Celtic v St Johnstone (Scottish Premiership)
Wednesday 30 January, 19.45
Celtic aim to close out a pleasantly undefeated January, amid last-minute transfer speculation, more bad injury news, and a difficult February schedule on the horizon.
It must be said that Celtic have started 2019 in impressive fashion. While the teams snapping at their heels have taken points off each other, the Hoops have their superb home form and contributions from a couple of new faces to thank for their maintaining the top spot in Scotland. This is the match-in-hand that can give Celtic some important breathing room; a win would put them six points clear.
It cannot be said that all is well at Parkhead, but is it ever, especially towards the end of a transfer window that has seen good strengthening in attack but no attention paid to the defense? Yet Brendan Rodgers seems confident he has the manpower to complete the campaign in first place, and you can’t really argue with the results. Injuries still pose a problem, however, with Filip Benkovic picking up a training-ground knock that is rumored to be the end of his season. Rodgers is now going to need to sign someone at the position, for cover if nothing else.
Their opponents St. Johnstone sit a fairly comfortable sixth in the table after a slow start to the season. They have won 11 of 22, but offense continues to pose problems for the Saintees. They average just over one goal per match, and their defense allows the same. However, of the 26 goals they have shipped this season, 11 have come in two matches against Celtic and Rangers, so Tommy Wright will be confident coming to Glasgow, parking the bus, and trying to maximize his players kicking anything in hoops while minimizing bookings.
Stats & Facts Corner
- St. Johnstone have an unaccountably excellent away record this season, with 7 wins from 11, and have drawn the last two league matches at Parkhead
- Prior to their 2-0 defeat at Tynecastle last weekend, St. Johnstone had not lost a goal away from home since late September
- Celtic have scored 21 goals in their last 6 home matches and have yet to drop a point at home this season against domestic opposition
- Celtic are unbeaten in eight against the Saints, their last loss a 2-1 in Perth on Ronny Deila’s final away day
- The much-maligned Scott Sinclair has scored 6 goals in his last six matches.
7 October 2018
18 August 2018 (LC)
18 February 2018
4 November 2017
26 August 2017
Goalkeeper Zander Clark, who, aside from the 6-0 drubbing back in October has been fairly successful against Celtic, is going to need to have a big performance. Celtic have taken 68 shots in their last three matches, with 10 goals to show for it. Clark and his defense should expect more of the same, although they are both more experienced and more capable than Celtic have faced recently. Young centre-back Jason Kerr has piqued the interest of some clubs down south, but St Johnstone (having seen the eye-watering figures thrown around for Scott McKenna) are not eager to sell.
The Saints lineup features a lot of the same players we have seen match in and match out over the years, and I suppose there’s something to be said for squad cohesion and Tommy Wright keeping the same players together. St Johnstone have always had something slightly less about them than Hearts, although certainly something more about them than Hamilton. Striker Matty Kennedy, with five goals on the season, will likely lead the line, although a Tony Watt sighting isn’t out of the question.
Speedy winger Michael O’Halloran, after an ill-fated stint at Rangers that saw him loaned back to the Saints and then play briefly in Australia, is back at McDiarmid Park and (as a St. Johnstone player at least) has caused Celtic some headaches over the years.
Celtic’s lineup story begins in central defense, where Dedryck Boyata and Filip Benkovic will both miss out and give way to the pairing of Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer, a rarely- (if ever) tested combination that looks pretty decent on paper. I have a sneaking suspicion that Scott Bain will play until something untoward happens or the Valencia tie, whichever comes first.
The rest of the lineup should feature at least a couple of surprises. Vakoun Issouf Bayo is probably another week away from featuring, and Brendan Rodgers has been happily rotating Oliver Burke and Timothy Weah in the striker spot as Odsonne Edouard recovers from injury. One little nugget of information from the gaffer was his inclination to give Callum McGregor a rest; Scotland’s best midfielder has been superb this year but he cannot play every game – this would be a natural spot to rest him ahead of a more difficult February fixture list.
If McGregor is rested, then the natural replacement I think would be Ryan Christie, playing a box-to-box midfielder role while Scott Brown plays the holding mid – Brown’s more positive positioning has been a big part of Celtic’s success of late. There aren’t too many other options. I don’t like Brown and Bitton playing together, and although hot prospect Ewan Henderson is rumored to be signing a new deal, I’d be surprised to see him get a start this quickly.
Scott Sinclair and James Forrest (after being given a bit of a breather at the weekend) will play on the wings. The question for me is who slots in the #10 so that Christie can move back? I like Oliver Burke to jump in there; he won’t play the exact same role as Christie did, but the key on Wednesday is going to be breaking down a defense and I would very much like to see what Burke and Weah can do on the same pitch with Sinclair and Forrest – the results could be quite something.
Key points to watch
- Momentum: The Hoops dispatched Airdrie (both inside and outside the ground) and St Mirren with little difficulty, but it was slightly heavier going against Hamilton, the match being decided with Ryan Christie’s 77th minute goal. Against a more determined opponent, and one who can certainly steal a goal or two, it is paramount that Celtic apply pressure early, and once that first goal comes, press for the second immediately.
- Ajer/Jozo: These guys are real talents, and there’s no reason why they can’t be as effective a partnership as Boyata and Benkovic. Ajer has impressed, especially in the air, but Simunovic has been well off the boil this season and has seen his playing time shrink accordingly. This is potentially a make-or-break spot for him, depending on the nature of Benkovic’s injury.
- Referee watch: A new-ish man in black for this one; Greg Aitken has refereed in the Premiership in the past but this is the first time Celtic have seen him this season. He’s shown 27 yellow cards in just six Premiership matches this season, so he’s not afraid of taking names.
- Familiarity breeds contempt: Celtic play St. Johnstone three times in the next two weeks. There are combative players on both sides; will this match see some handbags or tasty challenges that resonate into the next two?
- Where’s ma right back?? And now, where’s ma centre-hauf?
Celtic 1 – 0 St. Johnstone
(The original match poster is by Frankie Mitchell. You can buy a print of it and all of Frankie’s other fabulous Celtic artwork at her online shop)