Petrov strike seals Celtic's third title in four years

Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 1
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The Independent Online

If it is better to journey than to arrive, Celtic would have had little problem celebrating their third title in four years under Martin O'Neill with a clean conscience last night.

If it is better to journey than to arrive, Celtic would have had little problem celebrating their third title in four years under Martin O'Neill with a clean conscience last night.

The Celtic manager watched his drained team just about limp over the finishing line at Rugby Park with a fine goal from Stilian Petrov, but that line has been drawn more indelibly by O'Neill's players than any other team in Scottish football history.

There are still six games left but Celtic were not interested in using any of them. They cast aside the physical and mental strain of their exit from the Uefa Cup in midweek to the Spanish side Villarreal to seal their impressive campaign on the very ground that they suffered the torment last season of losing the championship on the final day to Rangers by a goal difference of one.

Given the amount of energy expended all season - in Europe as well as in their unbeaten Scottish Premier League campaign - it would have been understandable if Celtic had faltered. Now they are pursuing the record of the Rangers side of 1898 who completed the season unbeaten - though that was just 18 games, not 38.

"It is something to go for," O'Neill said. "However, we have used much the same group of players all season long and I think you could see that tiredness has crept in over the last few weeks.

"When we won the title in my first two seasons in charge, the feeling was great. It was equally hard to bear when we lost it on the final day of last season here. But this is the best of the lot. It is what we have played for all season." Paul Lambert, the captain, who is now 34, agreed with his manager. "The four years under Martin O'Neill have been phenomenal," said the former Borussia Dortmund player. "There is a great spirit and we are all winners at the club, which is important. I've played in two European finals, and won the Champions' League with Dortmund, but this is a special team."

Even Jim Jefferies, the Kilmarnock manager, joined in with the tributes. "Celtic are a great side, with some great players," he said. "However, we made them work today. I did not want them to turn up and just walk all over us."

Indeed, had Kris Boyd not been harshly denied a goal after 15 minutes, then Celtic could have been chasing this contest. The Scotland Under-21 striker pounced on a stray clearance from Bobo Balde, from Boyd's own cross, lashing in a venomous right-foot shot. But to the anger of the home support, it was disallowed because Eric Skora had barged into Balde beforehand.

Ten minutes later, Celtic almost scored when Jackie McNamara played a delightful chip over the defence for Petrov to chase. The Bulgarian's shot was blocked by the goalkeeper, Colin Meldrum, and Stephen Pearson's follow-up was hooked off the line by Garry Hay.

However, the moment the raucous 10,000 Celtic fans craved arrived in the 32nd minute. Neil Lennon's throw-in was glanced on by Henrik Larsson for Petrov to pursue and he held off Gordon Greer before drilling a low shot beyond Meldrum.

Just a minute before the break, Boyd squandered an easy chance to equalise as he swept a right-foot shot wide from 10 yards out and Kilmarnock were never to come as close to scoring again. Boyd tried to claim a second-half penalty when he fell as Robert Douglas thumped the ball clear, but it was rightly denied.

After that, it was just a matter of the Celtic fans celebrating their 39th Scottish championship. The party on home soil, on Wednesday against Aberdeen, will have a cast of 60,000 extras joining in.

Kilmarnock (4-4-2) : Meldrum; Lilley, Greer, Dindeleux, Hay; Fowler, Skora, Locke, Murray (Dargho, 83); Boyd, Invincible (McSwegan, 84).

Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), McDonald, Dodds.

Celtic (3-5-2) : Douglas; Varga, Balde, Mjallby; Agathe (Miller, 71), Lambert, Lennon, McNamara, Pearson; Larsson, Petrov. Substitutes not used: Marshall (gk), Sylla, Wallace, Smith.

Referee: M McCurry.

Bookings: Kilmarnock: Fowler. Celtic: Mjallby.

Man of the match: McNamara.

Attendance: 14,516.

CELTIC'S HONOURS DURING MARTIN O'NEILL'S TENURE

2000-2001
Premier League champions
Scottish Cup winners
CIS Insurance Cup winners

2001-2002
Premier League champions

2002-2003
Uefa Cup finalists

2003-2004
Premier League champions

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