Kilmarnock 1 Celtic 2
Celtic survived an enthusiastic second-half comeback from Kilmarnock at Rugby Park to cement their place at the top of the Clydesdale Bank Premier League.
A first-half double from in-form striker Scott McDonald gave the home side what looked like an unassailable lead.
However, following a double substitution at the break which saw Gary Locke and Craig Bryson replace Willie Gibson and Jamie Hamill, Frazer Wright scored 10 minutes after the restart to set up a thrilling finale.
The visitors passed up a couple of chances near the end to ease their nerves but not before enduring some anxious moments of their own.
Once again the Parkhead side had McDonald to thank for the victory.
The Australian started brightly, rattling the outside of the post in the third minute from 10 yards after Scott Brown had set him up with a cut-back.
But some over-officious refereeing by Dougie McDonald prevented the game flowing in the early stages of a game that was open enough to promise goals.
In the 14th minute a fine right-footed drive from 25 yards by Celtic’s enterprising midfielder Aiden McGeady drew a good save from Killie goalkeeper Alan Combe, with McDonald flagged offside as he tried to pounce on the loose ball.
Brown was booked for a nasty challenge on Wright in the 18th minute.
As players threw themselves into tackles all over the pitch, there was little between the teams who both racked up several corners without looking overly threatening.
On the half-hour mark, Paul Hartley’s corner from the left was headed towards goal by skipper Stephen McManus and when the ball was blocked amid a throng of bodies, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink appeared to knock the ball over the bar from six yards out.
As temperatures rose further, Celtic defender John Kennedy was booked for a body-check on Gibson but two goals in a two-minute spell by McDonald deflated the home side.
In the 33rd minute the Australian international picked up a Vennegoor of Hesselink flick, turned Kilmarnock defender Simon Ford twice inside the Kilmarnock penalty area and then fired a right-footed shot from 16 yards past Combe and into the far corner of the net.
McDonald grabbed a second when he met McGeady’s cross from the right and sent a header from 10 yards past Combe.
Killie were in a state of shock which lasted all the way to the interval.
Despite the substitutions, a comeback, even with 45 minutes to go, looked unlikely.
McGeady was emerging as Celtic’s chief playmaker.
But in the 52nd minute, as the away side pressed again, it was Hartley who drilled in a shot from 25 yards which the flailing Combe was glad to see slip past his right-hand post.
Yet, in the 55th minute, Kilmarnock pulled a goal back out of the blue and suddenly there was a contest again.
After McGeady had fouled Garry Hay wide on the left, Locke floated in a free-kick towards the Celtic penalty spot.
As Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc came out and leapt in among a crowd of bodies, Wright rose highest to head into an empty net.
A sense of belief surged through the Kilmarnock players.
A minute after McGeady went down in the Killie box after a challenge by Hay, an incident which was ignored by referee McDonald, Boruc saved the day for the visitors when he pushed Colin Nish’s close-range shot past the post after the striker had been cleverly played in by Gary Wales.
As the Celtic defence wavered for the first time, McManus threw himself to block a goal-bound drive by Nish.
Combe was then called into action again, tipping a powerful header by Vennegoor of Hesselink from a Hartley corner over the bar.
Celtic appeared to have weathered the storm as the game passed the 80th minute and they looked every bit as dangerous as Killie when they moved forward.
Indeed, in the 83rd minute there was incredulity as to how Jiri Jarosik managed to put Naylor’s accurate free-kick from the left over the bar from just six yards.
McGeady also managed to miss the target from the edge of the box with a minute to go after McDonald sent him clear through with only Combe to beat.