Celtic pick up another 3 points after dominating much of the game at Tannadice yesterday, although for a spell in the second half the visitor’s resilience was put sternly to the test. But late on Daniel Majstorovic put an end to hopes of a Dundee Utd equaliser, with a diving header from a fine Charlie Mulgrew delivery.
Neil Lennon made just the one change to the side that bravely battled back to a draw with Rangers, with Anthony Stokes reclaiming his place from Ki Sung-Yeung in the starting lineup. This must be something approaching Lennon’s first pick XI, although the Korean along with injured trio Thomas Rogne, Shaun Maloney and James Forrest will surely argue with that.
Again it’s an assymetrical 4-4-2, seen before this season against Aberdeen with Commons high up on the left and on the other side Scott Brown far more reserved, tucked in centrally to contribute to the midfield battle. And his presence was required as Dundee United lined up with a 5 man midfield. As per the Old Firm, Brown’s tracking back and defensive sensibilities can help shackle dangermen on that flank, in this case Craig Conway.
Dundee United Lineup
Peter Houston dropped the 4-4-2 formation that helped defeat Hamilton 1-3, due in part (at least) to the suspension of Captain Jon Daly. His replacement Morgaro Gomis added to the midfield and Utd setup in a 4-1-4-1 similar to the shape seen in the encounter at Celtic Park earlier this season. Until Sunday it was a Utd side unbeaten in 11 games, so a massive away test for Celtic.
The old cliché
The match only just survived various pitch inspections and the concern was caused by heavy rainfall through the night and morning. Waterlogged with rain continuing, as could be expected the game fell into the old cliché of a “cold and rainy February in Dundee”. Sloppy passing, awkward tackles, difficulty in retaining possession confidently but a key feature of the contest was the impact deflections had on proceedings. Stokes’, Wilson’s and Goodwillie’s goals all helped along by scrappy deflections, and in addition perhaps kindly to the number 88, the weather could be to blame for Gary Hooper’s comical sitter:
Weather aside, Celtic dominated the game (although the BBC possession stats show 60% in Dundee Utd’s favour) The division doesn’t seem correct, but it was through counter-attacking that Celtic were finding the most clear cut opportunities. Indeed the opening goal came via a Utd mistake deep in Celtic’s half. Stokes ruthlessly exploited the high defensive line and broke clear far enough to take a shot that made the net via Gary Kenneth. But as Neil Lennon said after the game, Celtic could’ve and should’ve picked off more from these counters.
Gary Hooper – Not just a poacher
Since the days of Scott McDonald and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, Celtic have lacked that consistent A-list player up front. But this season new signings Stokes and Hooper have combined to make a fascinating partnership. Stokes – a graduate of Arsenal’s youth system – has been known in Scotland for his intelligence and sharp technique, preferring to play slightly deeper but also grabs a fair share of goals. It was spoke of in the most recent Scheidtcast (podcast) that Stokes was largely responsible for Hibs fine form last season.
Gary Hooper on the other hand came from Scunthorpe United, and in arguably a more difficult environment racked up 50 goals in 2 years. The general consensus has been that Hooper is a bona fide penalty box poacher, but as the realisation dawned on Craig Burley today, it’s now clear that there’s a lot more to Hooper than goal-hanging.
In recent games Hooper has generally been the furthest forward of the pair, but when in possession in deeper areas, there have been tremendous examples of a vision and passing technique more expected of an attacking midfielder or trequartista. For example, against Aberdeen it was Hooper’s superb lofted pass that culminated in Considine’s game-breaking red card. His role in today’s second goal should not be underestimated. The precise link-up and through-pass for Scott Brown, was clever and canny.
With Stokes picking up more goals than ever and Hooper displaying a creative, play-making side there seems to be a convergence developing between the two. And it’s this fluid interchangeability that’s so exciting to watch and so difficult for opposition players to cope with.
Celtic midfield on top
Although the BBC statistics might hint that the midfield weren’t doing their job (i.e. winning and keeping possession) 2 of Celtic’s biggest performers today were Joe Ledley and Baram Kayal. The former can sometimes be scape-goated as mentioned in today’s ESPN commentary – this isn’t the box to box goalscoring midfielder that was expected from Cardiff. But what Ledley is, is an industrious ball-winner, a great reader of the game and to boot has a cultured left-foot. Perhaps not enough goals, but with opposition packing midfields, there’s more important tasks at hand – namely – working hard to get and channel the ball into the right areas. A real team player, and today was a fine example. Kayal is a similar type of player, but his tackling was second to none. He relishes 50/50’s, demands passes and maintains possession – again, superb.
Speaking of possession, it’s interesting that even through television Neil Lennon could be heard bellowing “Hold! Hold!” time after time to Stokes. Clearly it was a concern just how much possession was being squandered, and perhaps 2 small and direct strikers do not lend well to ball retention.
Bolstered by Brown, the Celtic midfield coped fairly well despite on paper a numeric disadvantage in the middle. But the Dundee Utd possession was in non-dangerous areas, and Goodwillie found himself further and further isolated. In response to this issue, Houston made a dramatic change introducing Swanson for the disappointing Gomis. Utd’s shape was then more like a 4-4-2, and the gamble was on converting possession to chances for a Goodwillie now enjoying more reasonable support.
Celtic’s were undoubtedly fantastic in the first half, but Houston’s gamble seemed to pay off and Lennon’s side now appeared to be on the ropes. Post-match, Lennon alluded that the Goodwillie goal and (pre-planned) Celtic substitution at this time unsettled the side, and the change of Ki for Commons (with Ledley going left-midfield) created a slight uncertainty that, coupled with Utd’s shift in momentum made for a very difficult spell.
But a Majstorovic header at just the right time seemed to derail any hope of an equaliser. Another precise and excellent delivery from Charlie Mulgrew invited Majstorovic into a diving header, and the contest was over.
Overall tactically, there were no real surprises here and the host’s mini-revival was snuffed out rather anti-climatically. This game could stand as something of a milestone in the current managerial era – a real “Lennon” first XI away to one of the most challenging venues in the SPL – lesser managers would fall, especially in these weather conditions, but the title challenge relentlessly rolls on.