ANGE Postecoglou will spend much of the next fortnight trying to strengthen his squad with quality players who can improve Celtic’s chances of winning the cinch Premiership in the second half of the season.
He will, after being denied the services of a raft of important first team regulars in the league meeting with St Johnstone in Perth yesterday by Covid-19 and injury, doubtless be relieved when he gets his new signings in.
But he was grateful for the presence of seasoned campaigners Nir Bitton and Tom Rogic as well as hardened professionals James McCarthy and Josip Juranovic yesterday; that quartet were pivotal to a 3-1 triumph that kept the understrength visitors within six points of Rangers at the top of the table.
Postecoglou stated that his preparations for the game at McDiarmid Park had been “chaotic” without specifically admitting that any of his charges had tested positive for coronavirus or been identified as close contacts of those who had.
Joe Hart, Scott Bain, Greg Taylor, Anthony Ralston, Callum McGregor and Mikey Johnston were all missing from the visitors’ squad along with long-term absentees Albian Ajeti, James Forrest, Georgios Giakoumakis, Jota, Christopher Jullien and David Turnbull.
Vasilis Barkas, Carl Starfelt, McCarthy, Juranovic and Kyogo Furuhashi all came in for Celtic’s final game before the winter break.
It was the first sighting of Greek goalkeeper Barkas, who has been unable to justify his transfer fee since joining in a £4.5m move from AEK Athens last summer, since he had started in the Champions League qualifier against Midtjylland way back on July 20.
Postecoglou, whose team prevailed thanks to a first-half Liel Abada double and a late Bitton strike, was thankful he could call on Bitton, Juranovic, McCarthy and Rogic in such demanding circumstances.
“Today we really needed our experienced players to stand up,” he said. “When you know it’s going to be challenging for a number of reasons, the experienced players have to lead the way, and I thought they did.”
The changes prompted Postecoglou to switch to a three man defence and a 3-4-1-2 formation with Starfelt, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Stephen Welsh forming a three man rearguard and Liam Scales and Juranovic being deployed as wing backs.
Abada remained up front alongside Furuhashi and the winger did well to open the scoring in the ninth minute after Juranovic had squared into the six yard box. He met the delivery with first-time shot that Elliott Parish did well to keep out with a fine instinctive save. But the forward then nodded in from a few yards out.
Celtic were dealt a serious blow five minutes after edging in front when Furuhashi suffered what appeared to be a recurrence of the hamstring strain that had ruled him out for 10 days before the Premier Sports Cup final when he was trying to chase down a long ball. He limped off and was replaced by Joey Dawson.
Dawson, the 18-year-old who was signed from Scunthorpe United in the summer, came on to make his debut for the Parkhead club. The versatile youngster, who can play in midfield or up front, has been performing well for the Celtic B team in the Lowland League this term. But this was a big step up.
Dawson, who slotted in alongside Abada, dealt well with being thrown on in a match that was being shown live on Sky Sports. His side continued to dominate and increased their lead when Abada netted his second in the 22nd after being supplied by Rogic.
Postecoglou’s side should really have been further ahead at half-time, but Parrish denied Abada, Juranovic and Scales to keep Callum Davidson’s team in the game.
St Johnstone were missing Zander Clark, David Wotherspoon, Murray Davidson and Shaun Rooney and the bottom-place team in the division struggled to lay a glove on their opponents without them. Barkas had, other than pluck an Al Crawford corner out of the air, next to nothing to do during the opening 45 minutes.
Callum Davidson made two changes for the second-half. He took off Craig Bryson and Crawford and put on Liam Craig and Chris Kane. Parrish had to palm a goal-bound Abada shot over his crossbar just two minutes after play restarted. But the home team were much improved with the replacements on the park.
The latter pulled one back in the 69th minute after the former had intercepted an underhit Starfelt pass in the middle of the park. He fed Viv Solomon-Otabar outside him and the winger whipped a cross into the area which his team mate headed into the top left corner.
There were a few nervous moments for Celtic thereafter – not least when Jacob Butterfield went close with a long-range attempt – but Bitton made sure of the victory when he fired beyond Parrish from the edge of the penalty box with seven minutes remaining.
“We knew we had to start well and I thought we did,” said Postecoglou “We were excellent in the first 45 minutes. We got a couple of good goals and probably could have had a couple more.
“Liel has been great. We have asked him to do different jobs at different times this year. It’s been quite challenging, but he’s been super and it was great for him to get the goals. The second-half got a bit scrappy at times, but we still gave ourselves a couple of good opportunities.”
Celtic still, despite trailing Rangers by six points, have an opportunity to win the Premiership this season after what could prove to be an important win come May.