THIS Premiership defeat to bottom-placed Ross County may not have stung Celtic as much as their Betfred Cup reverse to the same opponents at Parkhead back in November did.
Their chances of winning the Scottish title and completing 10-In-A-Row ended weeks if not months ago and they were playing for professional pride, not the chance to lift silverware, at the Global Energy Stadium tonight.
Crashing to a narrow loss to relegation-threatened opponents in a game they could and should have won and won comfortably, though, still hurt a side that had been on an impressive five game winning run.
They remained 18 points behind Rangers, who had brushed aside Dundee United 4-1 at Ibrox earlier in the day, in the table and increased their city rivals’ chances of clinching the trophy on their turf on March 21.
Steven Gerrard’s men, who have eight games remaining, just need seven more points to be crowned champions for the first time since 2011. If both of the Glasgow clubs win their next two matches then Rangers will simply need to draw the next derby to prevail.
County, in stark contrast to their adversaries, were elated by their smash and grab act. A second-half Jordan White goal saw them clinch three vital points and leapfrog both Hamilton and Kilmarnock.
Perhaps John Hughes, who was brought in as manager in December to ensure top flight survival, can keep his charges up after all.
Neil Lennon made two changes to the side that edged out Aberdeen in midweek with Scott Brown replacing Ismaila Soro in central midfield and Tom Rogic taking over from Albian Ajeti up front.
Harry Paton, Leo Hjelde, Billy McKay, Jermaine Hylton dropped out for County and Michael Gardyne, Alex Iacovitti, Charlie Lakin, and Blair Spittal all came in. Hughes retained the 4-5-1 formation he had used in the 2-0 defeat to Dundee United eight days earlier with White up front by himself.
Tony Andreu, one of the January arrivals in the Highlands, tried his luck from 20 yards out in the third minute after Stephen Welsh had been carless with a pass out of defence. Scott Bain had little difficulty dealing with it.
Celtic left back Greg Taylor pulled up injured in the eighth minute. He was replaced by Diego Laxalt, but it was, given how well the defender had been performing for them during their recent run, a setback for the visitors.
The away side could have taken the lead in the 25th minute after Ryan Christie pinched the ball from Iacovitti. He squared across the face of goal and Odsonne Edouard should really have turned it in from a few yards out. But the most lethal finisher in the country failed to connect.
But County created and spurned chances too. Blair Spittal forced a fine one-handed save from Bain after getting off a low shot from the edge of the Celtic penalty area and Andreu headed just over the crossbar from the resultant corner.
The defending champions responded to those scares positively on the half hour mark. Edouard pounced after Ross Laidlaw had miscued a clearance and supplied David Turnbull in the six yard box. The midfielder has been in a rich vein of scoring form. But he too was unable to convert. It was end-to-end stuff.
Callum McGregor took matters into his own hands in the 36th minute when he picked up the ball in the middle of the park and drove upfield before feeding Edouard ahead of him. His team mate cut it back to Christie in space and the playmaker should have buried it. He sliced it high over the crossbar.
County’s hopes of taking something from proceedings suffered a blow just before half-time when Callum Morris, their vastly experienced vice-captain, limped off injured and was replaced by Keith Watson.
Celtic stepped things up in the second-half Laxalt shot over after good build-up play from McGregor and Edouard and Christie was then denied brilliantly by Laidlaw. But the opening goal continued to elude them. They were soon made to pay for their lack of ruthlessness in the final third.
Jonjoe Kenny fouled Harry Paton wide on the right touchline in the 71st minute. Paton himself whipped a free-kick into the Celtic box and White rose unchallenged and headed powerfully beyond Bain and into the top right corner. It was his second goal in just three games.
Bobby Madden had been due to referee this fixture. But he was withdrawn by the SFA today and asked to self-isolate along with David Roome and Graeme Stewart, his assistants in the Panithanaikos match against Olympiakos in Greece last week, as a result of the former returning a positive Covid-19 test.
David Munro stepped in at the last minute and dd well in what was an entertaining encounter. Celtic could certainly not point the finger at him at the final whistle.
Lennon threw on Leigh Griffiths for Tom Rogic and Mohamed Elyounoussi for Christie in an attempt to get his side back on level terms and the latter forced another exceptional save from Laidlaw late on with a downward header that looked destined for the bottom right corner. Griffiths also went close with an injury-time free-kick.
But those misses summed up their night and, for that matter, their season.