Larsson's late strike is decisive for Celtic

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The Independent Football

Martin O'Neill may have been thrown in at the deep end when he took over Celtic in the summer, but last night his team overcame atrocious elements at McDiarmid Park to stretch their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League.

Martin O'Neill may have been thrown in at the deep end when he took over Celtic in the summer, but last night his team overcame atrocious elements at McDiarmid Park to stretch their lead at the top of the Scottish Premier League.

Henrik Larsson's 86th- minute penalty, awarded after Alan Kernaghan had brought down Bobby Petta, sealed a success that was built upon Joos Valgaeren's first-half header. St Johnstone had been reduced to 10 men a minute earlier but Stuart Malcolm could not use the flooded pitch as an excuse for his stupidity in elbowing Johan Mjallby.

The dreadful conditions at McDiarmid Park were hardly conducive to flowing football, and maybe John Rowbotham brought the sodden surface into account when he showed mercy to the St Johnstone full-back Mohammed Sylla, who seemed to barge Bobby Petta as the Celtic winger raced into the box early on.

Gary Bollan might have given St Johnstone the lead on the half hour but Jonathan Gould superbly beat out his shot and 10 minutes later Celtic forged in front. Alan Thompson delivered a fine free kick after Petta had been fouled, and Valgaeren rose to power a header past Main.

Thompson came close to doubling Celtic's advantage nine minutes into the second half with a dipping shot from 30 yards that bounced just wide. However, the worsening rain made conditions farcical.

Players had to plough through puddles and that was why Chris Sutton squandered a superb chance after Larsson had set him up on the hour. When Larsson tried his own luck, his diving header from Thompson's free kick flew inches wide.

St Johnstone (5-3-2): Main; Sylla (Malcolm, 38), Weir, Kernaghan, Dods, Bollan; Evers, Kane, Dasovic; Parker, Connolly (Hartley, 73). Substitutes not used: Cuthbert (gk), Lovenkrands, Hartley, McBride.

Celtic (3-5-2): Gould; Mjallby, Boyd, Valgaeren; Agathé, Petrov (Healy, 71), Lambert, Thompson, Petta; Sutton, Larsson. Substitutes not used: Kerr (gk), Berkovic, Healy, Moravcik, Riseth.

Referee: J Rowbotham.

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