St. Johnstone vs Celtic. Scottish Premiership.
Report and free match highlights from the cinch Scottish Premiership match between St Johnstone and Celtic at McDiarmid Park on Sunday; superb strikes from Callum McGregor and Matt O'Riley help Brendan Rodgers' men come from behind to sink struggling Saints
Sunday 3 December 2023 20:31, UK
Two stunning strikes helped Scottish Premiership leaders Celtic come from behind to beat gutsy St Johnstone 3-1 at McDiarmid Park.
The hosts took advantage of the Bhoys' Champions League exit-induced malaise with a scrappy opener from Diallang Jaiyesimi five minutes before the break.
But Brendan Rodgers' men improved in the second half and got themselves out of trouble when captain Callum McGregor smashed home a daisy-cutter from the edge of the box to level.
Matt O'Riley hit the sweetest of strikes to give Celtic the lead for the first time, with James Forrest adding the gloss in stoppage-time after a rapid counter-attack.
Celtic maintain their eight-point lead over second-placed Rangers - who boast a game in hand - while St Johnstone stay 11th, two points behind Aberdeen in 10th.
Days after Celtic's miserable exit from the Champions League - with their fate sealed by a 2-0 defeat to Lazio in Rome - a date with the club second-bottom of the league, with just two wins all season, seemed to be the perfect tonic; St Johnstone had lost on all of the last 13 occasions they had hosted the champions.
That was on paper, but the reality was different. Celtic dominated the ball in the first half, but showed little urgency. Their best chance came 25 minutes in when Saints goalkeeper Dimitar Mitov dived to his right to claw David Turnbull's curling effort away after he majestically shifted the ball from right to left.
St Johnstone grew in confidence as a result of their opponents' lack of fluency and netted the opener their efforts deserved when O'Riley's attempt to hack the ball off the line ricocheted off Jaiyesimi and over the line.
A VAR review followed, with goalkeeper Joe Hart claiming he had been fouled after the initial corner from the left, but appeals were futile and the goal stood.
The pressure from the visitors increased after the break, with Mitov called into action several times to preserve the lead. But he could do nothing to stop McGregor thumping the equaliser home after James Brown's headed clearance fell perfectly for him.
There was a collective sigh of relief among the visiting supporters less than 15 minutes later, as Celtic finally took the lead for the first time when O'Riley - who made his Denmark debut on November 20 - fired the most perfect of strikes past Mitov after a mesmerising build-up.
There was drama yet to come, though. Jay Turner-Cooke perhaps should have equalised from close range to earn a point for St Johnstone, but, after Hart clawed his effort away, Celtic embarked on a counter-attack that was clinically finished by James Forrest.
St Johnstone manager Craig Levein:
"My first thoughts are always about how many points we got, so I'll talk about the negative side of it first. We're disappointed to get nothing from the game.
"Celtic, admittedly, had more chances than we did and created some good opportunities, which we managed to defend well and the goalkeeper [Mitov] had some input to that as well. From that point of view, there was quite a lot of decent stuff that we did.
"Two of the goals that beat us were wonder strikes. McGregor caught his perfectly on the half-volley and O'Riley, with his weaker foot, has smashed one into the top corner from outside the box. What do you do about that?
"We were still in the game at 75 minutes and that was encouraging. Our fitness needs to be a wee bit better; I thought we were noticeably tired during the second half. I like to look at these things we can improve on, as it gives me encouragement we can improve as a team. But my overall feeling, as you can imagine, is one of disappointment."
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers:
"It was a really good reaction in the second half. It's probably the angriest I've ever been at half-time in my career as a manager. We were just nowhere near it and the second half was what I would expect; much better energy, tempo to the game. Callum McGregor was absolutely brilliant second half and his goal sparked the reaction.
"Some players want to be too comfortable and just do enough - and it's not enough at this club. You have to have that mentality and that intensity from the first whistle.
"We just can't drop at this club. The standards are very, very high and have been set over many years. I said to the players at half-time that we've gone a game and a half and we haven't scored - with the greatest respect - against St Johnstone. Our levels need to be much better, but they were in the second half.
"It's a little reminder for the players that, the minute you drop off, there's good teams and managers in this league that can set up teams well and hurt you."
Celtic's next Scottish Premiership match is at home to Hibernian on Wednesday night.
St Johnstone face Motherwell at Fir Park on the same night. Both games kick off at 7.45pm.