Champions elect Celtic held off a spirited Dark Blue fightback to claim a 2-1 victory at Dens Park this afternoon. Jozo Simunovic gave Celtic the lead in first half injury time and Stuart Armstrong added a second early in the second half. The Dark Blues came back strongly in the last half hour and substitute Faissal El Bakhtaoui gave them hope with a magnificent goal but Celtic held on to take the points.
The Dark Blues made two changes to the team that lost in Perth; Kevin Gomis and Tom Hateley came in for Kosta Gadzhalov and Craig Wighton, who were on the bench. Celtic also brought in two fresh faces, with Jozo Simunovic and Callum McGregor replacing Erik Sviatchenko and Nir Bitton.
Celtic looked dangerous right from the start and dominated possession throughout the first half. The visitors’ movement, passing and control constantly threatened Dundee who had to be at the top of their defensive game to keep Celtic at bay.
The Dark Blues stuck manfully to their task, keeping their concentration, staying organised and preventing Celtic from turning domination into goalscoring chances. Celtic won a succession of free kicks around 30 to 40 yards from Scott Bain’s goal, in prime Leigh Griffith’s territory but happily the former Dee was on the bench. Celtic couldn’t exploit any of these free kicks, or make anything of their many corners until the very end of the first half.
As the clock ticked into injury time Celtic won three corners in quick succession. From the second Paul McGowan stopped Dedryck Boyata’s header on the goal-line. But when the third corner was cleared, Stuart Armstrong found James Forrest, wide on the right. Forrest recovered from Cammy Kerr’s challenge to cross for Jozo SIMUNOVIC, whose slightly mishit half volley from 12 yards deflected off Kevin Gomis and Scott Bain couldn’t re-adjust quickly enough to keep the ball out.
Dundee started the second half with a 25 yard free kick from Kevin Holt that evaded the defensive wall, but was easily saved by Craig Gordon. Following that brief threat to their goal Celtic resumed their smooth dominanation of the game.
Six minutes after the break they extended their lead with a goal of beautifully executed simplicity. James Forrest jinked past Kevin Holt to reach the byline and his perfect cross to the near post was glanced home by Stuart ARMSTRONG’s header.
The game seemed to have slipped beyond the Dark Blues, but to their great credit the players battled their way back into contention. Craig Wighton came on for James Vincent as Dundee started to exert pressure on Celtic’s defence for the first time.
Dundee were aided by slackness from Celtic’s defence who were guilty of some careless passing as they tried to play their way up the field in the face of fierce Dundee pressing. Kieran Tierney gifted possession to Paul McGowan who raced forward and set up Marcus Haber, who had only Gordon to beat. From 16 yards the Canadian international sent his shot narrowly wide with the whole crowd expecting the net to bulge.
For the next 15 minutes play swung from end to end in exciting fashion. Celtic tried to kill the game off and the Dark Blues fought hard to claw their way back into the match. The visitors reached the byline twice in quick succession, but neither Tierney nor Sinclair could find a teammate with their cutbacks.
After 74 minutes Faissal El Bakhtaoui replaced Henrik Ojamaa, and within a minute he scored a goal of stunning quality. Mark O’Hara took a quick free kick on the half way line. He played it short to EL BAKHTAOUI, who spun away from Boyata and raced for goal. Before the Celtic defence had the chance to close him down he hit an unstoppable shot over Gordon and into the top corner from 25 yards.
The goal briefly silenced the away fans, injected life into the home support and transformed the match. Celtic had looked capable of coasting to the final whistle. It was now crystal clear that coasting was no longer a viable option. The last 20 minutes, including injury time, were an enthralling spectacle.
Moussa Dembele had a fleeting moment of space in the Dee’s penalty area, but Darren O’Dea flung himself into the path of the shot, which ended up bouncing gently into Bain’s hands. Marcus Haber headed wide from 10 yards when Cammy Kerr lofted a high ball into the penalty area.
After his spectacular goal El Bakhtaoui was desperate to get on the ball at every opportunity and he posed Celtic some tricky problems with his pace, control and sheer enthusiasm. The visitors tried to slow the pace of the game down and irritated referee Willie Collum with some timewasting that eventually brought a booking for Dembele. Celtic manager Brendan Rogers paid Dundee the compliment of removing an attacking player, Scott Sinclair, and sending on a defender, Erik Sviatchenko, for the last 10 minutes.
In injury time Celtic managed to keep at bay a Dundee team that was down to 9 fit men by this stage. Both Kevin Holt and Marcus Haber were limping and unable to run, but with all the substitutes used they had to stay on the park.
Celtic have been utterly dominant in domestic football this season, undefeated and having drawn only two games. Although Dundee have lost all three games there has been only a single goal in each match. The Dark Blues have made a thorough nuisance of themselves each time and Celtic have had to work hard to earn wins that were never certain till the final whistle.
The last half hour today allowed the players and supporters to leave the ground with their heads held high and their pride intact. As with the other teams in the bottom six Dundee’s season has been blighted by inconsistency. That final 30 minutes set the standard that the Dee must try to emulate in the remaining nine games of the season.
Dundee FC 4-5-1
Kerr, O’Dea (c), Gomis, Holt
O’Hara, McGowan, Vincent (Wighton 59), Hateley (Ross 68), Ojamaa (El Bakhtaoui 74).
Unused subs: Mitchell (gk), Williams, Klok, Gadzhalov.
Goal: El Bakhtaoui (75).
Booked: McGowan (foul on McGregor), Gomis (foul on Dembele), O’Dea (foul on Sinclair), Holt (foul on Roberts).
Lustig, Boyata, Simunovic, Tierney
McGregor (Kouassi 68), Brown
Forrest (Roberts 72), Armstrong, Sinclair (Sviatchenko 83)
Unused subs: Bailly (gk), Bitton, Griffiths, Gamboa.
Goals: Simunovic (45+1), Armstrong (51).
Booked: Brown (foul on McGowan), Dembele (timewasting), Kouassi (foul on Kerr).
Attendance: 8,968 (3,999 away supporters).
Referee: William Collum. Assistants: Douglas Ross, Frank Connor. Fourth official: Colin Steven.
Report: James Christie.