Hard-working and stubborn Berwick eventually succumbed to Celtic’s superior quality. After an early goal from Daniel Majstorovic there was little hope of a repeat of Berwick’s 1967 giant-slaying of Glasgow Rangers and Scott Brown killed off the cold and prickly encounter with 8 minutes remaining.
There was a lot of discussion pre-match regarding just how many fringe players Celtic manager Neil Lennon would be prepared to field, and given previous managerial incumbents suffering badly to lower league opposition in this competition, it was never likely that there would be too many changes risked, especially with Celtic’s form already flakey. Of the more established players, there was no room in the starting eleven for Anthony Stokes or Scott Brown, who settled for the bench.
Celtic 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1
Lennon went with a similar formation to the one that defeated Rangers last Sunday with 3 major changes. Freddy Ljungberg was handed his debut, playing in the ‘hole’ behind lone striker Samaras up front. McCourt accomodated by shifting to left-wing, with Mulgrew dropping to left-back in place of Izaguirre. It was an important chance for Mulgrew to prove that he can be trusted defensively in this role. Finally Forster was replaced in goal by backup ‘keeper Lukasz Zaluska, who also perhaps has a point to prove. With Celtic predominantly attacking, the formation could perhaps be considered a 4-2-3-1 as McCourt and Forrest got forward.
Jimmy Crease setup for this tie in a narrow 4-4-1-1 formation, and while Paul Currie (the attacking midfielder) had greatest license to get forward, with Berwick defending most of the game Currie found himself more and more embroiled in the midfield battle, and hence the formation in practice served as a flat 4-5-1.
Lone striker Darren Gribben was looking for the support of Currie and as many other midfielders as could be afforded, but unfortunately suffered in isolation up front. However, in the first quarter Berwick’s best outlet was this over the top long-ball – into areas the Celtic centre-backs could not directly clear via headers, and particularly as Gordon Strachan pointed out at half-time the space between Majstorovic and Mulgrew. Crease may have identified this area as a potential weak-spot, with Majstorovic a fairly immobile centre-back and Mulgrew suspect positionally and defensively. It was this type of long-pass that created Berwick’s best hopes for a goal, with Zaluska having to clear tantalisingly (for the home support) close to Gribben. From a similar pass Mulgrew clumsily shouldered Notman off the ball in the penalty box, a real borderline decision that the Celtic full-back was lucky to escape from.
With Celtic surely hoping to exploit a superior technique and creativity on the deck, this task was made more difficult by the bobbly Shielfield Park surface. Patrick McCourt, who’s starting position was deeper on the left than normal didn’t have the same pomp in the dribble and similarly Forrest and Ljungberg couldn’t find success between the congested Berwick midfield and lumpy pitch.
It was the latter whose job was to bridge the gap between midfield and Georgios Samaras and was the player most eyes were trained on. Is he anywhere approaching the rampaging attacker that tore up the English Premiership? In older age has he turned the direct wing-play into a more reserved, intelligent and technical passer?
In a blustery affair such as this, it’s perhaps too early to say. Although being employed “in the hole” I suspect he still yearns to be that rampaging winger. When the ball was played to his feet, his general response was more along the lines of ‘head down and run’, and especially drifted out to the left-flank he used to ravage on a weekly basis. At this stage of his career and in this country he may have to learn to be more cunning.
Breakthrough and wind-down
From a not too threatening position, the unlikely Majstorovic stole in after a mistake from Andy McLean following a Mulgrew set-piece. Against lower league teams it can be these kind of small errors that make the difference and the big Swede did not hesitate.
With the sting taken out of the game and with Berwick not yet wanting to commit too many forward, Celtic entered cruise mode and aimed to see the game out without incident, although unfortunately Samaras pulled up with a ham-string injury and was replaced by Stokes in a like-for-like swap. But without Samaras’ height, the aerial option was stolen, and Celtic were further forced into playing tight, ground football on a congested and treacherous pitch.
With a reasonable if, fairly ineffective introduction to Scottish football, Lennon replaced Ljungberg with Brown after 65 minutes. Most interesting, is that Brown played in the attacking midfield position behind Stokes – probably the position I find suits his qualities most. In fact from this position the Celtic captain was able to burst into the opposition penalty area thanks to a little luck and a fine pass from Kayal and from here Brown smashed the ball home. Brown provides significant hard-work, pressing and urgency from this position, and if he can add goals and creativity to his repertoire, this could be where Lennon finds that Player of the Year again.
Marc Crosas replaced the impressive Baram Kayal with 6 minutes to go, but just to add further spice to Lennon’s centre-midfield conundrum, in this short time Crosas looked very good indeed. He possesses fine technique, good at hoarding possession under pressure, a strong shot, great vision and was unlucky that his intelligent through ball to Mark Wilson didn’t result in a goal – Stokes ended up being offside. But with Ki, Kayal and Ledley seemingly favoured picks, Brown roaring right back into contention and Crosas gently impressing.. without even mentioning World Cup starter Efrain Juarez, Lennon has a ‘good’ problem in this area.
After the second goal Berwick did come out of their shell a little, going two up front (McLaren pushed forward alongside substitute Brazil), there was little of interest tactically for either side. But Berwick can be proud of their performance given the competitive (and financial) gap in the sides. Although The Borderers may feel aggrieved at an early penalty decision going against them, Celtic were denied a similar claim (on Rogne). In the end it was a professional performance from the Glasgow giants, who never really looked like losing. But also it was a good day out (and an important financial boon) for Berwick Rangers.