Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 1
Stilian Petrov’s lethal first-half finish gave Celtic a hard-fought win at Rugby Park and moved them back to within three points of Bank of Scotland Premier League leaders Hearts.
Much-improved Kilmarnock had plenty of belief they could take something from Gordon Strachan’s men.
But putting that into practice is easier said than done and the Glasgow giants could have added to Petrov’s cool chip.
No-nonsense Strachan did something his predecessor Martin O’Neill never did - dropping Alan Thompson – with Shaun Maloney starting.
It was a tight first 45 minutes but Kilmarnock should have gone ahead in the 11th minute through Gary McDonald.
Danny Invincibile sent Steven Naismith away down the left flank and he found his team-mate all alone in the area but he wanted too much time and tried to control it first which allowed Stephen McManus the time to get back and snatch the ball from him.
Celtic needed inspiration from somewhere after being subdued in the first half and Petrov rose to the occasion in the 24th minute.
Chris Sutton found his burst into the box but the Bulgarian waited for Graeme Smith to go to ground before coolly chipping the ball over him from seven yards and finding the back of the net.
But Kilmarnock came back and finally Artur Boruc, who signed a long-term deal this week, earned his money by pushing over Boyd’s stinging 25-yard free-kick.
Manager Jim Jefferies must have told his players at the break that they could take points off Celtic, but they were fortunate not to fall further behind in the 51st minute when David Lilley looked to man-handle Sutton in the area only to be let off the hook by referee Iain Brines.
At the other end, the referee booked Bobo Balde for bringing down Naismith as he threatened to run clear into the box but Kilmarnock wasted the free-kick.
Craig Beattie could have put daylight between the two sides with two great chances in the 54th minute.
First the Scotland international striker headed against the bar from eight yards from Shunsuke Nakamura’s inviting cross after great vision from Shaun Maloney.
The the youngster pulled his right-foot shot just wide of the mark with the goalkeeper flat-footed having been found again by the Japanese midfielder.
Smith then pushed Maloney’s right-footed effort wide before the Celtic starlet got back down the other end to block McDonald’s powerful goalbound strike.
Beattie again looked like scoring in the 59th minute after robbing Gordon Greer and carving out a great opportunity.
But his touch took the ball away from him and Smith sprinted from his line to make a vital save at his feet.
Kilmarnock were still hanging in the game and they could have snatched the equaliser on the hour but Boruc turned Boyd’s right-foot shot just past the post.
The Pole then strangely tipped James Fowler’s cross over his crossbar, making the effort look far better than it was and giving Kilmarnock more momentum.
Boyd headed Garry Hay’s corner just wide of the angle before Gary Locke got away with flooring Beattie from behind which sparked an angry reaction from Strachan.
Beattie got in again in the 71st minute, this time via a route-one punt from Boruc, but he fired wide before being replaced by John Hartson.
Jefferies made a double change in the 78th minute with Gary Wales and Colin Nish coming on for McDonald and Naismith.
But Maloney could have wrapped up the points a minute later after good play from Sutton and Nakamura but he deliberated too long and Greer made a crucial challenge.
Nish hobbled off to be replaced by Rhian Dodds after coming off worse from a crunching McManus tackle.
Strachan also made a change with Thompson coming on for Maloney before he fired wide from Sutton’s lay-off.
A big roar echoed around the stadium with the announcement of five extra minutes but Celtic saw it out to stay within touching distance of the managerless Tynecastle team.