Celtic move 2 points clear at the summit of the SPL table after a comfortable 3-1 victory over Hibernian. The fixture was decided in a blistering first half, with Anthony Stokes outstanding, linking up with strike partner Gary Hooper. What seemed to be a consolation goal in the second-half ignited Hibs’ belief to some extent, but Celtic made no fuss in their takeover of Rangers at the top.
17 days have passed since the disappointment of the Co-operative Insurance Cup Final and the injury situation in this time had changed little for Neil Lennon. Glen Loovens was favoured ahead of Thomas Rogne, James Forrest replaced Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes came in for Georgios Samaras.
The latter change of the three is a popular one amongst fans, who have been keen to see restored the exciting, dynamic partnership of Gary Hooper and Stokes. While Samaras had battled his way into the side to usurp Stokes in some big games, and has performed admirably, the frustrating (and at times brilliant) Greek hasn’t settled as fluidly along-side top-scorer Hooper as Lennon might have wanted.
It was a return to a Neil Lennon formation that is becoming as signature as Martin O’Neill’s 3-5-2 or Gordon Strachan’s inverted winger 4-4-2 – best described perhaps as a lop-sided 4-4-2 or even 4-3-1-2. With Hibs displaying a very narrow formation against Hearts in the Edinburgh derby on Sunday, Forrest’s inclusion high up on the left (in Commons role) is more suited to providing width – Commons tendency to cut-in would arguably play into Hibernian’s hands.
What was most notable, particularly in the first half was just how high the Celtic full-backs would play.
Hibs made four changes to the side that bungled a 2-1 lead to 10-man Hearts on Sunday, with Michael Hart coming in for Celtic loanee Richie Towell and David Stephens in at centre-back for Francis Dickoh (both fairly straightforward swaps). The second two changes facilitated a slight change in tactics – David Wotherspoon replaced Matt Thornhill which allowed Liam Miller to play centrally with Wotherspoon playing wide-right, and targetman Akpo Sodje was replaced by Ricardo Vaz Te. The former Bolton Wanderers attacker played just behind Derek Riordan, linking up with the midfield.
Initially looking like a 4-4-2, it appeared that like Sunday, Hibs aimed to play a tight and narrow game, aiming for congestion in the centre. But Wotherspoon was extraordinarily high on the right – in an attempt to either pin-back Izaguirre (which he managed to some extent) or exploit any gaps. This void between Wotherspoon and the rest of the midfield was somewhat filled by the dropping deep at times of Vaz Te.
First half blitz
With unsubstantiated reports that Stokes handed in (or was on the brink of handing in) a transfer request after the last Old Firm, there was an immediate feeling that the young Irishman was out to prove a point. It didn’t take long to do so, releasing Hooper in the opening stages of the game who forced a good save from former Celt Mark Brown, and then after only four minutes getting on the scoresheet after fine supply from Izaguirre.
And the movement of Stokes’ coupled with Hibs’ narrow game plan was enabling Mark Wilson to cause all sorts of problems down the right as the below image demonstrates.
With Scott Brown playing so deep it was impossible for Callum Booth to take responsibility. This fell to the next nearest player – Martin Scott. Booth’s interest instead became Anthony Stokes, who managed to use his intelligence to find the space between Paul Hanlon and his left back. With the inexperienced Booth having no choice but to close the gap that Stokes wanted to exploit, Mark Wilson found an extraordinary level of space down the flank. Consequently, Derek Riordan was being pulled further wide (and further from goal).
The same effect wasn’t evident on the opposite flank, where Forrest was unmistakably marked tightly by right-back Hart, and Wotherspoon doing his best to keep tabs on Izaguirre.
On the half hour mark, Hibs had one or two half-chances – first Vaz Te found space on the end of a chip over the top to test Frazer Forster’s near bottom corner, and shortly after should’ve done better with a free header from 10 yards.
Aside from the half-chances, with Hibernian’s system exposed Celtic stepped up the domination. The home side were defending ruggedly and pressing high really well as a unit. The pressure was to yield goals, as Scott Brown was taken down in the box for Hooper to convert the resultant penalty and the Celtic front two continued to torment, culminating in a third after Hooper smashed home a Stokes through ball.
2nd half come-down
The break at half-time seemed to bring calm after the highs of the first-half, and Celtic restarted rather sluggishly. Loovens was swapped at this point for Rogne – possibly injury related (not serious if at all) but also at 3-0, a chance to bring Rogne up to match sharpness with the game all but tied up.
Unfortunately this lax attitude allowed Hibs back into the game, and were starting to find more and more possession. Sodje was brought on to replace the dislikable and ineffective Derek Riordan, with the clear intention that high or long-balls to a big target up front could just unsettle the defence. Indeed it was a (soft) defensive blunder that gifted Hibs a glimmer of hope as Mulgrew brought down Wotherspoon in the box. Liam Miller, who had had a quiet game, converted the penalty.
Even with the soft penalty decision on their side, Hibs never really looked like coming back, and in fact Celtic could’ve scored more. Izaguirre got forward to link well with Hooper and lash a shot wide, and Hooper even missed a second penalty late on.
Kris Commons got on for Forrest to play high on the left, and Freddy Ljungberg made a rare appearance in place of Baram Kayal (with Brown shifting inside to the centre). The two breathed a bit of impetus to the Celtic attack, and both looked sharp and hungry for goals. But with the other 20 players on the pitch already contented with the result, Ljungberg in particular will be slightly disappointed not be be given more opportunity to shine, albeit he was the one to win the second Celtic penalty.
All in all a fine first half-performance with Lennon getting the better of Colin Calderwood and the Celtic players getting the better of the Hibees. Hibs may argue against an unfortunate fixture schedule, having fought in the Edinburgh derby only 3 days prior with Celtic meanwhile enjoying a 17 day rest – but on the night few could argue with the scoreline.