CELTIC’S stranglehold over Scottish football is such that strikers are now apparently deemed an optional extra. With Leigh Griffiths wrapped in cotton wool on the bench for much of the evening ahead of Wednesday night’s Champions League play-off first leg against Astana after experiencing tightness in his calf the morning after the midweek BetFred Cup win, Brendan Rodgers’ side nonetheless still had enough about them without a recognised one to maintain their 100% league record this season and invincible run since the Northern Irishman’s arrival in our game.
While the little striker looked sharp enough once he emerged onto the field for the last half hour, Rodgers will hope his side will be a more potent attacking unit against the Kazakhs. They so nearly paid a penalty for their profligacy here, the solitary goal advantage they held courtesy of Olivier Ntcham’s deflected first half volley leaving them grateful for the benefit of referee Andrew Dallas’ doubt when Nir Bitton tangled with Thistle substitute Miles Storey in the box in the dying minutes.
Rodgers had made another eight chances to his side, retaining just Craig Gordon, Kieran Tierney and Jonny Hayes from the side which made short work of Kilmarnock in the BetFred Cup. With Champions League duty looming on Wednesday, and the club’s only other recognised front man Moussa Dembele already out until September, James Forrest was asked to decamp from the flanks to play in the central striker’s role.
Thistle boss Alan Archibald was also shorthanded, missing influential duo Abdul Osman and Blair Spittal, but had two new signings to choose from. Conor Sammon – on-loan from Hearts – was thrust straight into the starting line-up at the expense of young Kevin Nisbet, while Storey – secured on a two-year deal from Aberdeen – started on the bench.
The form book didn’t offer much in the way of encouragement for Thistle – Celtic had won on their last five visits here and the two meetings here last season ended 9-1 on aggregate – but Alan Archibald had impressed his opposite number with their endeavours at Celtic Park, where they earned a point and generally caused Celtic as much difficulty as anyone.
Kieran Tierney, who marked his ascension to the second-youngest captain in the club’s history in midweek with a fine goal, looked happy to be re-acquainted with his more familiar left back terrain. The 20-year-old – who remains a prime target for transfer mischief by top English Premier League clubs – had made good ground down that flank twice before he levered a pass over the top for Scott Sinclair, James Forrest forcing a save from Tomas Cerny from his low cross. The same man spurned an even better chance when he skewed a left foot shot wide after an Adam Barton slip allowed the alert Olivier Ntcham to play him in on goal.
A well timed Jozo Simunovic tackle defied David Edwards the first time Thistle threatened but the breakthrough arrived for the visitors out of the blue. Tomas Cerny had managed to beat Nir Bitton’s curled free kick away from his top corner and behind, but as it turned out the danger wasn’t really clear. Jonny Hayes’ corner was headed high and clear but it only dropped at the feet of Ntcham, the £4.5m signing from Manchester City catching it flush with a vicious sweep of his right foot. While the ball wasn’t in the corner, it came with the aid of a minute deflection, intentional or otherwise from Scott Brown, who Thistle claimed was in an offside position, and was past Cerny in a flash.
While the two midfielders ran off to dispute who scored the goal – perhaps Brown would not begrudge the 21-year-old Frenchman the glory – plumes of green smoke filled the Jackie Husband stand. Brown went close with a header soon afterwards but Celtic were a little too predictable and anyone who expected the floodgates to open was disappointed. We were into the second period before chances came again, Tierney gobbling up possession down the left and firing in a low drive which whistled wide.
Thistle were never out of this, though, and the one bona fide chance they did create should really have provided them with a lifeline of their own. Christie Elliot cross found Kris Doolan in isolation some six yards out, but his headed flew over.
Griffiths duly made his appearance just after the hour mark, but while his running in the channels helped Celtic he saw little sight of goal. Fellow sub Tom Rogic went close a couple of times and Brown had a ‘goal’ disallowed for use of an arm. Nothing dropped for late substitute Stuart Armstrong either.
Thistle’s late penalty shout – Bitton appearing to nudge Storey in the box – would have been rough justice but by their own superhuman standards this was hardly a Celtic performance to intimidate the Kazakh delegation.