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“I think it’s probably urged him on a wee bit to go and score goals, to go and make an impact,” he said. “If we have a fit and firing Kyogo that’s a massive boost for us. We can let him go and do what he does best and score goals for us.

“The level we’re playing at is high and the expectancy on us every week in front of this crowd is a lot. They expect us to be the best we can be every week in every game. Even when we have key players out, we’re still expected to perform and win. But to have boys coming back in especially going into the run-in now is massive for us.”

The Herald: Welsh knows that having Carter-Vickers, who donned the captain’s armband once again in the continued absence of Callum McGregor, available for selection once again will be important for Celtic.

“It goes without saying that he improves the team when he’s in it and that we definitely miss him when he’s not in it,” he said.

“But as a collective defensively I thought we were excellent. The front three pressed really well, the midfield three were always in good position then Cameron and I tidied everything up at the back. But, yes, it was good to get Cam back.

“We were good last week (in the Scottish Cup quarter-final win over Livingston) but there were parts we could definitely improve. I thought that, apart from five minutes late in the second half, we were excellent.

“We controlled the game, stopped them doing anything at all. We fired the ball about, created lots of chances and we could have scored a couple more.”

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Kuhn, the German winger who was signed from Rapid Vienna in Austria for £3m at the start of the year, was responsible for a couple of goals which Celtic did score. He supplied Furuhashi for the first and then tapped in the second. Welsh knew it was just a matter of time before the new recruit, who was underwhelming in his first few appearances in this country, came good.

“We saw it in training in the first few weeks,” he said. “Coming to a club like this the pressure is on you every week to perform, but in the last couple of games he’s been excellent. He showed against St Johnstone the quality he’s got and that’s why we brought him to the club.”

The return of Carter-Vickers, the resurgence of Furuhashi and the emergence of Kuhn as a potent threat in the final third augur well for Celtic – if they continue to play the way they did against St Johnstone on Saturday when club football resumes after the international break they will challenge strongly for silverware come May.

The Herald: