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.
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.
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.