Rangers 0 – 0 Celtic: Celtic narrowly miss out on decisive 3 points

Sunday’s seventh and final Old Firm encounter of the season suffered the burden of more off-field controversy than the norm, no thanks to the work of one (or a handful of) lunatic. But keeping strictly to football matters, this also served to be Walter Smith’s final game in charge – at Ibrox no less. With Celtic’s game in hand, Rangers needed a win to wrestle the destiny of the SPL title back into their own hands. But for the departing manager there would be no fairytale ending for what has been an illustrious career at Ibrox.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Two major surprises in Neil Lennon’s team selection – the first was the omission of Kris Commons whose had a storming impact since arriving in January. However Commons is most effective in a free-ish role on the left, and with the season hanging in the balance at Ibrox, Lennon opted for the more defensively sound Joe Ledley on that side. As a result, Ki Sung-Yeung came into the centre – rather astonishingly making for a midfield made up of 4 central midfielders.

The second big decision saw Anthony Stokes drop out in favour of Georgios Samaras. The former did not impress in his one starting appearance against Rangers this season and the latter conversely has been exceptional. Also weighing on Lennon’s mind would’ve been the lack of height up front that the Stokes/Hooper combination concedes.

Rangers Lineup

Rangers 4-4-2

On paper this was the precise starting ten outfield players that defeated Celtic at Hampden in the CIS Cup Final but the system had changed. The 4-4-1-1 utilised in that win with Steven Naismith behind Nikica Jelavic was revealed to be flawed. Kyle Lafferty was not suited to playing wide and Naismith was too often asked to compete in the air. Smith changed things in that game to a more direct 4-4-2 style, playing to his teams own strengths and the perceived weakness of Celtic’s back four. Basically defend deep and narrow with two banks of four, while sweeping long, high passes to Jelavic and Lafferty.

Dealing with such direct play has long been the achilles heel of the Celtic defence, and Jelavic in particular thrives on the personal duals with his marker. In such taut, pressured environments with so much at stake, this heaps further pressure on the defence who cannot afford a mistake. It’s a physical, “route one” but ultimately hopeful approach pinning hope on the individual skill and linkup of the two strikers.

Gregg Wylde was perhaps a surprise inclusion, but his pace and crossing ability fits in well with this tactical style. First and foremost he has the pace and youthful energy to keep check of Mark Wilson, but secondly his left-foot delivery is useful ammunition for the two targetmen. But Smith didn’t really have any other option on that side – El Hadji Diouf for all his past ability is arguably more trouble than he’s worth (and certainly not reliable defensively) and John Fleck has found himself on the fringe of the squad.

Fraught and edgy

It was an Old Firm that challenged Walter Smith’s sensibilities as a cautious, safety first manager: it was a “must-win” game for the home side while Celtic would be content with a draw. With regards to this, neither side wanted to concede and so play mainly revolved around Celtic trying to keep possession, aided by four good “possession” players in midfield while Rangers desperately bombarded Mulgrew and Majstorovic with long-balls.

It also wouldn’t be an Old Firm without a decent penalty shout going against Celtic, and while Joe Ledley smashed into Steven Whittaker in the Rangers box on the 18th minute, it was perhaps the Celtic midfielder doing the smashing. Ledley and Brown’s instinctive forays into the centre caused Ranger’s numerous problems, with the Celtic Captain going close with a left-footed drive. Their inward movement seemed to confuse the Rangers full-backs – to follow or allow space? As Gary Hooper and Georgios Samaras were more than happy to exploit any would-be gaps.

But equally, and particularly in Brown’s case this gravitation to the centre allowed Gregg Wylde more room than he should’ve been allowed, and often Wilson was finding himself out numbered two to one. It was ranged crossing from this side that allowed two of Rangers’ better chances – first Jelavic chesting down to Edu, who should’ve done better and then Naismith blasting a narrow angled volley well wide.

The danger from this left-hand side continued, and the most worrying for Lennon would’ve been Lafferty’s free header from a Wylde cross – with Mulgrew caught ball-watching.

Push for a winner

For all the confusion in the Celtic defence that these long-balls caused, Celtic were reasonably comfortable in open play. At any given time one of Hooper or Samaras would be dropping between the lines, and this helped bring others into play from deep positions. With Brown and Kayal’s trademark hustling coupled with Ki’s confident ball-retention, Celtic were slowly turning the screw and Kris Commons’ introduction added fresh impetus to the attack. Perhaps the point where the result looked to be tipping in Celtic’s favour, was Majstorovic’s goal-bound header tipped acrobatically wide by McGregor.

The change that should’ve settled the game, was Anthony Stokes for Hooper with fifteen minutes to go. The tricky Irishman had a lot to prove, given his reaction to not featuring in the CIS Cup final, and his close control and clever movement confounded the Rangers defence. Making a fool out of Bougherra at the touch-line, Stokes darted into the box and drew a foul from Steven Davis. Replays may suggest a borderline call, but watching again in “real” time approves the ref’s decision.

Inevitably, Samaras missed the penalty – a pretty hefty blotch on a good all-round performance. But with the score finishing level, the race for the SPL remains in Celtic’s hands. A determined, organised performance from Celtic that just lacked that little bit of luck in front of goal; along with resolute defending in the face of a menacing Rangers attack.

The result could represent a microcosm of the season – Walter Smith’s route one, almost desperate approach towards a grand last hurrah suppressed by a superior Celtic side.





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Kilmarnock 0 – 4 Celtic: Defensive mistakes punished by Commons & Hooper

Celtic matched Rangers with a 4-0 away victory after travelling to Rugby Park on Wednesday evening. A brace from Kris Commons followed by efforts from Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes punished an unfamiliar and unorganised Kilmarnock defence. The visiting support used the occasion to show their full, passionate backing of manager Neil Lennon, in a tremendous display.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic non-standard 4-4-2

Lennon welcomed back influential defender Daniel Majstorovic who had recovered from a broken toe – just in time for the Rangers clash on Sunday. Thomas Rogne dropped out as a result, and the only other change was the introduction of James Forrest for Joe Ledley. This enabled Scott Brown to move infield to possibly his favoured central position. This also forced a more traditional 4-4-2 formation, with two genuine wide players on the park.  But keeping with Lennon’s ideal of 1 withdrawn wide-man, Kris Commons was given a slightly more central, more demanding defensive responsibility as opposed to the almost free-role he had been enjoying of late with great success.

Kilmarnock Lineup

Kilmarnock 4-4-2 diamond / 4-5-1

Kenny Shiels pre-match willingly accepted that an in-form Celtic are simply impossible to deal with. While some managers (perhaps rightly) respond by adjusting the team to create a more robust, defensive strategy, Shiels stuck to his guns. Speaking of playing with “style and flair”, Kilmarnock lined up in one of the most tactically interesting formations seen this season.

Described as a 4-4-2 diamond – a design traditionally emphasising the ability of the attacking midfielder “in the hole”, Kilmarnock took this concept even further. So much so in fact that the nominal strikers (David Silva and William Gros) could be found occupying either wing out of position. Writers of football tactics talk of “false-nines”, a classic contemporary example being Leo Messi – essentially a forward who drops deep away from his traditional marker to disrupt, find possession in dangerous areas, but also to create space for team-mates.

In this sense both Silva and Gros were acting as “false nines”. They were not strikers (although Gros was the most forward of the two). They were simply there to pull the Celtic central defenders out of position, wide and crucially to create room for key-man Alexei Eremenko to exploit. In defence each were meant to take up a wing position, creating something of a 4-1-4-1 with Eremenko the furthest forward. A romantic, if fatally flawed strategy.

Kilmarnock’s wide struggle

The everlasting curse of the 4-4-2 diamond is the strict lack of midfield width. A team must have some extraordinarily fit full-backs to make up for this midfield deficit – which Kilmarnock did not have. And while the compromise was for Silva and Gros to cover the left and right respectively, as relatively high “forwards” they neither could cover the necessary ground or have the defensive instincts of wide midfielders. Caught in two minds in an unorganised system – a system that would have a knock on effect undermining every position in the side.

Commons and Forrest were ruthless on the wings, for once mostly enjoying true mano-a-mano battles with the opposition full-backs. To compensate Liam Kelly and Craig Bryson were dragged further wide, vacating the central positions. Eremenko was in a free-role, the strikers were dropping as and when they could manage, the midfield were being dragged around willfully – in short a midfield shambles.

Forced errors

In possession and building from the back, Kilmarnock found themselves with no focal point to maintain hold of the ball higher up the park. As a result the defence with no out-ball (and determined to play short, possession football) were being put under intense undue pressure. And Celtic were pressing marvelously.

None pressed more aggressively than Man of the Match Beram Kayal, showing qualities similar to his manager in his pomp only with more mobility and more attacking thrust. If Kayal was the irrepressible bull-dog in the centre, Hooper was the genius creator, having a hand in all four goals. Commons was given a criminal amount of room on the edge of the box on four minutes, and Hooper picked him out with ease to open the scoring.

The two goals that followed (and that killed the game) were similarly born from defensive calamity. The second Commons dispossessed James Fowler, quickly conspiring again with Hooper to score, and the third Jamie Hamill gave the away to Commons who this time returned the favour releasing Hooper. A ruthless tag-team.

Conclusion

Just after half-time Celtic were continuing to pounce on mistakes, hitting the wood-work twice in quick succession – and Anthony Stokes later added a fourth after an intelligent and unselfish pass from Hooper.

As determined, creative and clinical Celtic were, Kilmarnock were equally lax and unorganised. Kenny Shiels lined up ambitiously (and admirably) with a side he felt could stretch Celtic’s tender defence. But Lennon’s side were so quick to punish, that the manager was able to rest Beram Kayal and at one time even had merely 3 defenders on the park. While it was brave from Kilmarnock, ultimately the 4-0 thumping may be of detrimental effect at this time in the season. Celtic meanwhile enjoy the run-out in the build-up to Sunday’s crunch Old Firm.




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Aberdeen 0 – 4 Celtic: Sturdy red defence undermined then overwhelmed

Craig Brown is unable to improve a dreadful record against Celtic in all competition this season after losing for a fifth time. And while he was only in charge for four of these (with Mark McGhee responsible for the 9-0 drubbing),  his ten man side could do little to resist a second half pummeling from Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic standard 4-4-2

As readers who’ve purchased the latest issue of  67 fanzine will be aware (and in no real surprise to those who didn’t!) Neil Lennon lined up almost exactly as predicted in the tictactic preview. The difference was Thomas Rogne coming in for Glen Loovens, in what may be a relief to most fans. Another relief was the sight of Daniel Majstorovic appearing on the bench, having come back from a broken toe.

‘Big Dan’ aside, this is Lennon’s best XI.

Aberdeen Lineup

Aberdeen 4-4-1-1

The most significant factor in Brown’s team selection was the fact Paul Hartley couldn’t shake off the knee injury that has kept him ruled our for 4 weeks. Without a quality fifth midfielder to perform the holding role, Brown aimed to supplement the midfield via the other end with Chris Maguire dropping back and pressuring Celtic’s central players wherever possible.

With the right-back area a renowned problem position for Aberdeen right now and with Rory McArdle unable to feature, Derek Young was the man to fill in, with Ryan Jack joining Rob Milsom at centre-mid. As expected, the remaining back four consisted of Steven Smith, Andrew Considine and Zander Diamond.

Again referring back to the tictactic preview in ’67 Fanzine, Aberdeen’s goal-scoring was identified as a key problem area. Brown’s attempt to get around this was by squeezing all four of his top scorers onto the pitch. All naturally strikers, it was Josh Magennis and Sone Aluko who started on the left and right sides respectively.

The two were outranked (in goal-scoring terms) by Scott Vernon and Maguire – the latter being Aberdeen’s main creative hope.

Tetchy first half

Celtic opened slowly and cautiously, with Aberdeen on the other hand energetic and aggressive. Magennis and Aluko’s willingness to bomb forward impacted on Izaguirre’s and Wilson’s own attacking motives, and Maguire was finding more space than Neil Lennon would appreciate.  Magennis was looking to cut inside on to his favoured right at every opportunity, and made the first chance of the match as he forced Frazer Forster into a tricky near-post save from distance.

Magennis’ abandonment of the flank seemed to prompt Brown into an early switching of sides – although arguably this was classic “unsettling” tactics. Either way, in theory both wide midfielders would be more comfortable defending on their “correct” sides, so the change made sense for a number of reasons.

With Aberdeen looking to condense the game into a smaller area of the large Hampden pitch, Anthony Stokes was looking dangerous from balls in behind Diamond and Considine, getting close to rounding Langfield who was sharp off his line.

Scott Brown drifting in to a central attacking midfield position also exploited this area at the back, in what proved to be a game changing moment. His sublime through pass released Gary Hooper who was tripped by the toiling Considine. For the second time this season, Considine was sent off in the opening stages against Celtic, and for the second time Anthony Stokes missed the resulting penalty.

From here on in, it was an uphill battle for a Dons side that had defended quite resolutely and at times seemed to have more will to win. Just before the teams went in for the break, Maguire came reasonably close with a header, finding tonnes of room. But Craig Brown would have to reshuffle to have any hope of containing an improving Celtic.

10 man resistance

Aberdeen 2nd half 4-4-1

The circumstances were asking a lot from the stretched Aberdeen squad, and with 2 defenders, a wide midfielder and a striker on the bench, Brown’s shuffling seemed odd. Firstly Derek Young is not a centre-back, and as admirably as he performed in this role, a more accomplished defender waited on the bench (Vujadinovic was later to come on for Young – too late). But while bona fide midfielders Young and Jack made for a ramshackle ad-hoc centre and right-back, striker Vernon dropped in to midfield!

Perhaps the only explanation was that Brown simply did not want to remove any proven goal-scorers. One of Vernon, Maguire, Aluko or Magennis would have been a more natural choice to remove, but these also happened to be the only decent goal-scorers.

Maguire was left to lead the line, playing off the shoulder – and the clear Dons strategy was to fire quick, unexpected if possible long balls over the defence. Maguire was playing fast off the shoulder, gambling on anything and everything, but if you don’t get the breaks it’s a thankless task.

How to unlock a deep, organised defence?

While the breakthrough goal came from something of a fluke “cross-cum-shot” free-kick from Charlie Mulgrew that evaded everybody, Neil Lennon has been grappling with this conondrum since day one of his managerial reign. How to unlock a deep, organised defence?

In the past 2 matches we’ve seen trials given to more direct, physical approaches utilising the height and aerial ability of Daryl Murphy and Georgios Samaras. But this method has never been ideal for Lennon, who finds the goal-scoring instincts and intelligent linkup of (chart leaders) Hooper and Stokes, essential.

Today saw a different approach to breaking down the classic deep two banks of four. From the start Hooper had been playing “in the hole” between the lines, in an attempt to exploit Aberdeen’s lack of holding midfield players. But it’s from this starting position that he and his midfielders had been finding most joy.

For example, for the second goal (that effectively settled the tie) Joe Ledley burst from his own half to get on the end of an Izaguirre cut-back. Similarly Scott Brown done fabulously well at the centre of the move which eventually led to Shaun Maloney’s goal – the Celtic Captain started a few yards into the Aberdeen half, disguised a pass to Izaguirre, Brown made a darting run in behind the Aberdeen defence and squared to (eventually) lead to Maloney scoring.

And there were numerous examples, from Commons lifting the ball over the bar from six yards to Stokes running from deep the win the penalty for the third. It’s a different approach to overloading the opposition defence and almost forcing them to defend deep and narrow, albeit Aberdeen’s cause was not helped by player deficit and the high defensive line.

Apart from the result and apart from the successful run-outs for the likes of Majstorovic, Maloney and McCourt, what was most pleasing was the attacking verve – the incisive passing over the top and the awareness to bring players from deep into play. Despite a half-time battering from Charlie Nicholas, Scott Brown was superb (almost) in the centre – ball-winning, creative, determined and energetic. But it’s difficult to focus on an individual. For all Aberdeen’s circumstantial rotten luck, it was a great team performance justified by the scoreline.

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St Johnstone 0 – 1 Celtic: Route 1 proves to be just as difficult

Celtic laboured to a one-nil win over St Johnstone last night, opting for route 1 football in an attempt to bypass a treacherous McDiarmid Park surface.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic flat narrow 4-42

In the analysis of the St Mirren fixture, it was pointed out that Celtic were plainly missing a physical presence up front. At times this season, there has been no such requirement as the more nimble frames of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper have torn into sides like Hibernian (3-1 & 3-0), Hearts (4-0) and Aberdeen (9-0).

On Sunday however, the lack of a second option (read: targetman) to be brought on if required was glaring. St Mirren relinquished swathes of possession, packed the deep defence and frustrated Hooper and Stokes aiming to hit on the counter, and to a large degree Danny Lennon’s tactics weren’t far away from succeeding.

In this encounter with St Johnstone, Neil Lennon swung to the opposite end of the scale, starting both Georgios Samaras and (a rare appearance for) Daryl Murphy. On the one hand this comes across as an emphatic reaction to the struggle on Sunday, but arguably the decision was unrelated. The McDiarmid Park pitch condition was dreadful. Dry, full of divots and to use a popular cliché: not conducive to good football.

While the midfield personnel almost picks itself, Kris Commons played in a much more reserved role on the left. Perhaps dribbling was actively discouraged on this surface. Width, as ever, would be provided by the roaming of Emilio Izaguirre and the tireless Mark Wilson. Glen Loovens partnered Charlie Mulgrew at the back, again hinting at Lennon’s order of preference which worryingly for many Celtic fans, sees the big Dutchman clearly favoured over Thomas Rogne.

The substitutes (unlike St Mirren) provided a higher degree of flexibility, with Anthony Stokes, Paddy McCourt, Shaun Maloney and James Forrest available to be brought on.

St Johnstone Lineup

 

 

St Johnstone 4-5-1

 

 

6 changes were made from St Mirren’s 2-0 defeat away to Dundee United andMichael Duberry and Chris Millar were rested in lieu of the Scottish Cup semi-final at the weekend. Therefore Graham Gartland filled in at centre-back and a number of slightly more fringe players were given an opportunity.

Derek McInnes went for a five man midfield, actually approaching a 4-2-3-1 with Liam Craig and Cleveland Taylor fairly high and wide going head to head with Celtic’s full-backs, and Steve May given the main responsibility to link up with Jordan Robertson.

Early development

While the fresh and energetic newcomers to the Saints side enjoyed a bright start, getting into the faces of the Celtic players and not letting them settle, they were mostly without the ball. Both teams struggled to adapt to an awful pitch surface with both guilty of poor ball retention. But as this early scrappy spell subsided, it was Celtic who were coming into the game more positively. The inclusion of both Murphy and Samaras seemed justified as the physical presence of the former was causing bother, creating space for Samaras to get into more dangerous areas.

The first main chance in fact – a tricky free-kick from Commons – was won by a determined Murphy. Furthermore Commons came close with a Dejan Stankovic style effort after the height of Samaras caused ‘keeper Graham Smith concern. With both strikers also coming close with headers in separate chances, the direct football was working to an extent. But as the case can be with forwards more renowned for presence and linkup play, the breakthrough remained elusive.

Supply and demand

This lack of a cutting edge that Stokes and Hooper often provide (given a chance) was brought to mind when Scott Brown slipped through Samaras with a lovely reverse pass, only for the Greek to fire against the onrushing goalkeeper. So it was no surprise that the source of the goal came from elsewhere, in fact a slightly unlikely source in Beram Kayal.

Arguably more than any other team it’s tougher to get goals as a midfielder for Celtic in the SPL. With teams regularly defending deep and narrow, Kayal for example is often faced with at least 2 banks of defence – given the instruction not to let the opposition shoot from range under any circumstance. Ki Sung-Yeung, Joe Ledley and Kayal are all good from long-range, but the space to shoot is rarely there. In this case however, it was a clever toe-poke. Bursting into the box from deep, with Brown again the creator, Kayal improvised a finish from a difficult angle, under pressure from tight marking and the advancing Smith.

Having become accustomed to smart interchanging in and around the box, the concept of lumping the ball high into the box was alien to Celtic. Despite being encouraged by the lead, there was still trouble creating clear-cut chances, and there is one main reason.

Targetmen in the box demand reasonable supply, thriving on attacking balls that are crossed from the by-line. It’s much more difficult to fabricate a goal-scoring headed chance with high balls coming from deep. Unfortunately for Celtic, with wide midfielders playing deep, the quality of the supply was not ideal for Samaras and Murphy.

Sustained pressure

Commons found it difficult from a deep starting position getting into areas to provide decent crosses, and the state of the pitch exacerbated this issue. Meanwhile Wilson and Izaguirre in particular, were being thwarted quite successfully by Craig and Taylor respectively – not much in the way of width at all.

The introduction of Shaun Maloney (for Commons) seemed to capitulate the idea of width. Right-footed playing on the left-side, there was little chance of getting to the byline. But what he did provide was intelligent link-up with Samaras in particular, and his natural instinct as a forward got him into dangerous areas (as rusty as he was). His clever pass through to Samaras on the left created an embarassing moment for the referee – Duberry fell to ground under presure from Samaras and grabbed the ball assuming he was to receive a free-kick. Astoundingly Iain Brines played on.

The Saints efforts were not to be underestimated though, having one or two decent moments. Scott Brown felled May in the first half in what should’ve been a close range central free-kick (and a card) and in the second, Liam Craig’s cutting in from right to left forced a drastic save from the previously untested Frazer Forster.

It was the correct decision for Lennon to play with two targetmen, but it’s reasonable to argue that the execution wasn’t good enough and made things difficult. A player with the speed of James Forrest would be able to stretch the defence, get to the by-line and maybe provide better ammunition for Murphy. The guile of McCourt on the other side the same. Anthony Stokes may have felt hard done by missing out on some gametime, and it would be interesting to see more of a classic “big man / little man” combination up front.

It’s impossible to argue with the result given the standard of the pitch, but it would be encouraging to see more ad-hoc strategic flexibility during the game.

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Celtic 1 – 0 St Mirren: Stubborn St Mirren frustrate under-par Celtic

Celtic struggled to come away with all three points today against a well organised, defensive St Mirren outfit. A stodgy, poor performance preceded a late goal from substitute Kris Commons to stretch the lead at the top of the SPL to 5 points.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic non-standard 4-4-2 with two wingers

While Neil Lennon only made three personnel changes to the side that beat Hibernian 3-1 on Wednesday, the rotation made for a real change in strategy. Although still nominally a 4-4-2, this differed significantly from Lennon’s favoured 4-4-2/4-3-1-2 hybrid. Namely, the tucked in right-midfielder had now become an out and out winger leaving only 2 midfielders in the centre. St Mirren in contrast had more than 3.

To begin, James Forrest continued high up on the left, with Freddy Ljungberg coming in for Scott Brown to play on the right. With the ageing Swede eager to prove himself, this was a vote of confidence from Lennon, or perhaps even a challenge.

Cha Du Ri came in as a straight swap for Mark Wilson, and if anything in theory was to provide even more attacking thrust. Again in a straight swap, Joe Ledley (who’s featured heavily this campaign) was rested allowing Ki Sung-Yeung to stake a claim in the centre of the park. Glen Loovens continued alongside Charlie Mulgrew at centre-back, perhaps indicating Lennon’s preference of the experienced Dutchman over Thomas Rogne.

St Mirren strategy and lineup

St Mirren 4-3-2-1

The tactical challenge for any ailing SPL side visiting Celtic Park is how to keep a clean sheet. Danny Lennon’s intention was clear from the start – pack the midfield, defend deep and narrow, and use the strength of targetman Michael Higdon as a platform for counter-attacks, and to put physical pressure on a sometimes brittle defence.

With Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes the likely candidates to start for the home side, Danny Lennon sacrificed room on the flanks – almost encouraging Celtic to go down that route. With enough bodies strong in the air defending in the box (with Goodwin at times an auxiliary centre-back) Danny Lennon was confident of repelling any aerial threat.

Kenny McLean and Steven Thomson were given the task of supporting frontman Higdon on the break, but without the ball were going man for man with Kayal and Ki. This left Goodwin as primarily a spare man. Hugh Murray and Patrick Cregg mainly kept the Celtic full-backs in check.

It was text-book spoiling tactics from St Mirren, and the capitulation of the flanks meant unsurprisingly almost nothing was created through the centre.

Under-par Celtic

Celtic bossed possession, and looked fairly comfortable at the back. Only the chances being created (mainly from the work of Ljungberg and Forrest who actually switched sides early on) was culminating in hopeful crosses aimed at the dwarved Hooper and Stokes. This is exactly why Stokes was dropped in the first place (against Rangers). The two are at times too similar and can be snuffed out of games, especially if expected to get on the end of crosses. Shaun Maloney’s long awaited return in place of the injured Gary Hooper perpetuated this trend.

St Mirren’s over-manning at the back actually left Charlie Mulgrew as the freest man on the park, and Celtic were often able to pass the ball around in midfield best when Mulgrew joined in from deep. Ki Sung-Yeung, normally a composed and creative passer of the ball had one of his worst games in a Celtic shirt, and was withdrawn in the second half for Joe Ledley in a like for like swap.

The third and final change saw Kris Commons coming on for the slightly disappointing (and no doubt disappointed) Freddy Ljungberg. The former Arsenal star had a decent game, but when trying to get into this Celtic side, as Paddy McCourt has found you need to score, create, and a whole lot more. And it was Kris Commons who decided the match, pouncing on a snap opportunity to shoot from 19 yards.

Given the nature of the match, it was only a fair result. Possession was dominated by Celtic and the home side made use of numerous corners and set-pieces. The one (worrying) blotch was Saints Captain John Potter finding space to shoot from 7 yards in the dying moments of the game, after Celtic failed to clear a corner.

It’s moments like that chance, moments like Commons’ winner and performances like today that defines the season for title-hopefuls. As the cliché goes, dragging out results despite poor performance. But this felt slightly more ominous than a great side playing poorly. Where was the “Plan B”? Each change was like for like and (Commons the exception) the changes did not facilitate any real impact. With not enough clear cut chances created, perhaps the use of someone like Samaras to get on the end of the abundant number of crosses would have been appropriate.

Neil Lennon will argue that the ends justifies the means, but internally the squad and management will know that uninspiring under-performances such as these can ruin seasons.

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Celtic 3 – 1 Hibernian: Stokes & Hooper too hot to handle

Celtic move 2 points clear at the summit of the SPL table after a comfortable 3-1 victory over Hibernian. The fixture was decided in a blistering first half, with Anthony Stokes outstanding, linking up with strike partner Gary Hooper. What seemed to be a consolation goal in the second-half ignited Hibs’ belief to some extent, but Celtic made no fuss in their takeover of Rangers at the top.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

17 days have passed since the disappointment of the Co-operative Insurance Cup Final and the injury situation in this time had changed little for Neil Lennon. Glen Loovens was favoured ahead of Thomas Rogne, James Forrest replaced Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes came in for Georgios Samaras.

The latter change of the three is a popular one amongst fans, who have been keen to see restored the exciting, dynamic partnership of Gary Hooper and Stokes. While Samaras had battled his way into the side to usurp Stokes in some big games, and has performed admirably, the frustrating (and at times brilliant) Greek hasn’t settled as fluidly along-side top-scorer Hooper as Lennon might have wanted.

It was a return to a Neil Lennon formation that is becoming as signature as Martin O’Neill’s 3-5-2 or Gordon Strachan’s inverted winger 4-4-2 – best described perhaps as a lop-sided 4-4-2 or even 4-3-1-2. With Hibs displaying a very narrow formation against Hearts in the Edinburgh derby on Sunday, Forrest’s inclusion high up on the left (in Commons role) is more suited to providing width – Commons tendency to cut-in would arguably play into Hibernian’s hands.

What was most notable, particularly in the first half was just how high the Celtic full-backs would play.

Hibs Lineup

Hibs 4-4-2

Hibs made four changes to the side that bungled a 2-1 lead to 10-man Hearts on Sunday, with Michael Hart coming in for Celtic loanee Richie Towell and David Stephens in at centre-back for Francis Dickoh (both fairly straightforward swaps). The second two changes facilitated a slight change in tactics – David Wotherspoon replaced Matt Thornhill which allowed Liam Miller to play centrally with Wotherspoon playing wide-right, and targetman Akpo Sodje was replaced by Ricardo Vaz Te. The former Bolton Wanderers attacker played just behind Derek Riordan, linking up with the midfield.

Initially looking like a 4-4-2, it appeared that like Sunday, Hibs aimed to play a tight and narrow game, aiming for congestion in the centre. But Wotherspoon was extraordinarily high on the right – in an attempt to either pin-back Izaguirre (which he managed to some extent) or exploit any gaps. This void between Wotherspoon and the rest of the midfield was somewhat filled by the dropping deep at times of Vaz Te.

First half blitz

With unsubstantiated reports that Stokes handed in (or was on the brink of handing in) a transfer request after the last Old Firm, there was an immediate feeling that the young Irishman was out to prove a point. It didn’t take long to do so, releasing Hooper in the opening stages of the game who forced a good save from former Celt Mark Brown, and then after only four minutes getting on the scoresheet after fine supply from Izaguirre.

And the movement of Stokes’ coupled with Hibs’ narrow game plan was enabling Mark Wilson to cause all sorts of problems down the right as the below image demonstrates.

With Scott Brown playing so deep it was impossible for Callum Booth to take responsibility. This fell to the next nearest player – Martin Scott. Booth’s interest instead became Anthony Stokes, who managed to use his intelligence to find the space between Paul Hanlon and his left back. With the inexperienced Booth having no choice but to close the gap that Stokes wanted to exploit, Mark Wilson found an extraordinary level of space down the flank. Consequently, Derek Riordan was being pulled further wide (and further from goal).

 

The same effect wasn’t evident on the opposite flank, where Forrest was unmistakably marked tightly by right-back Hart, and Wotherspoon doing his best to keep tabs on Izaguirre.

On the half hour mark, Hibs had one or two half-chances – first Vaz Te found space on the end of a chip over the top to test Frazer Forster’s near bottom corner, and shortly after should’ve done better with a free header from 10 yards.

Aside from the half-chances, with Hibernian’s system exposed Celtic stepped up the domination. The home side were defending ruggedly and pressing high really well as a unit. The pressure was to yield goals, as Scott Brown was taken down in the box for Hooper to convert the resultant penalty and the Celtic front two continued to torment, culminating in a third after Hooper smashed home a Stokes through ball.

2nd half come-down

The break at half-time seemed to bring calm after the highs of the first-half, and Celtic restarted rather sluggishly. Loovens was swapped at this point for Rogne – possibly injury related (not serious if at all) but also at 3-0, a chance to bring Rogne up to match sharpness with the game all but tied up.

Unfortunately this lax attitude allowed Hibs back into the game, and were starting to find more and more possession. Sodje was brought on to replace the dislikable and ineffective Derek Riordan, with the clear intention that high or long-balls to a big target up front could just unsettle the defence. Indeed it was a (soft) defensive blunder that gifted Hibs a glimmer of hope as Mulgrew brought down Wotherspoon in the box. Liam Miller, who had had a quiet game, converted the penalty.

Even with the soft penalty decision on their side, Hibs never really looked like coming back, and in fact Celtic could’ve scored more. Izaguirre got forward to link well with Hooper and lash a shot wide, and Hooper even missed a second penalty late on.

Kris Commons got on for Forrest to play high on the left, and Freddy Ljungberg made a rare appearance in place of Baram Kayal (with Brown shifting inside to the centre). The two breathed a bit of impetus to the Celtic attack, and both looked sharp and hungry for goals. But with the other 20 players on the pitch already contented with the result, Ljungberg in particular will be slightly disappointed not be be given more opportunity to shine, albeit he was the one to win the second Celtic penalty.

All in all a fine first half-performance with Lennon getting the better of Colin Calderwood and the Celtic players getting the better of the Hibees. Hibs may argue against an unfortunate fixture schedule, having fought in the Edinburgh derby only 3 days prior with Celtic meanwhile enjoying a 17 day rest – but on the night few could argue with the scoreline.

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Classic TicTacTic – European Cup Final 1970: Celtic 1 – 2 Feyenoord

With no SPL football this weekend for Celtic and in a change from the usual tictactic blogging,  it’s time to take a look back at one of the most memorable Celtic matches of all time. In this first installment of what is to be a long-running and sporadic series, tictactic looks at the 1970 European Cup Final against Feyenoord (or Feijenoord in contemporary vernacular).

There are two great Celtic teams that are consistently held up as milestones in the great club’s history – from two different eras – Jock Stein’s Lisbon Lions and Martin O’Neill’s Seville side. The 1967 vintage an obvious choice because of the historic win, and 2003 due to the macro-factors associated with competing at the highest level, constrained in Scotland in a post Sky era . But lets take a moment to consider the 1970 European Cup final – the chance to achieve an unthinkable second European Cup trophy. Still the Lions at heart, this side defeated the likes of Fiorentina and heavily fancied Leeds Utd to take on Feyenoord in the European Cup final in Milan – Celtic’s second final in the space of 3 years.

Context

Having endured around 2 decades of strife at the end of Willy Maley’s reign and throughout the wars, Celtic had again risen to become the main club in Scotland culminating in the 1967 Cup triumph over the legendary “Grande” Internazionale from Italy, led by Helenio Herrera. By May 1970 Stein’s compelling story saw Celtic crowned Scottish First Division Champions for the fifth time in a row (on the way to the historic 9 in a row) and underlining the strength of the team had just achieved a domestic treble – so while post ’67, still very much at the peak of their powers.

Celtic came across Leeds Utd in the semi-finals, another side in top form – but not for the first  time (or the last) that the commentators from South of the border dismissed the Scottish Champions as mere fodder in the Battle of Britain. The English side had disposed of Standard Liege (who in turn had eliminated Real Madrid, showing the strength of the Belgians) Ferencvaros and Lyn Oslo (16-0 on aggregate!) on the way to the semis.

After beating FC Basle, Eusebio’s Benfica (on a coin toss!) and Fiorentina, against this broad English perception at Elland Road Celtic triumphed 1-0 through George Connelly and in the second leg 2-1 thanks to John Hughes and Bobby Murdoch. The match was relocated to Hampden from Celtic Park to accommodate more spectators - an incredible 136,505 in total.

But Feyenoord were the reverse. This was before “Total Football” and no Dutch side had ever won a major European trophy. Celtic’s road to the final, particularly the victory only reinforced the UK belief that the Leeds vanquishers barely needed to turn up to become Champions of Europe once again. Feyenoord, managed by Ernst Happel (who would later become one of only three managers ever to win the European Cup with two different sides) were considered to be as curious as they were insignificant – a funny sounding wee team from a wee country, and Celtic landed in Milan on the crest of a wave of media hype and expectation.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-2-4

Seven ‘Lisbon Lions’ started the game; a superb level of experience in a daunting foreign atmosphere. But while Stein had recently been experimenting with formations, he opted for the same tried and tested 4-2-4. When playing more cautiously (like away to Milan the season before) the 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 had been utilised to useful effect.

Celtic had become famous for playing attractive, attacking football; summarised in Stein’s underlining of “the manner in which we win” and in this game, the parallels with modern football is eerily intriguing. Tommy Gemmell and David Hay could best be described as “rampaging” full-backs, in ideal circumstance playing high up the park, getting up and down the line to support the wingers ahead. (Interestingly this is to this day harked back as “the Celtic way” to play; full-backs take note)

Two more Lions, Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch made up the centre of midfield – possibly Celtic’s greatest ever central pairing and John Connelly was the unfortunate man to miss out despite playing well against Leeds. The two were big, bruising presences with unfaltering engines and able to hit the ball with power and accuracy. Complete midfielders – and in this encounter frequently swapped sides depending on the run of play and to use the old addage “taking turns” to go forward or sit.

Jimmy ‘Jinky’ Johnstone on the right wing needs no introduction, Bobby Lennox on the left was (as later explained by Stein) looking to use his pace to get behind the Feyenoord back-line, and up front were two more Lions – Willie Wallace (a lifelong Rangers fan signed by Stein) and John ‘Yogi’ Hughes – part of the 1967 squad dropped for the actual final and looking to make up for that huge disappointment.

Feyenoord Lineup

Feyenoord 4-3-3

This Feyenoord side, who would go on to win the Dutch league again (and the Intercontinental cup) were designed in the image of the creator – Ernst Happel. The Austrian was a supremely fit and powerful defender and an established legend for his boyhood heroes, Rapid Wien. But behind the rugged determination there was an intelligent technique and guile to his game, and this conveniently describes his 1970 select.

The full-backs Piet Romeijn and van Duivenbode had already been identified as quality players by Stein in the buildup, but in the imposing central pairing of ”Iron” Rinus Israel and Theo “The Tank” Laseroms lay the foundations for an uncompromising defence. Both beastly in strength, like their manager possessed enough footballing ability to be comfortable with the ball at feet.

Again, echoing contemporary football formations was the 3 man midfield, consisting of another acclaimed set of individuals. Wim Jansen, most famous of course for becoming a Celtic legend 28 years later but also for being given the runaround by Archie Gemmell en route to the greatest goal Scotland has ever scored. Jansen protected the back 4, in a role marrying Javier Mascherano’s aggressive tenacity with Claude Makelele’s natural ability to read the game. Ahead of him two all-round midfielders in Willem van Hanegem and Austrian Franz Hasil. “All-round” may be contriving to mislead, as these guys enjoyed world-class technique with their passing and close control.

The lesser known Henk Wery was played high up on the right-wing, simultaneously charged with keeping track of Gemmell and providing service to Swedish targetman Ove Kindvall. The 2nd foreigner in Feyenoord’s side has been described (rather unfairly) as a fairly limited footballer but his goal-scoring record is inarguable – 129 goals in 144 league games.

Last but not least, high up on the left wing (wingers in this tie played far higher up than perhaps we’re used to in a British style 4-3-3 today) is none other than “Mr Feyenoord” himself: Coen Moulijn. The left-sided answer to Johan Cruyff, Moulijn is often said to be the greatest left-winger of all time and he made a whopping 487 appearances for Feyenoord. Cor van der Gijp (Feyenoord’s top scorer of all time) described Moulijn as Arjen Robben and David Beckham rolled in to one. Ferocious pace and dribbling but pin-point accuracy with the cross.

Cagey Opening

Gemmell, Hay and (of course) Johnstone were the reknowned dangermen and Happel’s high use of Moulijn and Wery served to hinder the attacking intention of Celtic’s full-backs. Yet Hay in the early stages was able to find space, often as the spare man in Celtic’s back 4 (with McNeill shuttling over) compared to Feyenoord’s front 3. Hay’s attacking style is actually familiar to Andreas Hinkel’s in tireless running and intention to join the attack. In fact his relationship with Johnstone is akin to the recent McGeady/Hinkel combo – get the ball to McGeady’s (Johnstone’s) feet at every opportunity, with Hinkel (Hay) the safe “out” pass or alternatively the dummy run down the flank to allow a cut-in.

Celtic’s initial aim was to keep the ball on the deck and this was clear at set-pieces. Very little in the way of high balls into the box (perhaps wary of the imposing Dutch centre-backs) instead opting for quick free-kicks, keeping the pace of the game at an intensity set to disrupt the slower, more considered style of Feyenoord. Getting the ball to Johnstone was paramount, and interestingly he was desperate to take players on even in his own box(!), albeit resulting in some hair-raising moments.

But in practice this deck-football aim was short-lived. Celtic were most piercing on the counter, putting the ball long and high towards Lennox and Hughes.

3-man centre crucial

With Lennox getting a goal chopped off for offside, Feyenoord were patiently calming the storm. Johnstone’s influence was waning as described by Van Hanegem: ”We tried to isolate him [Johnstone] – Coen Moulijn prevented the supply of ball from David Hay, I blocked Bobby Murdoch, and their number ten, Bertie Auld, was also tied up.” [by Hasil]

The 4-3-3 against 4-2-4 also suited the Dutch – Jansen as the spare man was able to close down any hint of a threat at every opportunity. His awareness of space and reading of the game makes it little wonder he later became a hugely successful coach. When stepping higher up into midfield this allowed one of Van Hanegem or Hasil to get forward between the lines and run at Celtic’s back four. The duo’s superior technique seemed out of place for the time, with Van Hanegem in particular swiping the ball around with consumate ease with that cultured left-foot.

But with the pendulum swinging towards the Dutch, it was Celtic who broke the deadlock. With a central free-kick from 19 yards out, Murdoch cleverly faked his shot into a back pass to the left, making space for the onrushing Gemmell who struck low and hard into the corner – similar to the strike against Inter in 1967. The left-back until this point was probably the quietest man on the park but Celtic led against the run of play.

Just as the balance of power looked to be swinging back towards the Glaswegians, a series of not-quite-cleared headers resulted in Israel looping an effort over Williams and in off the post. An instant reply. With Celtic’s resurgence snuffed out quickly, from this point it would prove to be an exhausting uphill battle against a Dutch side growing in confidence.

2nd half struggle

Into the second half Celtic’s defence were becoming increasingly desperate. Pegged back and under the cosh, the long clearances-cum-passes to Wallace and Hughes were frustrating and futile and the Dutch were thankful for being given the ball back so promptly again and again. This now may suggest a difference in managerial approaches back in such days… ad-hoc strategic changes were perhaps not that frequent, and something was needed here.

The Dutch midfield 3 were dominant, Coen Moulijn was finally getting the better of Hay and Celtic were looking decidedly sluggish and one dimensional in comparison to the controlled and cultured opposition. The dominance in territory and chance-creation saw Williams seemingly on a one man mission to force a replay with numerous superb saves, and the painful journey into extra time only exacerbated his teams fatigue.

John Hughes had a fantastic chance in the early stages of extra time, but it was now Graafland’s turn to keep the score level. ‘Yogi’ never seemed to get over that fateful miss, and perhaps Stein never forgave him. Despite this chance, Feyenoord were still superior in most areas and their ability to cooly keep possession made things all the more tiring for Celtic. Late on, after a long-ball from Israel, a misjudged header from McNeill (which ‘Cesar’ in fact handled) allowed Kindvall to superbly control and lift the ball over the keeper, and the game was over.

Post Match

The lasting recollection of the match is somewhere between Stein getting it wrong on the day, the players not performing, underestimating the opposition and most crucially Feyenoord playing fantastically well. While McNeill’s sentiment that “they slaughtered us on the night” was perhaps overly self-critical, in truth Celtic created a reasonable number of chances, not least Hughes’ miss in extra time. Snuffing out Johnstone (or more accurately, the supply to Johnstone – an unenviable task) proved to be decisive and Celtic’s inability to make use of the resulting extra room in other areas contributed heavily to the result. As surmised by Stein “They played as a team without a weakness. Unfortunately we had too many players off form, too many bad players tonight. But I don’t want to take anything away from Feyenoord.” And that was the bottom line – Feyenoord were superior that night.

While Stein’s Celtic went on to complete the legendary 9 in a row, rather ominously for World football, the following year in Europe Celtic were again knocked out by Dutch opposition – this time Johan Cruyff’s Ajax. This final in May 1970 was something of a swansong for the Lions on the World stage – indeed the last European final Celtic would see for 33 years, and despite the loss the journey and characters remain no less proud and mesmerising than ’67 or ’03.


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