IRISH STRIKER ANTHONY Stokes hit the only goal of the game as Celtic beat Aberdeen at Parkhead and extended their lead at the top of the SPL to five points after Rangers lost 1-0 to Hearts!Stokes struck in the 27th minute to beat offside trap and rounding Jamie Langfield to score into the empty net.
Neil Lennon had made one enforced change to the team which had won so convincingly last week at Easter Road. With James Forrest’s red card in the recent match with Hamilton ruling him out, Niall McGinn took his place in right midfield.
Gary Hooper carried most of the Hoops’ early threat. On two occasions, he burst down the right and put in dangerous low deliveries across goal. Stokes was first to one of them, but his effort was blocked by Zander Diamond.
Stokes, Paddy McCourt and Brown all tried their luck from distance but were unable to test Langfield to any great extent. At the other end, the only moment of consternation was when Daniel Majstorovic and Fraser Forster ran into one another, chasing a long ball. Thankfully, a grateful Forster was able to scoop up the loose ball with Nick Blackman lurking.
With Craig Brown and Archie Knox’ side predictably well-drilled, it was evident there would be no repeat of the high-scoring affair when the sides last met at Celtic Park in November.
Yet just as the Dons were settling into the game, Celtic made the breakthrough. Hooper collected the ball in the final third and sent Stokes scampering clear as Aberdeen claimed in vain for offside. Bearing down on goal, the Irishman coolly rounded Langfield and took his time before rolling the ball into the empty net.
Aberdeen tried to reply immediately, Chris Maguire firing a 25-yard free-kick over before referee Iain Brines sparked a moment of confusion. Vujadinovic appeared to pass the ball back to Langfield and the referee awarded an indirect free-kick inside the box. However, with the Dons’ players protesting vehemently, he reversed his decision after he appeared to be notified from the sidelines that the pass had come off a Celtic player.
Hooper and Stokes then combined to good effect as Celtic came close to adding a second. Leading a sweeping counter-attack, Stokes found his strike partner on the right, and was inside the box to collect the return pass. His contact was good, but the save was Langfield was even better, the keeper somehow pushing the shot away with his hand, while diving in the other direction.
With half-time approaching, Celtic were forced into a reshuffle at the back. Majstorovic limped off and was replaced by Charlie Mulgrew, who stepped into central defence alongside Thomas Rogne.
Although the Dons began to force the issue more after the break, the new-look backline were mostly untroubled. The closest the visitors came to grabbing an equaliser were through two Maguire efforts from distance which flashed wide of the post.
At the other end, Celtic were unable to find any fluency, with most of their attacks breaking down in the final third. However, McCourt and Brown did have opportunities to strike at goal but were unable to keep their shots on target.
With play becoming increasingly scrappy and bogged down in midfield, it was only in the closing stages that either goal was threatened again.
Chasing a leveller, Aberdeen began to launch more crosses into the box. But apart from a succession of corners and a weak header from Vujadinovic, which drifted wide, they were unable to really test Forster.
Indeed, in added time, Freddie Ljungberg, who had come off the bench to make his Celtic Park bow, nearly conjured up a second for the Hoops. Driving towards the byline, he crossed low into the area for McGinn. The winger looked odds on to score but was beaten to the ball by his marker. It was the final act of the match as the Hoops held on to secure a vital three points.