Champions League Spot Big Boost For The Hoops
St Johnstone v Celtic
The Scottish Premier League champions face the cup winners when Celtic travel to Perth to take on St Johnstone as the title winners begin their defence of the crown on Wednesday.
St Johnstone began their league campaign on Saturday with a 2-1 win at Ross County thanks to goals from Michael O’Halloran and Steve MacLean. Last season marked the first time the club has lifted a major trophy in their history with the Scottish Cup win over Dundee United which earned them a place in the Europa League’s qualifying rounds too.
That meant an early start to competitive football this term for Tommy Wright’s side, beginning against Swiss outfit Lucerne in mid-July. MacLean’s goal in Switzerland earned his team a precious draw and after a Steve May penalty led to the same result in McDiarmid Park a week later, St Johnstone progressed when they held their nerve to win 5-4 in the penalty shootout.
The Saints failed to make it to the group stages of Europe’s second competition though as a 2-1 defeat in the away leg couldn’t be overturned on their own patch as a late goal from the Slovak’s in the second tie sent them through.
Celtic’s remarkable re-instatement to the Champions League was hugely fortunate, especially considering how thoroughly outclassed they were by Legia Warsaw over two legs after a 6-1 hammering on aggregate. Callum McGregor scored the only goal Ronny Deila’s side managed over the two games in a 4-1 drubbing in Poland.
They were comfortable winners in the first qualifying round over KR Reykjavik though, McGregor again getting on the scoresheet for the only goal of the away leg before they put four past the Icelandic side without reply at their temporary home of Murrayfield with Virgil van Dijk and Teemu Pukki both scoring twice.
The sale of star striker May to Sheffield Wednesday has left Wright short of options up front as the 21-year-old’s goalscoring appearance in the Europa League proved to be his last for the club. The Saints have a full squad to choose from otherwise.
Following the departure of first choice goalkeeper Fraser Forster to Southampton last weekend Deila must choose between Lukasz Zaluska and Craig Gordon between the posts with both aiming to cement their role as the new net minder for the club. The Norwegian also has big decisions to make up front with Pukki, Leigh Griffiths, Anthony Stokes and Jamie Forrest all vying for a striking berth while new signing Jo Inge Berget also awaits his debut.
The Hoops won three of the four Premier League meetings between the clubs last season although St Johnstone did earn a point from the most recent clash after an entertaining 3-3 draw back in May.
Tim Clancy opened the scoring for the hosts but Kris Commons’ penalty and further goals from Pukki and Van Dijk in the second half looked to have secured a clean sweep for Celtic before Scott Brown and O’Halloran scored in the last ten minutes to salvage a draw.
The Glasgow giants have won 15 of the last 20 encounters, with the Saints earning only two wins over that period.
Celtic were dismal in their games against Legia and although the Saints are nowhere near that level they will still have been encouraged by the Poles’ victory and their own opening league win.
That could prove a tall order and the Celts will themselves be boosted by the huge slice of luck which put them back in the Champions League, both sides should score then with the visitors having too much in the end and at 11/5 it looks a more than worthy punt.