O'Neill's Celtic exorcise ghost of failures past

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The Independent Online

Rugby Park may have haunted Celtic's title ambitions in the past, but Alan Thompson went a long way to exorcising those ghosts yesterday with the goal that underlined their resurrection under Martin O'Neill.

Rugby Park may have haunted Celtic's title ambitions in the past, but Alan Thompson went a long way to exorcising those ghosts yesterday with the goal that underlined their resurrection under Martin O'Neill.

Thompson's 61st-minute strike proved decisive on a day when neither side, it seemed, could be prised apart. O'Neill's predecessors have all stumbled here, yet this ensured that Rangers remain 13 points adrift of their rivals.

With Hibernian and the champions both to be visited later in the month, it was vital to their ambitions that they did not trip on the first step. If Celtic emerge from all three trips with victories, then O'Neill and his supporters might have plenty of reasons to remember the month of November.

"I would have regarded not getting beaten as a result," confessed the Celtic manager later, "but taking three points is important."

Thompson, whom O'Neill described as giving a "masterful" performance, was more forthright. "This is a big month for us. All the games are tough, plus we've got Bordeaux in the Uefa Cup on Thursday, but this proved our credentials."

Yet it looked as if Celtic were going to endure yet more frustration on this part of Ayrshire soil when Gordon Marshall, the Kilmarnock goalkeeper, defied them for an hour with a series of saves.

Marshall spent six seasons at Celtic and here he put his former employers through torture. He pulled off a sublime save form Henrik Larsson's 23rd-minute free-kick, dropping to his right, and then surpassed that a minute later when Chris Sutton's downward header was brilliantly pushed past the post.

Kilmarnock never enjoyed the freedom they had done at Ibrox last week when they pinched three goals from Rangers, and, while that meant a dearth of chances, Celtic did not enjoy enough to feel they could miss any.

When Marshall again denied Sutton, and then Stilian Petrov, early in the second half, O'Neill must have thought he was as cursed as all those other Celtic managers.

But then Thompson broke the deadlock. Didier Agathé, who had replaced the injured Paul Lambert, swung over a low cross which was missed by Larsson and Sutton and the former Aston Villa player met it at the back post to slide Celtic in front.

Though Larsson missed two glorious chances to seal the game, O'Neill confessed to relief at the end: "I was frustrated that we didn't kill the game off, because Henrik normally scores those with his eyes shut, but this is a very difficult place to win.

"Kilmarnock have been on a good run, but so have we. Now we need to go to Hibs in a few weeks and get a win there."

Goal: Thompson (61) 0-1.

Kilmarnock (4-4-2): Marshall; MacPherson, Dindeleux, Innes, Hay; Fowler (Canero, 56), Durrant, Mahood, Mitchell; McLaren (Wright, 81), Cocard (Dargo, 74). Substitutes not used: Meldrum (gk), Hessey.

Celtic (3-5-2): Gould; Mjallby, Boyd, Valgaeren; McNamara, Lambert (Agathé, 40), Petrov (Healy, 88), Thompson, Petta; Sutton, Larsson. Substitutes not used: Douglas (gk), Stubbs, Johnson.

Man of the match: Thompson

Referee: W Young.

Bookings: Kilmarknock: Cocard, Mitchell. Celtic: Sutton, Petta.

Attendance: 13,417.

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