Celtic’s hope of a dream treble season went up in smoke this Sunday afternoon, after a tired and unmotivated display against Rangers in the last Scottish League Cup Final to be sponsored by CIS Insurance.
With a frustrated Neil Lennon peering agitatedly from the stand, Walter Smith’s uncharacteristically more positive approach seemed to unsettle Celtic. And while Smith was able to tinker freely throughout, Celtic didn’t seem to have an alternative to the stodgy and predictable Plan A.
The only selection dilemma concerning Lennon pre-match was who to include instead of the injured Daniel Majstorovic. Thomas Rogne was the one given the nod ahead of Glen Loovens (who started against Inverness mid-week) having seemed to have shaken off injury. Georgios Samaras continued up front alongside Gary Hooper at the expense of Anthony Stokes – the pair have respectively torn up the Rangers defence in separate games.
With Rangers struggling for numbers at the back and almost forced into the selected back 4, it was a different story up front where Smith had a wealth of options. Young Gregg Wylde continued on the left wing, Steven Naismith started just behind lone front-man Nikica Jelavic and Kyle Lafferty was asked to play in a slightly unfamiliar right-midfield position. As predicted in the http://www.67fanzine.com match preview, it was a five man midfield that the ever cautious Smith decided – albeit surprisingly a fairly attacking-minded setup at that.
Game takes shape as both sides threaten
This attacking setup was very particular in that it played very much into Rangers’ strengths and more significantly Celtic’s weaknesses. It has been spoken of numerous times in this blog that the ramshackle Celtic back-line has rarely been put under significant, sustained physical pressure. The bottom line is that Charlie Mulgrew up until this season has made a career playing as a left-back. His central partners Rogne and Loovens are in a semi-permanent poor run of form – and all three are prone to losses in concentration.
From the off-set the high ball was lofted repeatedly towards Nikica Jelavic – not considered a classic type “targetman” but of enough strength, experience and guile to know how to rough up a shaky defence. Gregg Wylde had a strong game on the left-wing – not only curtailing Mark Wilson’s advances but using his pace and good left-peg to find Jelavic often. Naismith operated as a second striker picking up the scraps, and at every opportunity Lafferty pushed forward into “heading” positions to also add to the aerial dominance.
Meanwhile Rogne ailed badly. He was fooled by the craftiness of Jelavic and when not winning headers was conceding fouls. In fact he was somewhat fortunate not to concede a penalty at 0-0 when his tormentor burst past him in the box. The young Norwegian stuck out a tired leg, and even made small contact. Jelavic made too much off the little collision and the linesman correctly cancelled out the referee’s initial decision – but it was telling of Rogne’s discomfort.
The defence struggling to cope in the air aside, at this stage it was a very even game. Celtic were not bad in possession and were carving out one or two half-chances. Samaras was superb, dropping deep to make space (given Rangers’ lack of holding midfielder) and Izaguirre was coming forward with some success. But it was not to last. From a failed clearance (that high ball again) Joe Ledley lost Steven Davis who burst into the box to unleash a tame squiggler with just enough pace and accuracy to out-do Frazer Forster.
With the inaccurate perception within the team that they’d been hard done by after decent amounts of possession and perhaps the better half-chances, Celtic started to up their game . This was the brief spell that they started to win individual battles and after some fine work from Izaguirre, the cross was flicked on by Samaras into the path of the onrushing Ledley who equalised – partly making amends for the earlier mistake.
But it wasn’t to last. With the score tied 1-1, half-time came and the momentum was lost. A half finely balanced between Smith’s ultra-direct high-ball approach and Lennon’s short linkup passing game.
Rangers reshuffle, concentrate on strengths
At half-time Smith would’ve had 2 concerns. The first that Naismith was often found on the end of the high-balls (and losing out to Mulgrew) and the second; Lafferty was losing track of Izaguirre (and expectedly so – his choice position is striker). To remedy both issues, Smith switched Naismith (better tracking back) and Lafferty (stronger in the air). This exacerbated Celtic’s problem in central defence – aerial balls were a problem and onrushing midfielders were getting on to the ball (like Davis for the goal)
From Lennon’s perspective problems were mounting. As described, the defence were struggling aerially. Of equal significance, the normal “standout” midfielders were looking tired, and the state of the pitch perhaps contributed to a lower standard of ball retention than usual across the board. Scott Brown in fact couldn’t last 65 minutes, Ledley looked tired, Kayal wasn’t his usual busy self and Kris Commons was playing far more like a “standard” left midfielder. With Whittaker getting forward, Commons couldn’t afford to drift inside to his most creative area between the lines – that would leave Izaguirre exposed to 2 players of decent pace and stamina.
With Lennon’s “lop-sided” 4-4-2 tired and stifled, the match descended into an exercise asking how long Celtic’s centre-backs could cope with the strength and aggression of Jelavic, whose tireless show should’ve earned him the MOTM award.
Lack of response
The aerial issue became such a problem that Rogne was substituted after 72 minutes. A sign of a bad performance for sure. Loovens entered the fray with a marginally improved handling of Messrs Jelavic and Lafferty.
Ki Sung-Yeung on for Brown saw a return to the formation that beat Inverness last week – Ledley tucked in on the left with Commons now on the right (later substituted for McCourt). Both changes were essentially “like for like” meaning no real tactical response to Walter Smith’s changes. Furthermore Ki and McCourt were slightly more wasteful with the ball than their predecessors (which is a shame as both players have fantastic capabilities)
Which makes the capitulation so galling, is that Rangers too had their problem areas to exploit. When Bougherra was withdrawn, Kyle Hutton moved to central midfield, and Maurice Edu filled in at right-back. Meanwhile Steven Whittaker (not known for his defensive prowess) took up Bougherra’s role. All alongside an ageing, painfully slow David Weir. Celtic’s changes did not work.
Yet no question was asked. In fact the inclusion of Vladimir Weiss for Lafferty meant Rangers now had a potent outlet for counter-attacks, and the Man City loanee drew a number of fouls – not only alleviating any pressure, but relaxing his defence and allowing for more high-balls to be pumped towards the box.
As the game trundled through extra-time, the winning goal summed up the day as a whole. Glenn Loovens in unclear circumstances was adjudged to have fouled Weiss on the end of a high ball. While the Celtic team fell asleep, Weiss quickly threaded through to Jelavic who slotted in the second, as Mulgrew failed his attempted tackle. It was a tired, almost uninterested performance from Celtic, but a sharp and decisive one from Rangers.
The real test awaits as the SPL draws to it’s conclusion in the coming months. This has been a costly reminder to Neil Lennon that his side (and tactics) are not infallible, and that Rangers can still spring a surprise.