Celtic will go into the final Old Firm game of the season six points clear of Rangers in the Scottish Premiership after a nervy win at Ross County.
The league leaders dominated in Dingwall but only had Kyogo Furuhashi’s early goal – his first since December – to show for it until Jota’s late second clinched a precious victory.
The triumph was enough to restore Celtic’s advantage at the summit with just four games remaining, starting with what could be a decisive derby at Celtic Park next Sunday.
Malky Mackay’s obdurate County, meanwhile, stay fifth in their pursuit of a first ever European qualification after what was just their second defeat in seven games.
It really could and should have been more for Celtic, but County also had chances of their own and did well to keep their visitors within touching distance.
And when Kyogo’s 12th-minute header arrowed into the net following a fantastic delivery from Jota, few would have predicted it would be the only goal of the day.
Celtic’s talisman had another two chances in the first half and could have headed in at half-time with the match ball. His combination play with Jota – who terrorised County throughout – lead to a volley that looped up and off the crossbar.
Kyogo was then quickest to react when Ross Laidlaw spilled a long-range effort from Matt O’Riley, but somehow the County goalkeeper was able to stick a foot at the rebound and put the ball behind.
On another occasion, the returning forward had the ball in the net after dashing onto an O’Riley through ball but the offside flag denied him.
The earlier reflex save gave Laidlaw confidence, then he denied Daizen Maeda. Again, Jota was the orchestrator and dinked a tempting ball in, but Maeda’s shot went high and the County stopper was able to stretch and tip over.
Celtic started the second half at the same pace, desperate for the second goal to kill the game off. Jota provided a sweet chip into the box and O’Riley beat Laidlaw to the ball, but Keith Watson was back to head off the line.
County had their best chance shortly after. Regan Charles-Cook cut back to Jordan White, who cleverly allowed the ball to roll to Harry Paton. Instead of shooting immediately, the Canadian hesitated, allowing Cameron Carter-Vickers to block.
The game became end-to end, County pushing for an equaliser and Celtic looking for a winner, but it was the latter which came in the 87th minute.
Liel Abada, who missed a glorious chance of his own, cut back for Georgios Giakoumakis. His shot curled off the bar but Jota reacted quickest, sliding in ahead of Connor Randall.
Table of Contents
Man of the match – Jota
What did we learn?
Just as happened last time these sides met in Dingwall, County pushed Celtic all the way and huge credit must go to them.
Plenty of teams have folded under the pressure of this potent Celtic attack, who were certainly in the mood. Kyogo should have scored more and Abada and Maeda could have made it comfortable, but the County back-line were resolute.
It shows how far they’ve come from the side that didn’t pick up a league win until the end of October and a European place is still within their grasp.
As for Celtic, they bounced back from their Scottish Cup semi-final disappointment and head into another Old Firm derby with their confidence buoyed.
It wasn’t the easy afternoon they had in mind, but they have come through another tough test with three points and a step closer to reclaiming the title.
What they said
Ross County manager Malky Mackay: “I am delighted that, against a team like that who score early, it doesn’t become two or three considering they won by seven last week.
“We had the two half chances around their box and we’re playing against a high-quality team and it’s a measure of where we’ve come to that we are in the mix with five other teams in the top half.”
Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou: “A difficult place to play against a difficult opponent and I thought we played really well.
“It feels like another important day for us, but every day is an important day for us and I’ve been saying that since week six. We’ve had to be almost perfect and players have been dealing with that every day.”
Ross County travel to Tynecastle to take on Hearts next Saturday (15:00 BST), whilst Celtic host Rangers the following day (12:00).
Player of the match
with an average of 7.36
Squad number4Player nameCancola
Squad number1Player nameLaidlaw
Squad number3Player nameVokins
Squad number23Player nameHungbo
Squad number2Player nameRandall
Squad number10Player nameSamuel
Squad number17Player nameCharles-Cook
Squad number16Player nameIacovitti
Squad number26Player nameWhite
Squad number22Player nameTillson
Squad number7Player nameSpittal
Squad number15Player nameWatson
Squad number6Player namePaton
Squad number8Player nameCallachan
Squad number17Player nameJota
Squad number8Player nameFuruhashi
Squad number20Player nameCarter-Vickers
Squad number3Player nameTaylor
Squad number42Player nameMcGregor
Squad number15Player nameHart
Squad number38Player nameMaeda
Squad number33Player nameO’Riley
Squad number56Player nameRalston
Squad number7Player nameGiakoumakis
Squad number4Player nameStarfelt
Squad number41Player nameHatate
Squad number11Player nameAbada
Squad number18Player nameRogic
Squad number14Player nameTurnbull
Squad number49Player nameForrest
- 22TillsonSubstituted forCancolaat 70′minutes
- 8CallachanBooked at 5mins
- 6PatonSubstituted forHungboat 70′minutes
- 17Charles-CookSubstituted forSamuelat 88′minutes
- 26WhiteBooked at 42mins
- 33O’RileySubstituted forGiakoumakisat 64′minutes
- 41HatateSubstituted forTurnbullat 74′minutes
- 17Neves FilipeSubstituted forForrestat 90′minutes
- 8FuruhashiSubstituted forAbadaat 64′minutes
- 38MaedaSubstituted forRogicat 64′minutes
- Kevin Clancy
Match ends, Ross County 0, Celtic 2.
Second Half ends, Ross County 0, Celtic 2.
Offside, Ross County. Blair Spittal tries a through ball, but David Cancola is caught offside.
Attempt missed. Blair Spittal (Ross County) right footed shot from outside the box misses to the left. Assisted by Connor Randall with a cross.
Substitution, Celtic. James Forrest replaces Jota.
Substitution, Ross County. Dominic Samuel replaces Regan Charles-Cook.
Goal! Ross County 0, Celtic 2. Jota (Celtic) right footed shot from very close range to the bottom left corner.
Giorgos Giakoumakis (Celtic) hits the bar with a right footed shot from the centre of the box. Assisted by Liel Abada.
Attempt missed. David Turnbull (Celtic) right footed shot from outside the box misses to the left. Assisted by Greg Taylor.
Corner, Ross County. Conceded by Anthony Ralston.
Foul by David Turnbull (Celtic).
David Cancola (Ross County) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Offside, Ross County. Alex Iacovitti tries a through ball, but Jordan White is caught offside.
Attempt missed. David Turnbull (Celtic) left footed shot from outside the box misses to the right. Assisted by Tomas Rogic.
Liel Abada (Celtic) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Jake Vokins (Ross County).
Greg Taylor (Celtic) wins a free kick in the defensive half.
Foul by Joseph Hungbo (Ross County).
Foul by Giorgos Giakoumakis (Celtic).
David Cancola (Ross County) wins a free kick in the attacking half.