Celtic have to fight for semi-final place

A Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink brace booked Celtic’s place in the Tennent’s Scottish Cup final – but only after they were pushed all the way by St Johnstone.

St Johnstone 1 Celtic 2

A Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink brace booked Celtic’s place in the Tennent’s Scottish Cup final – but only after they were pushed all the way by St Johnstone.

The Dutch striker opened the scoring when he converted from the penalty spot after being felled by Saints goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert.

Martin Hardie’s leveller hauled St Johnstone back into the game but a second goal from Vennegoor of Hesselink proved to be the difference between the two teams.

Celtic will face either Hibernian or Dunfermline in next month’s final at Hampden, with the other semi-final being contested tomorrow.

With two Bank of Scotland Premier League clubs thrown together in that tie, this should have been Celtic’s easiest route to Hampden next month.

As the only First Division side still remaining in the competition, St Johnstone should not really have been given much hope of reaching their first ever Scottish Cup final.

But throw in wins over Rangers, Dundee United, Falkirk and Motherwell in cup competitions already this season and you begin to realise this is not a team to be underestimated.

The Perth side were desperately unlucky to miss out on a place in the CIS Insurance Cup final, their exit coming at the hands of eventual winners Hibs.

And Hoops boss Gordon Strachan’s team selection reflected how seriously he was taking the threat of the First Division high-fliers ahead of today’s game.

Stephen McManus – serving a three-match ban in the SPL – was drafted back into the first team to bolster the defence, with the less experienced Darren O’Dea named on the bench.

Derek Riordan, who grabbed the winner against Motherwell last week, was rewarded with a starting role in the absence of the injured Maciej Zurawski.

Saints boss Owen Coyle also made two changes from the side who defeated promotion rivals Gretna.

Filipe Morais was eligible for today’s game, despite his red card last week, but Coyle opted for the towering presence of Simon Mensing instead.

And Cuthbert was back between the sticks after serving his suspension, meaning Bryn Halliwell had to settle for a place on the bench, despite his clean sheet against Gretna.

Celtic carved out the first chance of the game when Cuthbert raced off his line to punch a long throw-in to safety. The ball fell to the feet of McManus but he squandered a decent opportunity by blasting well over.

At the other end, Saints had a great chance to take the lead when Peter MacDonald released Jason Scotland, who failed to add to an incredible tally of 25 goals this term when his surging run was cut short by a timely tackle from McManus.

Instead, it was Celtic who took the lead after 12 minutes when Vennegoor of Hesselink was brought down in the box and referee Charlie Richmond immediately pointed to the spot.

The Celtic striker stepped up to take the penalty himself, coolly sending the ball low into the back of the net off the post, to register his first goal in five games.

However, rather than crumble, Saints were back on level terms just seven minutes later.

Paul Sheerin’s cross was met by Hardie, who flicked over goalkeeper Artur Boruc and the ball was helped into the back of the net by McManus.

Saints could have scored again when MacDonald burst through on goal but he fired straight into the arms of Boruc and the effort was easily smothered by the goalkeeper.

Celtic were just as keen to reclaim their lead before the break and Riordan did well to squeeze through two blue jerseys only for his close-range shot to be blocked by Cuthbert.

The goalkeeper was called into action again to tip a Vennegoor of Hesselink header just over the crossbar, before Aiden McGeady sliced a decent shot over shortly before the interval.

Celtic were out of the traps quickly in the second half and only an excellent block from Cuthbert prevented Paul Hartley’s thunderous point-blank shot finding the back of the net.

But the Saints keeper was left with no chance when Vennegoor of Hesselink helped himself to his second of the day with 53 minutes on the clock.

The big Dutchman threw himself in front of a Shunsuke Nakamura corner at the near post, nodding home from a yard out to restore Celtic’s lead.

Saints were refusing to give up the tie without a fight and MacDonald did well to weave his way past Nakamura only for the end product to let him down when his angled drive was held by Boruc.

The First Division battlers continued to pile on the pressure and only last-gasp defending from Celtic denied them the equaliser.

Scotland beat Boruc to a long ball from Hardie at the near post and his cheeky flick looked netbound – only for McManus to hook off the line at the last second.

Kevin James then got his head to a cross from the right from Filipe Morais but his effort dipped just over the crossbar, as Saints boss Coyle held his head in despair.

Celtic held for the win to take another step towards a domestic double, while a courageous St Johnstone were denied their first ever appearance in a Scottish Cup final.

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