In traditionally one of the toughest periods of the season, at one of the toughest away venues in the SPL, Celtic emerged victorious on the banks of the Moray Firth after a hard-fought scrap with Inverness Caley.
The greatest concern with team selection was down to the exclusion of the injured Daniel Majstorovic (broken toe) and the suspension of Mark Wilson. The choice replacement would normally be Thomas Rogne, but with the big Norwegian still smarting from a thigh strain, eye-brows were raised when Glenn Loovens was named alongside Charlie Mulgrew. Loovens once was a solid central defender but a long-term crisis in confidence has kept him out the side. Efrain Juarez came in at a less favoured right-back role, with Cha Du Ri and Andreas Hinkel of course injured long-term.
Scott Brown was another who missed out due to suspension and his loss was more easily sustained. Tactically it did result in a horizontal mirror of Lennon’s usual lop-sided 4-4-2, where Kris Commons has enjoyed great success high up on the left in a free role with Brown tucked in on the right. Here, Commons played high up on the right and Joe Ledley on the opposite side took up Brown’s role of supplementing the centre of midfield.
Georgios Samaras, following unconfirmed reports that he has signed a new 3 year contract caused great surprise by not only getting the nod ahead of Anthony Stokes, but Captaining the side in the absence of Brown (and vice-Captain Majstorovic) A massive night for the Greek internationalist.
The hosts made no changes to the side that beat Motherwell 3-0 at the Tulloch Stadium in the SPL, and lined up in positive (if destructive) fashion. The focal point to the attack was ICT’s top scorer Adam Rooney with Richie Foran, Nick Ross and Shane Sutherland charged with supporting him when possible. It was a “big” back-line, with priority leaning towards defending deep and narrow. The ideal situation would be to defend high-balls throughout.
Apart from the horrendously bumpy pitch, it was this narrow Inverness setup that kept the game scrappy and stop-startish. Possession by both sides was being dreadfully squandered as the lack of time on the ball, tough tackling and awful pitch conditions made for an ugly viewing experience.
But the widest of Inverness’ players were not that intent on getting particularly wide or forward with any urgency, so the inclincation was to sit back, contribute to the congestion in the middle, and get the ball to Foran (and Rooney) via long-ball when possible; to put pressure on the Celtic centre-back pairing – consisting of individuals with a notorious and blunderful history.
As has been the standard in such circumstance, the most influential player on the pitch becomes Emilio Izaguirre who had a rip-roaring first half. With his opposite number Sutherland (along with Joe Ledley ahead) generally embroiled in the centre, the Celtic attacking left-back could play with the freedom of a full-blown winger, racing to the by-line time and time again to get crosses in. But neither Hooper or Samaras had the aerial beating of the resolute ICT defence, and Izaguirres’ exceptional work was mostly in vain.
But as the first half groaned to an end, a sudden flurry of goals kept things interesting. Firstly Mulgrew and Loovens expected Frazer Forster to rush out and collect an innocuous through ball. Foran sensed the confusion and realising the collective mistake, Loovens stuck out a leg to bring the ICT striker down for the penalty. Loovens will likely take most of the heat here but it was Forster’s hesitency that left the door open.
Almost immediately after Rooney had dispatched the spot-kick, it was that man Izaguirre who supplied Joe Ledley with the assist for the equaliser, and the Inverness joy was not to be carried into the second half.
ICT manager Terry Butcher made a curious change at half-time, swapping the roles of Foran and Ross. A possible reason is that Foran was just too immobile and covering too much ground dropping into left-midfield, where as Ross could perhaps provide pace in behind the ramshackle Celtic defence, with the pace to get back and defend as well.
Baram Kayal and Samaras were getting on the end of some rough attention from Inverness, and Celtic’s main chances were coming from a variety of set-pieces won from such fouls. The deliveries into the box were not good enough, and the direct shots were woeful (from both Mulgrew and Commons) It was also clear perhaps that Inverness were in general more capable in the air.
Or were they? The winner came from one of the few good set-piece deliveries, and Ki’s excellent cross was met again by Ledley, who nodded his free header in from close range. It was harsh on Inverness who not long before nearly regained the lead themselves – a rasping Sutherland shot stinging the palms of Forster who made a superb save – a turning point perhaps.
As the game stopped and started and possession was continually lost by both sides, it never seemed likely that another goal was coming – there just wasn’t enough clear cut chances being made. The ineffectual Commons was replaced by James Forrest, whose direct running even on the divetty pitch caused Inverness a number of problems. But Lennon will be most worried about Samaras and Hooper’s unsuccessful linkup work and perhaps more significantly the lack of decent service provided. The former in particular garners lots of negative feedback from the support, often unwarranted. But against Inverness last night, it’s easy to see why his popularity can suffer. At times the Greek was dropping too deep with the ball, slowing attacks at the wrong times and his decision making wasn’t good – the one caveat perhaps that he was generally better at keeping possession, which in a match like this was important.
A classic game it was not, but Neil Lennon will be delighted to progress with a defence decimated by withdrawals, at a historically difficult ground to visit and at a difficult time of the season. Meanwhile Terry Butcher moaned about poor decisions going against him (and may have had a case with Loovens deserving of a yellow in the penalty incident) but on the whole the ref could’ve been kept busy writing the names of Butcher’s boys in his book. A close, scrappy game, but Celtic’s domination of possession only just merited the result.
Another encounter with Aberdeen awaits in the semi-finals at Hampden. Meanwhile the dream of a domestic treble survives.