Scottish Premier League round-up: Hartley's precision helps keep Celtic on right course

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A week ahead of the New Year Old Firm encounter, Celtic maintained their two-point lead on Rangers at the top of the Scottish Premier League, although it took them until midway through the second half to break down a resolute Dundee United at Tannadice.

It was Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, with his 10th goal of the season, who gave the champions the breakthrough after 68 minutes. Six minutes later Stephen McManus added a second to wrap-up the points for Gordon Strachan's side at a venue where they have not lost for eight years.

Celtic have stuttered in the SPL of late, but with a home game against Gretna, who snatched a draw with Aberdeen yesterday thanks to a 90th-minute equaliser, to come on Saturday they seem sure to end the year on top of the table before hosting Rangers next Wednesday.

Having seen his side take six points from their last five games, Strachan recalled Guinean centre-half Bobe Balde for his first game in a year and was rewarded with a first away clean sheet of the campaign. Paul Hartley set up both Celtic goals. First, slack defending left Vennegor of Hesselink unmarked to head home a Hartley corner; then, from close range, McManus finished off a free-kick from the same player.

Hartley's former side, Hearts, were booed off at Tynecastle after a 1-0 defeat to St Mirren. Stephen McGinn scored the only goal in the first half to stretch the home side's dire run to one win in 10. They are now just a point ahead of second-from-bottom St Mirren.

Gretna slipped further behind at the bottom thanks to the Paisley side's surprise victory. The Premier League debutants are now nine points adrift having failed to win at home since September. They were grateful just to avoid defeat against a sluggish Aberdeen yesterday as they trailed to Steve Lovell's goal into injury-time. Kenny Deuchar had missed an 86th-minute penalty, but Allan Jenkins, scorer of the winner in that last home victory, denied Aberdeen with a precise finish in the second minute of injury time.

Falkirk continued their revival with a 1-0 win against Inverness, while managerless Hibernian lost 2-1 at Kilmarnock.