Ross County 1-4 Celtic: Lennon uses head to freshen things up

After a slow start in Dingwall, Celtic scored 4 headers to extend a 7-point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership. After previously questions over the quality of corners these days, both of Virgil Van Dijk’s goals came direct from a corner: as many as the other 21 matches of the season combined.

Lineups

Celtic 4-3-3 vs Ross County 4-1-4-1

Celtic 4-3-3 vs Ross County 4-1-4-1

Celtic made 5 changes to the side defeated 1-0 in Amsterdam, and those who recovered from injury in time to face Ajax were unsurprisingly rested: Kris Commons, Georgios Samaras and Mikel Lustig. Anthony Stokes and Beram Kayal were the other 2 to drop, meaning Teemu Pukki, Joe Ledley, Scott Brown, Nir Biton and Darnel Fisher started.

This still only left 2 bona fide “attackers” in the side, in James Forrest and Pukki. Neil Lennon stated before the match that the formation also needed freshened up, having used 4-2-3-1 most of the season, still this 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 diamond was a surprise.

Distinction between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 diamond:
Why make the distinction? To satisfy fellow tactics nerds, in a standard 4-4-2 diamond you’d expect the player at the tip of the diamond to link midfield and attack, either as an attacking midfielder like Stan Petrov, or a No.10 like Lubo Moravcik. But Brown, here, was neither really, instead sometimes playing off the shoulder of the opposition centre-backs, sometimes ahead of James Forrest. Sometimes to the left of Pukki and sometimes battling in midfield where he is used to. Simply, it just makes more sense putting him in the same group of 3 as Pukki and Forrest, the same famous formation used last season by Lennon (e.g. the Hooper/Samaras/Commons combo)

Derek Adams made 3 changes to the side that turned out in the abandoned Highland derby. Kevin Luckassen, Ivan Sproule and Ben Gordon dropped out for Marc Klok, Richard Brittain and Branislav Mićić.

In his previous completed match, Adams bemoaned the quality of Ross County’s defending losing 2-0 to Kilmarnock, stating that indecision in defence was the main problem.

Like against Kilmarnock, County started well enough though the away team dominated possession. Celtic’s “firepower” worry was coming to fruition, with Pukki – the only recognised striker – dropping deep, Forrest unable to get into the game and Brown doing what he does best – heckling, harraying, getting forward but without real technical shine.

The best routes to goal were via the flanks – as expected given the narrow formation drawing County in – with Fisher and in particular Izaguirre getting forward with aplomb. But a number of early corners and set-pieces revealed who the real dangerman was. Van Dijk was moving unimpeded when attacking set-plays and was clearly the target to aim for. His scoring was simply a matter of time.

For all Izaguirre’s criticism his cross for the opener was excellent – and not for the first time this season from his right foot. Mihael Kovacevic missed his header with Van Dijk the benefactor.

Ross County seemed OK until that point, not really testing Fraser Forster but limiting Celtic to crosses for all of 41 minutes. Unfortunately this was the day that Celtic would cash-in on these crosses.

In terms of criticism – Ambrose maybe had one or two dodgy moments, and for all the wide-play, the lack of target up front was frustrating. After Van Dijk’s second, Celtic were then sloppy to concede. Ambrose didn’t deal with De Leeuw’s holding play, and Van Dijk reacted slowly as Sproule ghosted in at the back-post.

This little move revealed another of Izaguirre’s detriments. His instinct when an opposition attack breaks down is to push forward in order to get some yards on his tracking right-midfielder. In this case he vacated, expecting Ambrose to clean-up, but the ball broke to the very right-midfielder he was trying to escape…

Joe Ledley quickly added a third with Izaguirre making amends. The left-back burst down the left (unsurprisingly without the attention of Sproule) after a super Mulgrew pass, turned Kovacevic inside out before crossing for Ledley to head in. Ledley commented after the game that the formation allowed himself and Biton to press forward, and here and for the 4th, this was clearly what he meant.

In all it was a solid, if, slow-burning performance. Lennon continually referred to the new faces “blending in”, speaking of Fisher, Pukki and Biton who all put in a lot of work. Fisher again underlined his potential, not least with a difficult cross for the fourth, and it’s a shame that he is backup behind two of the best right-backs seen in recent years.

Tactically Lennon’s plan to freshen things up worked well – with a midfield 3 and forward 3 working centrally to keep County pinned back. Izaguirre and Fisher won the battles out wide and thankfully someone cropped up to do the heading in – just a shame that it wasn’t a striker. Calls for a quality number 9 persist.

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Celtic 2-1 Ajax – Possession counts for nothing as solid Celtic take win

Celtic’s fabulous performance survived a late scare to record a close 2-1 win over Ajax. The visitors enjoyed swathes of harmless possession, and while probably tipping the scale in terms of chances, were not clinical enough in front of goal.

James Forrest’s penalty and Beram Kayal’s deflected shot were enough to help Celtic off from the bottom of the table, despite a late red-card from substitute Nir Biton and a consolation from Lasse Schone.

Celtic 4-2-4 vs Ajax 4-1-4-1

Celtic 4-2-4 vs Ajax 4-1-4-1

Celtic lined up precisely as predicted in the tictactic preview, with Emilio Izaguirre restored to left-back after illness, freeing up Charlie Mulgrew to resume midfield duties. He was joined by Kayal, a like-for-like replacement for suspended Scott Brown.

Mikael Lustig was deemed fit enough to start, while there were no surprises put forward by Lennon, in terms of adding perhaps Joe Ledley or Biton to shore up the middle.

Frank De Boer was dealt a blow as his first-choice centre-back Niklas Moisander failed a late fitness test, meaning Joel Veltman continued. Daley Blind returned to left-back after a curious stint as holding midfielder, or as the Dutch say “controller”. By far the most experienced player in a very young team, 33 year-old Christian Poulsen started as controller instead, bringing the average age of the XI up to a sprightly 22.8.

Lucas Andersen got the nod ahead of Lesley de Sa on the right-wing, but again the lineup was almost precisely as predicted in the preview.

Ajax showcase their style

As Derk Boerrigter gave away before the match, Celtic were intent on pressing the Ajax back four given how well and how frequently they keep the ball. This made for quite a profound 4-2-4 that was a partial success. Successful in that the front 4 were quite good at harassing the Ajax defence, but less so in that Mulgrew and Kayal looked increasingly exposed as the first-half wore on.

But Ajax stuck to the plan diligently, with Blind and Denswil especially dead-set on playing out from the back even under fairly intense pressure, and only rarely hitting long to Sigthorsson.

This is evidenced in the passing stats, with the back four enjoying passing accuracy approaching the 90% mark, and one centre-back Denswil having the 2nd most passes on the pitch.

The two sides had very different approaches, with the Dutch passing successfully, if, cautiously and Celtic not exactly countering but very direct. Samaras was undertaking his usual solo powerful runs (not always to great success) and Stokes and Pukki were asked to chase a lot of lost causes.

Contrast in use of the ball at the back

Contrast in use of the ball at the back

It gave the impression that Ajax were getting dangerous, with a couple of half-chances falling their way, not least a hairy moment in the first-half where Forster was glued to the line (a troublesome habit) while Kayal had to track back urgently to cover an Ajax long-ball. It also skews the hallowed “possession stat” frequently wheeled out after European matches, which depending on who you ask is as follows: Squawka 39%, FourFourTwo 37%, UEFA 41%, BBC 31%, Guardian 47%. In the context of the match – meaningless.

Samaras and Forrest (and the full-backs behind) worked tremendously hard to stifle Ajax’s usual route down the flanks, so instead the biggest threats appeared in the centre. Thulani Serero is a deceivingly quick dribbler and with Mulgrew and Kayal outnumbered, the quick passing in the middle looked a danger.

Christian Poulsen hit the post from a tight angle after a fine delivery from Victor Fischer, but aside from that the chances weren’t clear-cut.

Having a history in Europe of being duped by “clever” continental opposition in the penalty area, it was a relief to see Stokes playing them at their own game. He invited Denswil in for the challenge, with the defender clumsily conceding a foul. Surprisingly Forrest stood up for the penalty, which was planted high to the goalkeeper’s left.

Second half

performance scores

The first half might be summed up by Ajax enjoying lots of toothless possession and Celtic threatening on the break. But into the second half, it was the hosts on the rise, quite neatly summed up by Squawka’s performance scores.

From the 45th to 60th minute, Kayal alone had 3 decent shots on goal from central areas, including of course the goal helped by a fortunate deflection. Ajax meanwhile had their own chances, with Serero again making a wonderful burst from midfield to work his way into the box, requiring a combination of Mulgrew and a great save from Forster to deny him.

chances

De Boer reacted to the lack of cutting edge, first taking off the ineffectual Poulsen for left-back Nicolai Boilesen (with Blind moving into defensive midfield) and then removing the hugely disappointing Fischer.

Celtic also made changes, withdrawing goalscorer Kayal after his traditional 60-70 minutes of play, and the superb Lustig had to be taken off as a precaution due to his ongoing hip problems. Biton came on in midfield, Mulgrew moved to centre-back and Efe Ambrose to right-back.

Surprisingly most of Celtic’s play went down the left side, with Izaguirre underrated, receiving and giving the most passes in his side, working particularly well with Samaras.

If there was one gripe about the evening, it would be Stokes and Pukki’s relative paucity in front of goal, not being particularly adept at holding up play or working out chances for each other. Forrest had good moments attacking on the counter but his tracking back continues to suffer.

Van Dijk and Ambrose were outstanding, with the former surely deserving a call-up to the national side. Neither panic under pressure, with Ajax style confidence in distributing the ball.

Biton’s red-card for a high tackle was deserved, but came too late to save Ajax. After 4 incredibly tough European matches and a number of key players missing, this result serves as a reminder that while Celtic may be behind the super-elite, there is plenty up for grabs in this tournament.

 

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Hearts 1-3 Celtic: Commons and Stokes the difference

The news that Steven Mouyokolo will be out for 6 months has made for some knock-on rammifications. Charlie Mulgrew was rested after midweek internationals, therefore leaving Neil Lennon with the choice of two senior centre-backs (and arguably Mikael Lustig). Virgil Van Dijk and Efe Ambrose started, Lustig went to right-back allowing Adam Matthews to continue his fine form on the right wing.

With James Forrest also out, Derk Boerrigter played on the left with Kris Commons behind Anthony Stokes.

After their last Scottish Premiership match – a 2-0 defeat to Inverness – Hearts are still bottom of the table on -8. Danny Wilson return to the side, with Gary Locke replacing young trio Callum Tapping, David Smith and Jordan McGhee.

Celtic 4-2-3-1 vs Hearts 4-1-4-1

Celtic 4-2-3-1 vs Hearts 4-1-4-1

The last time these sides met, the biggest mismatch was between Matthews versus Kevin McHattie with the latter dealt a rather harsh lesson, at fault for a number of goals conceded that day. This time round he had better protection than Andy Driver offered before, but the main difference was in being much more physical. Matthews took 3 borderline hits to the ankle from his opposite number over the course of the match, eventually having to go off injured, so clearly Gary Locke outlined a specific tactic.

Celtic front four

The most interesting development was the dynamic between Boerrigter, Commons and Stokes, with the three interchanging at will. Stokes would sometimes be the furthest left with Boerrigter leading the line, or Commons either furthest left or pushing on.

Eventually the Dutchman stuck to his side, leaving for – what a hipster might call – a false 9 and a false 10 up front. That is, Stokes appearing to lead the line, only to drop deep and engage in linkup play, and Commons the opposite – starting deep in a playmaking position, but when play progresses actually pushing beyond Stokes as the furthest forward.

Such a dynamic posed questions to Hearts defence – how far do you drop deep or wide with Stokes? Who picks up Commons run from deep, seeing as he drifted between the holding midfielder Scott Robinson and Brad McKay.

Eventually it was a wrongly awarded penalty for handball that opened the scoring, but there were plenty chances being made. Commons threaded through Stokes cutting in from the left to score, but it was just about rightly chalked off. Matthews cut in from the right, just about evading McHattie to get one-on-one with the ‘keeper, but McHattie dealt his final blow to Matthews’ ankle.

Still, with Hearts deep 4-1-4-1 formation it was proving difficult to eke out the killer second, and with a few other controversies including pyros, dubious penalty claims and hand-bags, Celtic’s grip on the game was slackening.

Samaras initially appeared on the right on for Matthews, but into the second half the front four had changed around again. Commons was right-most, Samaras behind Stokes and Boerrigter on the left. (And this would change a couple of times more!)

Hearts reply

Hearts’ sucker-punch having barely worked Fraser Forster was a soft goal to concede, and given the talent of AC Milan’s long range hitters, a goal to think about. Sitting midfielders Brown and Ledley were drawn into their own box as McHattie and then Holt were free to line up quickfire shots. The second caught Forster by surprise, alluded to by his meek leg response.

But Celtic’s two best players quickly responded – Commons heading Stokes through on goal on the counter, with the Irishman lifting the ball above Jamie Macdonald. The short-lived revival was over.

Teemu Pukki made a late cameo coming on for Commons, and came across as lively with good movement in the final third, though the all important luck was lacking as Hearts sank deeper into resignation. But Stokes handed him the easiest of debut goals, cheekily lifting the ball over McGowan, McDonald and McKay, leaving Pukki to head in from point blank.

Stokes’ startling performance hasn’t done enough to convince many that he’ll begin the match on Wednesday, but Lennon may have no choice with Pukki being so green to the team.

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Ross County 1-1 Celtic: Drab match lit up by Vigurs equaliser

Celtic’s rotated XI could only draw 1-1 with Ross County, struggling as much with their own inadequacies as the home side’s stubborn and settled gameplan.

That both goals came from set-pieces highlights the sparsity in good chances, though in fairness Tony Watt had a second incorrectly chalked off.

Lineups

Ross County 4-1-4-1 vs Celtic 4-3-3

Ross County 4-1-4-1 vs Celtic 4-3-3

With just Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig and Tony Watt surviving Lennon’s rotation, fringe players like Rami Gherson, Lukasz Zaluska, Dylan McGeough and Anthony Stokes joined up with regulars like Kris Commons, Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson.

Lennon stuck with the much maligned 4-3-3 that’s yielded mixed results of late, with particular attention on the unconventional midfield including Ambrose sitting and McGeouch right of centre.

Derek Adams, desperate for 3 points that’d keep his side in the chase for Europe, continued with 4-1-4-1, though this was a more ambitious version than normal. Martin Scott pushed on almost as a second striker, keeping Lustig at bay, with Iain Viggurs surprisingly handed a central berth.

Ikonomou space & 4-3-3 problems

Celtic had the ball in the net after only 4 minutes, but their first-half was defined by the unorthodox formation and the space allowed for County’s left-back. It resembled at times, a 4-4-2 diamond with Commons tucked in behind the two strikers. Yet Watt was sticking out left, and Commons irregularly tracking back on the right.

This left Evangelos Ikonomou in swathes of room, able to push beyond the nominal left-winger Scott, who in turn could support the lone striker. It was in this zone that County won the free-kick that eventually resulted in the equaliser.

Problems continue with this 4-3-3, aside from the vulnerability on the flanks, the forwards are often too isolated which only encourages long-balls. Stokes is decent in the air but not exactly a target to aim for, while Watt was kept quiet aerially by the 6’4″ Mihael Kovačević.

Using 3 out and out forwards puts a numerical strain on the other 7 outfield players – demonstrated in an inability to keep the ball down (though the sandpit pitch didn’t help). Celtic only took 44% of possession as a result.

Even worse second half

Like against Motherwell, Celtic only worsened after half-time. Paul Lawson, Vigurs and Richard Brittain were simply winning the midfield battle (again related to numbers). With Commons now picking up Ikonomou, his effectiveness in attack was neutered as a result, hence the reason Lennon likes him central in the first place.

Elsewhere there were niggles. McGeouch looked like an attacking player (ideally on wing) asked to play a more defensive role, later swapping out wide. Izaguirre’s bursts down the left didn’t sit well with Watt operating high on the left and no targets to aim for. Ambrose had a stinker, unsuccessfully trying to act the playmaker, or, when sticking to the midfield ‘battle’ coming off second best.

In all, the disjointed 4-3-3 inevitably called for a shift to something else. Tom Rogic came on for the now defunct Commons, pushing Ledley wide left and McGeouch right-wing. But whatever ambition to win the match already seemed gone.

County meanwhile were well-drilled and eager. For example, from deep set-pieces the widemen pushed alongside Wohlfarth, making for a front 3 in that phase of play. Any knock-downs were aimed towards two quick and tricky players.

Lennon drew ire from the support for his use of substitutions: McCourt came on with 7 minutes to go and Kayal with just 1 – begging the question, why now? These were the right subs to make (as opposed to putting the pressure of chasing the match on untested youngsters) just at the wrong time. In the context of effecting a poor formation from the beginning, this wasn’t a good day for the manager.

Watt’s disallowed goal aside, this finely poised match was edged by County who enjoyed more possession and arguably more chances. It shows what a difference consistency can make to a side, along with the motivation of having something to play for.

 

 

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Celtic 3-0 Hibernian: Old comforts for comfortable win

Celtic’s title celebrations have to wait another fortnight after a comfortable late season win over Hibernian. It had been a rocky end to the campaign, having won just 2 of the previous 6 SPL matches, but Neil Lennon’s side never looked like struggling here.

Celtic 4-4-2 versus Hibs 4-1-4-1

Celtic 4-4-2 versus Hibs 4-1-4-1

Lennon returns to old comforts

Lennon has broadly stuck to variations of a front 3 since before Christmas, which at times has contributed to the dithering results. It is fitting to look back at the reason Lennon discarded a fairly popular and consistent 4-4-2, because it was so instrumental in the win here.

In short, the reason is Kris Commons. A 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 has allowed Lennon to play Commons centrally, and indeed against tougher teams has used Commons central in a 4-4-2. It places him closer to goal for a start, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in the squad with as much creativity and guile at the moment (going back to the age old blog favourite – the search for a number 10).

But against Hibs, it was back to basics in many ways. A return to this season’s most successful central defence partnership in Kelvin Wilson and Efe Ambrose, a return to previous season’s favourite up top, the “Strooper” pairing, and finally a return to something like a lop-sided 4-4-2, a “peak” formation during the previous two campaigns.

To a lesser, similar extent we could see Izaguirre back to his swashbuckling best, and a more tucked in midfield on the opposite side of Commons.

Granted, defensively this was a more typical flat 4-4-2 than previous incarnations, yet Celtic’s best early chances, and eventually killer two goals, came via Commons cutting in centrally. For both, he received the ball almost precisely in the centre of the pitch, which obviously is not normal for your average right-midfielder.

Hibernian

Hibs’ hopes were pinned on the one and the one in a 4-1-4-1 – Jorge Claros, a technically gifted deep-lying midfielder, and Leigh Griffiths who probably needs no introduction. The rest of the midfield were there primarily to break up Celtic’s play, especially with the one man advantage, but also to break in numbers to support the diminutive lone striker.

Of course the other standard worry facing a counter-attacking team was set-pieces, with Griffiths left-foot a particular worry. An early chance swung past the far post, but the required fortune wasn’t with Hibs in this regard.

But with Hibs back 10 relatively compact, Griffiths cut a lonesome figure. This also served to make life difficult for Claros, starved of space and long options.

Experimental changes with scoreline comfortable

Mikael Lustig, singled out by Lennon as one of the players of the season, added the third, admittedly using his hand, but given Hibs’ looked dead and buried at 2-0, it didn’t really matter. Unsurprisingly, Commons had a part to play, drawing two defenders inside and opening space for Joe Ledley to supply the cross.

The 3 goal cushion allowed Lennon to make his first change, with Georgios Samaras replacing Lustig. Ambrose went to right-back with Charlie Mulgrew – who had a good game  in midfield – dropping back. But more surprisingly, there were cameo appearances for Tom Rogic and Paddy McCourt on either flank.

Rogic was the most significant bearing in mind who he replaced – Commons at right-midfield. It recalls of course the number 10 question, and perhaps demonstrates that Lennon has designs on Rogic being Commons’ main challenger.

We know that Rogic is an attack-minded midfielder, capable of playing all across the breadth of the park. He is also creative, able to beat a man, and mainly left-footed. The 12 minutes given weren’t enough to make a mark, especially with the match winding down, but it was certainly the most interesting change.

Celtic are now only playing for the Scottish Cup, and so this return to 4-4-2 is a timely “keep them guessing” technique in lieu of Dundee Utd next weekend. Jackie McNamara though, will be wary of his last encounter with Celtic and especially wary of Lennon’s main man. Commons played centrally in a 4-3-3, scoring a brace and providing an assist in a 6-2 thrashing. Expect a similar approach on Sunday.

 

 

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St Johnstone 2 – 1 Celtic: Saints’ hard-work is wake-up call for lazy Celtic

While Benfica had a weekend off to prepare for Wednesday’s crunch Champions League group opener, Celtic fell to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of St Johnstone in Perth. Kris Commons’ early opener appeared to set Celtic on their way, but instead the reaction was complacency with Gregory Tade and then Rowan Vine earning St Johnstone the deserved 3 points.

Celtic lineup

Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2

Neil Lennon faced a swathe of selection problems. Efe Ambrose hadn’t returned from international duty, Thomas Rogne was benched after speaking to the media while away with Norway and the injury list piled high: Adam Matthews, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Georgios Samaras, Dylan McGeouch, Paddy McCourt and Anthony Stokes were all unavailable. The one positive though, was the return of Scott Brown having missed out on international duty through his ongoing hip problem.

St Johnstone lineup

Initial conservative 4-5-1

The big news at Mcdiarmid Park was of the flu virus that had decimated training earlier in the week. 7 players had suffered, though by kick-off a full-strength side was assembled – at least on paper.

Callum Davidson missed out through a knock, and Murray Davidson was substituted after only 21 minutes having failed to shake off that illness.

Opening

Opening the scoring after only three minutes, Celtic’s early eminance was down to playing confident deck football, making use of Commons and Hooper. It’s this sharp and smart passing that has long-term enabled Celtic to take advantage of a four man midfield. The strikers can make penetrating runs against a defence unsettled in open play, and the midfield can spray passes across the width of the pitch.

But the positivity was short-lived, very quickly descending into a sluggish complacency. The Saints by contrast had four main areas of success:

  • Taking advantage of exposed full-backs (James Forrest and Kris Commons guilty of not tracking back)
  • Tough ‘borderline’ tackling and sensible professional fouls
  • Inability to deal with Tade (not directly linked to goal)
  • Vine’s really clever movement between right-back and right centre-back

Aside from Celtic’s careless attitude, the first point is probably the most preventable. The other three were more down to St Johnstone’s own accomplishment.

Tade and Vine

This second formation from around the 30 minute mark until half-time was the Saints at their most positive and very difficult to contain.

Vine’s gravitation from left-wing to second striker, prompted by Steve Lomas, defined the Saints formation.

His job was to unsettle Mikael Lustig (often overloaded with the help of Tade, Liam Craig or Dave Mackay) drifting towards Kelvin Wilson to make two up front, and then dropping into any gaps left by Lustig.

This movement was best demonstrated in the equaliser. Forrest lost the ball weakly on the half-way, with Lustig out of position. Vine drifted into the space vacated by Lustig dragging Wilson out wide.

Tade was left one-on-one with Mulgrew, with essentially the width of the 18-yard box to play with – Izaguirre inexplicably not in a position to drop in and team-up with Mulgrew to make 2 vs 1.

This man-for-man approach when clearly prevailing in every personal battle, coupled with lazy tracking back meant St Johnstone could attack with ease.

Tade’s contribution apart from the goal was to give the Celtic centre-backs a horrible time. A ball of restlessness, scrapping for every long-ball put his way, and when the ball is put over the top or in behind, the tenacity to not allow Celtic’s centre-backs to calmly resume possession and build an attack.

Second half struggles

At 1-1 and in the ascendency, St Johnstone actually came out after half-time in a traditional defensive 4-1-4-1 formation. In part perhaps, to weather a Celtic storm that never arrived, in part due to the threat of the virus restricting energy levels, but also because they were so comfortable. There wasn’t a need to press high and risk opening gaps when the chances were already coming easily.

Celtic’s frustration only increased, with Wanyama and Commons guilty of petulance. At stages late one, Wanyama was consumed by red-mist, dishing out vigilante justice against Craig, and Commons tried to let fly with a 45-yard set-piece with the entire team out of position. To add insult, in trying to stop the counter-attack he fouled again, earning a poor yellow.

Vine’s hugely deserved winner was a sublime curled finish, but again poorly defended. Mulgrew’s challenge was soft, and with (substitute) Thomas Rogne and Wilson again chasing shadows, Vine was left one-on-one with Lustig in a seriously dangerous area. Frazer Forster’s very bad positioning, tight in at the near-post opened space and encouraged the wicked finish.

Last 10 minutes – 4-4-2 diamond

It’s fitting that it has taken this long to mention Nicolas Fedor’s debut, because he had almost zero impact on the match. Tony Watt’s late cameo added a bit of mischief, with Celtic in the end shaping up in a kind of 4-1-3-2.

For all the technique and trickery within that final side, Celtic hardly looked like breaking even – all composure had completely vanished.

Commons might point to a missed penalty opportunity with Steven Anderson pushing him over in the box, but St Johnstone were the better side all over the pitch and merited the win.

Lennon thought it may be a case of one eye on Europe, yet with the injury situation most of the starting XI will still expect to play.

“They will be all right for Wednesday and up for it but that’s the wrong attitude to take, they should be up for these matches as well.

“Today’s performance was needless and I am very disappointed for the first time in a long time with them.”

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Scotland 1 – 1 Macedonia: Scotland given a lesson in transition

Scotland’s 4-1-4-1 against Macedonia’s 4-2-3-1 counter-attacking system

Scotland’s World Cup qualifying campaign lies in tatters and Craig Levein teeters on the brink after a drab 1-1 draw with Macedonia. Nikolce Noveski struck an early lead for the visitors before Kenny Miller tapped in a barely deserved equaliser just before half-time. Levein gradually added more attacking impetus as the match wore on, but the winner couldn’t be found and in fact Macedonia had the better chances on the counter.

Pre-match, with the lineup named the anticipation was of an attack-minded 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, with Kenny Miller perhaps given close support from one of Jamie Mackie, James Forrest or Shaun Maloney. Instead, it was a revert to Levein-type, opting for the default cautious 4-1-4-1, with Mackie on the left-wing and Maloney unfamiliar in the centre of midfield. At least individually, there were more attacking natured players on the park in comparison to Saturday’s draw with Serbia, but this was the same “begin not to lose” 4-1-4-1.

Mackie and Forrest’s inclusion on each flank aimed to stretch Macedonia’s expected deeply entrenched back-line, but in practice Scotland weren’t able to make use of this width, playing too impulsively, trying to force the ball towards Miller rather than eke out space via thought-out midfield passing.

Scotland’s best chance came through the more composed approach, with Miller in a brief flash of best form absorbed enough defenders to lay-off Gary Caldwell, though his left-footed drive from twenty yards went well wide. It’s at moments like these – when pressing for goals – that Caldwell’s ‘spoiler’ role, as suited as he is, becomes counter-productive and Adam’s seat on the bench becomes more conspicuous.

With the tartan army already rankled Noveski’s opener caused outrage. Taking notes from Serbia’s ease in finding 2 vs 1 at corners, Ivan Trichkovski one-two’d a path away from Forrest and whipped in the assist. Noveski may have been half-a-yard ahead of the last defender but he appeared level with the ball.

Levein mentioned post-match that Scotland “had to win the match, hence number of attacking players”, so clearly the idea was for individuals to dictate the attacking balance of the match, rather than the formation.

Regardless, the front 3 couldn’t get on the ball in good areas. Forrest had nowhere to go, Mackie seemed unfamiliar and out of place on the left, and Miller continued his poor form, or more accurately inability to win or hold on to the ball.

The goal aside, Scotland were struggling to deal with two monstrous problems: Goran Pandev’s roaming with impunity and his side’s speed and urgency transitioning between defence and attack and vice versa. While Pandev was exempt from real defensive positional duties, he was the link, the physical hub that others scurried back and forth around.

In attack, he took forward with a magnificent sense of timing and awareness of his team’s counter-attacking movement, and in defence sauntered into areas that kept Scotland’s midfield on it’s toes. Capping a majestic performance he was incessant in attempting clever and ambitious slide-rule passes, with his front three continually trying to break the offside trap.

While Macedonia’s attacking players were energetic going forward, transitioning back into defensive positions they were even more energetic, making Scotland’s countering look slow and stodgy in comparison. This put a dent in Levein’s goal-scoring ambition, with the opposition quicker getting back than Scotland could move the ball forward.

The equaliser came through a rare moment of positional indiscipline from Macedonia, with James Morrison able to thread through to Mackie, beating the offside-trap, who supplied Miller with the easiest of tap-ins.

The gravity of the situation slowly dawned on Scotland, and while Forrest’s on-the-ball influence increased (linking up well with Alan Hutton on the right) too often it was only Miller in the box – who isn’t really one to get on the end of crosses.

Levein slowly ramped up the attacking flavour of the side, introducing Adam for Miller (with Mackie going up top, Maloney left) and then Rhodes for Morrison on 65 minutes (making for a 4-4-2). One criticism seemingly taken on board post-Serbia is that the gradual attacking increase (or in short: introduction of Rhodes) came far too late – here he was given 25 minutes to make the difference, and quickly after had 2  diving headers put narrowly wide.

Scotland bossed possession seemingly more intent on creating, but Macedonia landed with the bigger chances on the counter. Allan Mcgregor is responsible for keeping the score level, providing two brilliant saves one-on-one.

Levein’s failing here was being too exact in his planning. He wanted to start both games with a tight, defensive 4-1-4-1 and grow into the match, gradually adding firepower as appropriate. But both plans went badly wrong.

Against Serbia it made sense because they are a strong side, and he couldn’t really account for dreadful individual contributions – albeit could’ve been more proactive looking for the winner. Macedonia however were a different proposition, out “small-siding” us with superb, well-drilled counter-attacking and dogged defending.

In this respect Levein’s transition into a more attacking system came too late, but there were just as many damning selection errors. Maloney and Caldwell are both unsuited in midfield against such a dynamic side, Mackie generally plays on the right for his club, and Miller’s international career looked finished on Saturday, despite the goal. Adam – once so central to Levein’s masterplan, was discarded.

Forrest’s pace and Rhodes’ sharp movement in the box provided glimmers of hope and these youngsters hold a lot of promise for Scotland’s future. A future now surely without Levein and without the stodgy pessimistic football that’s unacceptably yielded two home draws against beatable sides.

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HJK 0 – 2 Celtic: Patience rewarded with big away win

Celtic are through to the Champions League play-off round after a dogged victory over HJK in Finland. Neil Lennon’s side set out to calmly control possession, and save for a few shaky moments in the second half with the score level, progression was never really in doubt.

Celtic 4-1-4-1

Lennon named an extraordinarily pliable starting lineup, with the possibility of a 4-4-2 diamond, 3-5-2, or a form of 4-5-1. As widely predicted the Gary Hooper / Anthony Stokes partnership was broken up, leaving Hooper up front on his own. This left a classic, sensible, ‘European away’ 4-1-4-1 formation with Georgios Samaras on the left, and Kris Commons in quite a deep position on the right.

What remained was perhaps the first choice goalkeeper and back four, along with a sturdy central midfield three to battle HJK’s expected 4-4-1-1.

As an aside, James Forrest was just fit enough to make the bench, with Beram Kayal dropping out of the starting XI to make room for the Captain Scott Brown.

Comfortable start

A couple of factors made for a more than comfortable start for Celtic. The conservative formation provided a safe and stifling base to keep HJK in check, and the Finns seemed to be struggling with the pressure of having the responsibility to attack. With no easy openings and losing possession easily, Celtic were able to apply pressure through deep runs into space from midfield. First Brown pushed on unimpeded to squander a one-on-one opportunity to score, and soon after Samaras missed a slightly more difficult chance after running into space on the left. The misses were concerning, but not catastrophically so given the tepid pace of the match. Interesting to note, however that in Brown’s case the pin-point pass was delivered long from Mulgrew, who was working out time and space on the ball against the opposition lone striker.

Another concern was Hooper’s toiling as a lone striker. As much as losing the holding up battle with the centre-backs, he was losing the battle with the referee who constantly adjudged the striker to be backing in or clinging on. Regretfully, keeping the ref onside (whether you’re fouling or not) is part and parcel of being a decent targetman.

HJK 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1

Speaking of which, HJK suffered an injury blow with Juho Mäkelä being replaced by Joel Pohjanpalo. And the former Hearts man’s experience was lacking – as exciting a prodigy Pohjanpalo may be, the role at this level requires utter selflessness, along with shrewdness and intelligence to get anything out of “the graveyard shift”.

HJK’s choking inability to keep the ball was the polar opposite of last week’s composed display, and it looked like a matter of time before Celtic grabbed the killer away goal. But as half-time loomed, the breakthrough couldn’t be found.

HJK’s big push

Celtic probably felt aggrieved that their mature and patient approach hadn’t yeilded a goal, and the frustration was manifesting in too many scattered long passes and frittering away possession resulting in HJK’s best spell just after the interval.

With too many edgy turnovers, space was opening for HJK to make use of – particularly Rasmus Schüller and Demba Savage although the final ball was frequently lacking. The right-back Sebastian Sorsa was responsible for two of his side’s biggest chances pushing forward from the back (with Samaras guilty of lazy tracking) first in setting up Savage for a decent opportunity, and then squandering the best chance of all – failing to find the net from a free and unmarked position inside the box.

Now HJK have the space to take advantage of, with Svage particular keen to, and Commons/Samaras not tracking back effectively. Sebastian Sorsa a great example, darting into the box untracked to get on the end of Savages cross to miss a glaring oportunity.

Having survived, and realising the error of their impatient ways, Celtic settled down to regroup and take the lead, finishing the tie as a contest. As one of Celtic’s two freeest men on the park (the two centre-backs, marked in effect by 1 player), Mulgrew bounded forward with HJK unable to ascertain whose responsibility he was. After a quick one-two, he made it all the way to the right-wing position, confounding two men with a quick shimmy onto his left, and delivering sweetly to Joe Ledley at the back post.

Aside from the earlier deep ‘creative’ duties, this high-lighted the surprise effect that buccaneering centre-backs can have on switched off defences. Reminiscent of what Madjid Bougherra once did in Europe for the now extinct Rangers.

Another notable and impressive feature, was Samaras’ continued use of the early left-footed cross. Rather than allowing the defence time to get into position, the quick-ball curled into the dangerous area between goalkeeper and defence is Hooper’s preferred method of delivery (as per the goal in the first leg), and it’s effectiveness was demonstrated twice, albeit without a goal.

Conclusion

The tictactic pseudo-preview underlined the exaggerated importance of Commons in Lennon’s thinking, but the match selection here confronted this idea. For once it was a triumph of the overall shape and organisation over pandering to the individual. Here, Commons was given a “graveyard shift” of his own – rather than enjoying a free role, or a striker-ish role, was forced to keep shape on the right, and keep the opposition full-back in check.

Elsewhere, the deep 4-1-4-1 was meticulously maintained, with the excellent Ledley (2nd half) and Brown (1st half) pushing forward at only the most suitable moment. Brown, especially earlier on was harking back to his Hibernian days – pushing into an attacking midfield position that appears so alien now for the established ball-winner. Ledley has a justifiable claim for MOTM, having scored the first, setup the second, and generally putting in an obligatory work-horse performance.

While Victor Wanyama put in another physically controlling display, he was punished rather harshly by the referee in being guilty of 2 fouls and being booked in both instances without hesitation. In isolation, it is true that the bookings were fair (the first a scissor slide tackle – a textbook yellow particularly in Europe, and the second a rash swipe)

Still, leniency is usually expected – especially on the 2nd of just 2 fouls, but what aggrieved Celtic more was the questionable decisions given against Hooper in his targetman tussles, where as HJK mostly (and probably correctly) got away unpunished. There simply weren’t enough yellow card offences on show from the hosts.

Negatives aside, what cannot be mistaken is the focused and patient nature of this away European performance against a good side. The back 6 were accustomed with each other, the system was given priority over attacking speculation, and for once there was no mid-match unnecessary tinkering. Instead the team were left to force the issue themselves – and they delivered.

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Aberdeen 1 – 1 Celtic: Dons halt Celtic’s winning run in perfect storm

Aberdeen ended Celtic’s 17 match winning streak in the SPL, after claiming a draw at Pittodre. With Neil Lennon concerned with fatigue within his squad following the midweek internationals, the Dons took advantage of an unfamiliar and jaded Celtic. Though Celtic appeared comfortable taking a first-half lead through Anthony Stokes, Gavin Rae’s shot deflected on the stroke of half-time proved to be decisive.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-4-2

Unfamiliar Celtic 4-4-2 / 4-2-2-2

There were two main surprises in Lennon’s starting XI. First, Charlie Mulgrew was named in the midfield and second, debuts were handed to full-backs Andre Blackman and Mikael Lustig. On the left, with Emilio Izaguirre travelling back from international duty and unavailable, his two natural deputies were named in midfield. This provided the opening for Blackman. Lustig’s inclusion was probably based on form in training, considering Cha Du Ri not being included in South Korea’s midweek excursion.

With Scott Brown injured, Ki Sung-Yeung and Efrain Juarez also unavailable, this made for a ramshackle midfield – Lennon deploying a 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 which isn’t really favoured. While Mulgrew did play 90 minutes for Scotland midweek, he was preferred to Victor Wanyama (who made the bench) having featured in Kenya’s World Cup qualifying win over Egypt.

Similarly, James Forrest and Thomas Rogne started despite gruelling mid-week performances, with Joe Ledley also having given 15 minutes to his country.

Aberdeen Lineup

Aberdeen compact 4-1-4-1

Aberdeen compact 4-1-4-1

Craig Brown made one change to the side that drew 1-1 at St Mirren last week. Youl Mawene was replaced by Rory Fallon, prompting a chain-reaction in Brown’s system. Scott Vernon dropped to right-midfield, Ryan Jack reverted to right-back, and Kari Arnasen (and Gavin Rae) dropped deeper, making 4-4-1-1 become 4-1-4-1.

Brown has a tendency to use forwards on the flanks against bigger sides, with the intention that in the attacking phase the player in question can break into the box as an auxiliary striker. Fallon also has the advantage of being more effective defensively, covering more ground and generally being more aggressive.

Peter Pawlett and Josh Magennis returned from injury to make the bench, although Stephen Hughes, Michael Paton, Chris Clark, Isaac Osbourne, Russell Anderson, Rob Milsom and Yoann Folly all made for an extensive injury list.

Midfield influence

While ultimately many factors were pulling at Lennon’s gameplan, the initial concern was the shape of the midfield and it’s influence on the rest of the side. Mulgrew and Ledley’s extreme one-sidedness ensured play was channelled overwhelmingly down the left-side of the pitch. One might argue that many sides have two predominantly left or right footed central midfielders, but that ignores a few key issues.

Most central midfielders are either fairly two-footed (at least with short passing), or have devised ways to work their passing opportunities carefully. The problem with Mulgrew is that he is a) a defender and b) very one-sided. The problem with Ledley is that for a central midfielder, he is very one-sided. Aberdeen’s keen pressing made sure that Celtic were never comfortable enough in the centre to have the time to make considered, ‘ideal’ passing.

This run of play was complicated by the personnel on the pitch. One would have to consider the right-hand side to be Celtic’s stronger – the in-form Forrest and Swedish international (albeit debutant) Lustig. Contrasted against the rookie Blackman (who saw an exaggerated amount of the ball) and the out-of-form Commons. Though Blackman never shirked (and it’s unfair to compare), he doesn’t yet have the initiative or timing of, say, Izaguirre. You want the attacking left-back to be dictating the runs of his opposite number (Vernon), which indirectly is a defensive action.

Considering he saw probably the most possession of any player, it was still a good early performance, if slightly naive.

The final complication with the Mulgrew/Ledley combo, tells as much about the lack of Mulgrew at the back. Rogne and Kelvin Wilson’s distribution continues to be a problem, a situation always highlighted against a side with one striker (i.e. an extra man in midfield). Outnumbered, neither Mulgrew or Ledley could drop deep to take charge of the ball (like Ki might), and so responsibility fell on the two centre-backs, which invariably leads to long-balls to Hooper and Stokes.

Mulgrew had an early chance, curling in a free-kick against the far-post.

Aberdeen’s organisation

It’s probably something of a cliché to cite Craig Brown’s sides as being  well-organised, but Saturday’s display was an excellent example, with the keyword being “compact”. The definition of compact, is the vertical space between the back-line and forward line – the active area of play – which Aberdeen kept to a minimum. Deployed poorly, or overly negatively, it can see a team parked outside it’s box with 9 outfield players crammed in chucking in tackles, and a striker marooned on the halfway.

But Aberdeen were different in that, the whole side operated and moved as a unit, with a well defined space between each band. In their best spell (in the second half), Considine and Reynolds were stationed on the halfway, making for a congested Celtic half, in which it was impossible to play out of. Celtic clearances would be mopped up, and the attack mounted again.

Celtic’s goal came from a mistake from Andrew Considine (always dependable!) which is probably telling. His wayward pass made it’s way to Commons, who in a brief flash of creativity twisted, turned and released Stokes who took it round the keeper.

2nd half frustration

Unfortunately for Blackman, he just wasn’t ready to be the sought after “out-ball” for Celtic. His unlucky own-goal, which he can only be partly blamed, summed up his afternoon. In truth, Lennon should probably have removed him at half-time (Wanyama eventually came into the centre of midfield, with Mulgrew going left-back) but with the timing of the O.G. would come across as punishment.

The change came on the hour (Lennon could arguably have been resting Wanyama for as long as possible) but it was clearly needed. The change also released Mulgrew somewhat from a position he’s never played in before, and looked uncomfortable throughout. Wanyama on the other hand, quickly established himself as one of Celtic’s better performers.

Commons was the next to feel Lennon’s wrath, making at least two dreadful, lazy blunders which turned Celtic attacks into desperate causes for defence, and was immediately hooked, with Dylan McGeouch coming on onto the right flank (Forrest went left).

McGeouch is another youngster showing promise on the fringes, and he tried hard to impress. But his determination to pull-off another miracle run (see the St.Mirren 5-0 match) saw him hanging onto the ball probably longer than necessary. The intent to create something was hugely appreciated though, in a team bereft of ideas.

Cha Du Ri’s replacing of Lustig prompted a final push for the winner, with the team finally appearing to function acceptably. The exhausted Forrest, finally had the chance to beat his man, and Cha also provided energy down his side. But the surge proved too little too late.

Conclusion

Ultimately Celtic were caught up in the perfect storm – an excellent, determined Aberdeen performance coupled with a long list of various ailments. From the internationals and injuries, to plain-old balance issues within the starting XI. While the weather had a part to play (being particularly unhelpful for both long ‘opportune’ passes and short, technical stuff) it’s another example where the Stokes and Hooper combination has been comfortably snuffed out.

The two need service and unlike Samaras, who poses an aerial option, they need quality, composed and intelligent service – as per the through ball from Commons. With four (five including Wanyama) top quality central-midfielders missing, the onus was on the flanks – and a shame that debuts had to come in the full-back areas.

Strangely, the equalising goal came completely against the run of play, and you wonder if Celtic could’ve made it to half-time, with even such a depleted squad perhaps an 18th successive win could’ve been grabbed.

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Dunfermline 0 – 3 Celtic: Mulgrew helps deliver ten wins in ten

Celtic made it 10 SPL wins from 10 after picking apart a rugged, if overly negative Dunfermline side. In the furious January weather that currently batters Scotland, the home side followed a frequent ‘anti-Celtic’ model of sitting deep, packing the midfield and (aiming to) hit on the counter. Only, the latter, attacking element was lacking and what proved to be a fatal level of space was afforded.

Celtic Lineup

Celtic 4-2-2-2 (attacking 4-4-2)

After Beram Kayal picked up an injury in the Glasgow derby (note: still waiting on @someone_who’s £100 contribution to charity following a twitter bet that Kayal wasn’t actually injured!!) , Lennon had to shuffle the pack.

Anthony Stokes came into the side, meaning Georgios Samaras moved out left, James Forrest swapped flanks to the right, and Scott Brown moved into the central spot vacated by Kayal; making for the ambitious (dreaded?) attacking 4-2-2-2.

The back five remained unchanged with Emilio Izaguirre on the bench, eager to reclaim the left-back slot that has rightfully been his. As first team players trickle back into match contention, the ‘good’ problems only increase for Lennon, with the likes of Izaguirre, Kelvin Wilson, Ki Sung Yeung and (soon to be) Mikael Lustig and Kris Commons, facing a daunting task breaking into a winning 11.

Dunfermline Lineup

Dunfermline 4-1-4-1

Jim McIntyre had to work around an extensive injury list, with Paul Gallacher, Austin McCann,Nick Phinn, Steven Bell, Steven McDougall and Kevin Rutkiewicz all absent, and Craig Easton and Joe Cardle only fit enough to return to the bench.

Contrary to Celtic’s form, McIntrye’s side hadn’t won a match since the 5th of November, and the SPL’s bottom club would have to avoid the poor mistakes that cost dearly last time out against Celtic.

Quick control

It didn’t take long for Celtic to grab authority of the game – and while Dunfermline’s wayward forward passing didn’t help, the main reason for all the possession was just how deep the home side were sitting – or at least the three central midfielders.

There are two relevant benefits in the central three of a 4-1-4-1 (versus a central two): in possession, the anchorman should be free or, if marked, free up others and this numerical advantage should convert to easier ball retention.

Out of possession, the anchorman should be acting almost as a sweeper – ensuring any tricky attacking forays between the lines (e.g. James Forrest cutting in) should be met with a stiff challenge.

But Gary Mason wasn’t able to provide either benefit due to his sides exaggeratedly deep lines, and instead of being a free man in the midfield – he was a free man in defence, helping shut out the threat of Stokes and Hooper.

Considering their attacking threat, that’s not such a bad thing (and the fact that the pair had a limited impact in open play is testament to this notion) but in terms of Dunfermline’s own attacking (or possessional) aspirations, the perceived numerical advantage in midfield was completely lost.

Unlocking a “low block”

It wasn’t just the Pars’ defenders (including Mason) sitting deep – without the ball the striker wouldn’t cross the halfway line. This made for the traditional ‘low block’, and instead of throwing bodies forward, Celtic enjoyed relative ease in possession. Brown and Wanyama were not being pressed aggressively, the there was always an out-ball in behind.

The initial problem was the Samaras route being used too often. This has tended towards a cross-field ball from the right centre-back position, only, Rogne’s distribution isn’t of the quality of Mulgrew’s. Between the heavy wind, Rogne’s passing and Samaras’ uncharacteristic inability to hold-up the ball, Dunfermline though lacking possession didn’t appear in open play to be under that much threat.

Set-piece success

Faced by a deep-set defence, the swathes of possession wasn’t yielding clear-cut opportunities. But they struggled to deal with each of Mulgrew’s set-pieces, with a goal coming off the back of one such. Samaras nodded the cross down to Stokes, who’d cleverly skulked away from the aerial challenge. Still having it all to do, he curled in delightfully from 18 yards. Reminiscent of the ‘over-the-shoulder’ hook against Hibernian this time last year, it’s become something of a trademark to ghost away from the mixer, into space enough to fashion an effort into the far corner.

When faced against a team hell-bent on not conceding, it’s such moments of genius that derails even the best laid plans – and also reason why Stokes is so vital in unlocking such defences.

Dominance culminates in soft goals

Part of the Pars’ failing was the inability to get support towards Barrowman up front, though the nippy David Graham’s forays inside were the only vague source of threat.

Celtic’s midfield meanwhile were afforded plenty space – Wanyama (criminally) given enough time to unleash a howitzer from 30 yards – tipped over the bar – and the set-pieces kept coming without reply. Wanyama went again unchallenged to knock in a wicked Mulgrew free-kick from close range, very poorly defended.

After 50 minutes Gary Mason was removed in favour of Joe Cardle (who went on to the left-wing), though the system stayed the same, with Martin Hardie now the holding midfielder. The subtle positive change encouraged the Pars’ best chance of the match. Hardie had an attempt on goal which his manager felt was a turning point in the match – a chance for the crucial ‘third goal’ – but in truth the shot from twenty yards was barely a half-chance.

McIntrye introduced another striker in Andy Kirk with 30 minutes remaining (for Paul Willis), going 4-4-2, but to rub salt into the wounds and to cap off a superb day of set-piece deliveries, Mulgrew fired in a free-kick that should’ve been saved quite easily by the unfortunate Chris Smith.

Conclusion

It wasn’t the hardest fought victory for Celtic yet there are so many positives: the avoidance of a derby hangover, the cameo return of Emilio Izaguirre, 3 goals without reply, the dominating overall performance and the fans impact on East End Park, in which a reminder was sent out to Scottish football of the benefit of such a large and enthusiastic travelling support.

Celtic next face Peterhead in the Scottish Cup Fourth Round.

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