St Johnstone – Celtic | The Preview

St Johnstone v Celtic (Scottish Premiership)

Sunday 3 February, 12.30

McDiarmid Park

Celtic travel to Perth for their first away match of 2019, after an especially tasty spell of home cooking.

The road has not been kind to the Hoops this season, although their last trip to St Johnstone resulted in a 6-0 laugher that lit the spark on a ten-match unbeaten run. Having won their game in hand, Celtic are six clear at the top of the Scottish Premiership for now, although with Rangers hosting St Mirren the gap is more likely than not to be three by kickoff on Sunday. (However, any points dropped at Ibrox would turn this match into a mouthwatering opportunity to turn the gap to eight or even nine.)

I should take a minute to #RIP the January transfer window, and with it, a great bit of patter that well and truly had the arse gleefully ripped out of it by all and sundry. “Where’s ma right back?” has finally been answered in the handsome Teutonic form of Jeremy Toijan, joining up on a six-month loan from no less a club than Borussia Dortmund. So all in all, I feel that Celtic have bolstered themselves pretty well for what looks to be an eventful 28 days of February, with eight matches on their dance card including home-and-away with Valencia in the last 32 of the Europa League.

St Johnstone must have been disappointed heading back up the A9 on Wednesday night. Although they held Celtic well in the first half, they offered nothing going forward; little surprise as Tommy Wright set out his starting eleven without a striker. Saints keeper Zander Clark kept his team from an embarrassment, making at least three top-drawer saves, but it wasn’t enough. Even after the 2-0 defeat, St Johnstone remain in the sixth spot and still own Scotland’s best away record, (W7 D0 L5), but their home form (W4 D4 L3) leaves much to be desired. Having lost two in a row and facing another trip to Celtic Park for a Scottish Cup fifth-round tie next week, the Saints will see Sunday as an opportunity to give a better account of themselves.

Stats & Facts Corner

  • St. Johnstone are scoreless in their last four against Celtic.
  • The 2-0 defeat at Parkhead put the Saints in arrears in the goal differential department, they are now at -2.
  • Celtic have won four in a row at McDiarmid Park, scoring 19 goals along the way, and are unbeaten in nine against the Saints.
  • Fact: Callum McGregor is Scotland’s best midfielder and you’d might as well give him Player of the Year right now.

Last Five

30 January 2019CelticSt Johnstone2:0
7 October 2018St JohnstoneCeltic0:6
18 August 2018 (LC)CelticSt Johnstone1:0
18 February 2018CelticSt Johnstone0:0
4 November 2017St JohnstoneCeltic0:4

 

Lineups

In my midweek preview I mentioned Zander Clark was going to need to have a big performance, and he did, making a handful of acrobatic stops. However, he was utterly let down by his manager and his teammates in attack, who could only muster one off-target shot. Everyone expected Tommy Wright & co. to come and park the bus, but I at least expected St Johnstone to try and play some football. Instead winger Michael O’Halloran was stuck up front on his own, and at the time of writing he is still missing, last seen inside Kristoffer Ajer’s pocket. Someone call Interpol.

So I expect that Wright played it cagey as a tactic to try and steal a 0-0 point on the road, and that he will set out his stall a little more positively at home. Perhaps after not playing a striker Wednesday he will play TWO on Sunday, mirabile dictu, in the form of Tony Watt and Matty Kennedy. You know Watt would love a goal against his former club, and he’s probably even the kind of guy that would break the unwritten rules and celebrate it.

The rest of the lineup from the midfield back should largely reflect the players from midweek, who are your typical collection of mid-table stalwarts. Wednesday was the first time we’d seen Murray Davidson in awhile, and indeed it was a pleasure to see him back from his stint as a prehistoric caveman. Right back Ricky Foster, meanwhile is sporting one of those bleached-blonde hairdon’ts that must have been the result of a lost bet. You’d think it would make him easy to spot on the pitch, but his obvious handball in the box late in the match Wednesday went unseen.

 

Brendan Rodgers will have a little bit of additional lineup flexibility with a new right back, although I don’t at all think Toijan will start this one. A late sub for Mikael Lustig is certainly a possibility, though. Jozo Simunovic and (in particular) Kristoffer Ajer were very assured at centre-back on Wednesday, and with the B&B twins on the long-term injury list they need as many matches together as possible. Emilio Izaguirre will surely get the run-out again at left back, although his performances have been inconsistent at best in Kieran Tierney’s absence.

And it will surely be Scott Bain in goals, right? Although he hasn’t had all that much to do in the four games since he took over from Craig Gordon, four clean sheets are four clean sheets and his distribution of the ball is so obviously preferable.

Some Celtic players are on their way back from injury, but it wouldn’t be the Lennoxtown trainer’s table if someone else didn’t get hurt at the same time. Odsonne Edouard got a solid twenty minutes on Wednesday in his return from injury and should be considered a likely candidate to start on Sunday.

Taking some steam out of the Frenchman’s return, Tom Rogic, who has been away with Australia for what seems like an eternity, has been returned to us injured, needing knee surgery that will see him shelved for at least six weeks. I suppose we’re all supposed to feel very happy that he was worked like a mule by the Australian FA, playing five times in the Asian Cup so the Socceroos could vanquish such vaunted footballing nations as Palestine and Syria. It’s not his fault that he was injured and it’s not his fault he wants to play for his country but there is something extremely annoying about this whole situation.

So the midfield more or less picks itself, Olivier Ntcham is ready to return to training but is not near a return to the lineup. Scott Brown and Callum McGregor will take up their usual roles, as will Scott Sinclair and James Forrest further forward. Although Rodgers has expressed interest in resting McGregor, I am not sure the available personnel allows him to do so. Nir Bitton would be an intriguing option with Brown pushing forward even more than he has recently. At the end of the day you have to play McGregor, he is a leader in his own right and a true goal threat.

Key points to watch

  • Will Celtic get their end away? As mentioned earlier the Hoops have been mediocre on the road overall this year, but shit-hot at McDiarmid Park. Early goals are even more important on the road, where opponents have more confidence and it always seems like hanging onto a one-goal lead is never enough.
  • Sub Club: With French Eddy being back, you could argue that there’s no room in the starting eleven for any of Celtic’s January signings. Timothy Weah might be preferred as a bench option to Oliver Burke, but frankly I would prefer both over a Jonny Hayes type. If Edouard does get the start, though, it would be the subbed-at-the-hour-mark kind of start so there’s room for both Weah and Burke here. Still a little early for Bayo…
  • Referee watch: As if it weren’t bad enough that Willie Collum will take charge of this match, Douglas Ross MP will be running his merry Tory way up and down the sideline. I thought this dickhead (Ross, although Collum qualifies in spades himself) was supposed to retire. Professional refs now, please.

Prediction

St Johnstone 1-3 Celtic


Matt Evans is a recent transplant to the UK from the US. Celtic was passed down to him by a rogue soccer-loving Irish-American uncle in the 1980s and by the time European nights started being shown on satellite and streaming worldwide he was hooked. An editor by trade, he edits the 90MC publication, The Cynical, among other football publications. His all-time favourite Celt is Artur Boruc, and if he were a tree he would be a palm tree.


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