Celtic 2-0 St Johnstone

By Clive LindsayBBC Scotland

Georgios Samaras inspired Celtic to a victory over a stubborn St Johnstone that takes Neil Lennon's side to within a point of the Scottish title.

Frazer Wright headed a Charlie Mulgrew header off the Saints line during a fairly even first half.

But Samaras powered a header home from Kris Commons' 66th-minute free-kick.

And, four minutes later, the Greek striker's low cross was turned into his own net by Chris Millar as Celtic stretched their lead to 18 points.

Those two goals ended Wright's amazing record, the defender having started the game with 911 minutes of football behind him without St Johnstone having conceded a goal while he was in their line-up away from home.

The home side had gone into the game looking to avoid losing three straight domestic games in a row for the first time since 1994.

However, getting back to winning ways - and ending Saints six-game unbeaten run - means Celtic can now depose second-top Rangers as champions when they visit Kilmarnock on Saturday.

Celtic fans sent a message of support to Stilian Petrov
Celtic fans sent a message of support to Stilian Petrov

Right-back Mikael Lustig had been handed his home debut, while Commons, Glenn Loovens and Gary Hooper started with Cha Du-ri and Victor Wanyama suspended and Adam Matthews and Ki Sung-Yueng dropped to the bench.

However, it was Samaras, looking majestic in recent weeks, who was the inspiration as Celtic began at breakneck speed, making their opponents looking a yard slower.

Unchanged St Johnstone, with former Celtic forward Derek Riordan not even considered fit enough for the bench after being signed as a free agent, steadied themselves and gradually worked themselves into the game.

The match itself was subdued in comparison to the 19th-minute standing ovation given by the capacity crowd as get-well wishes were sent to former Celtic midfielder Stilian Petrov following news that the Aston Villa No.19 is suffering from acute leukaemia.

A Commons drive across the face of goal and a 30-yard Liam Craig free-kick pushed away by Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster were the highlights until just before the stroke of half-time.

Wright's head prevented a goal after Mulgrew got his toe to the ball after goalkeeper Alan Mannus made a hash of clearing a Commons free-kick into the six-yard box and Stokes had his shot blocked on the rebound by the Saints defender.

Cillian Sheridan headed wide from eight yards when he ought to have hit the target then Francisco Sandaza sent a looping header onto the roof of the net as Saints began the brighter after the break.

Mannus clawed away a curling Commons effort, but the goalkeeper was left helpless when the winger's free-kick found the head of Samaras 10 yards out to open the scoring.

Saints had claims for a penalty rejected moments later when Loovens checked Sandaza's progress.

And, as the visitors claimed for a foul for a Commons challenge on Craig, Celtic raced to the other end and Millar diverted a low Samaras cross past Mannus.

Craig had a blistering free-kick turned over the crossbar by Forster and then fired over with the goal at his mercy after the goalkeeper could only parry a Sandaza cross as Saints applied some belated pressure.

Celtic manager Neil Lennon: ''Absoulety delighted with that, although we were not at our best in the first half.

"We wanted a wee bit more intensity to our play, particularly in the froward areas. We certainly got that in the second half and it's a huge win.'

''It's really hard winning games, even more hard winning championships.

"But Samaras has come to the fore in recent months and he was fantastic today.'

"I admit I didn't fancy his consistency and his mentality, so we've had to work away with him.''

St Johnstone manager Steve Lomas: "My boys were brilliant yet again.

"Probably the only criticism I can aim at them is that, when you have your chances, you have to take them and we didn't do that.

"Celtic Park is a hard enough place to come to get something, they are a fantastic team, they thoroughly deserve the championship when it comes, but we feel mightily aggrieved.

"I don't want to criticise referees, but in our opinion, Francisco Sandaza has a blatant penalty, the second goal is a free-kick on Liam and even the first goal came from a very soft free-kick."

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