Celtic took the race for the SPL title to the final day after a comprehensive victory over Hearts at Tynecastle last night. But once again for Celtic and Neil Lennon in particular, the superb performance was overshadowed by typical anti-Celtic bigotry. This post will concentrate on the actual football, but for thoughts on the Lennon situation, please see my previous post, or a great source of Celtic News and discussion at the brand new and excellent Celtic Fans Media Hub.
Tactically, what’s been most challenging for manager Neil Lennon in recent games is the loss of 2 key central midfielders – star man Beram Kayal and the industrious, dependable Joe Ledley. While this has given Ki Sung Yeung a golden opportunity to prove to Celtic fans that he can mix it with the best, it’s also forced Scott Brown inside from the right-midfield role that he’s excelled in this season. But Lennon is keen to preserve the signature 10/11 season formation of a lop-sided 4-4-2 – as opposed to the risky “high wingers” 4-4-2 that sees both (for example) James Forrest and Kris Commons high up on each flank.
This double winger approach probably enables the “best” players to be on the park at the same time – there’s no doubt that in an attacking sense James Forrest (or Maloney, McCourt, etc) are better players than Charlie Mulgrew. But the system detriments the team in two ways. First of all it forces a real emphasis on wing play, at it’s most successful with Commons on his “correct” left side and the same for Forrest on the right. This stretches the middle of the park, where often Celtic will find themselves a man short (although incidentally not last night at Tynecastle). It’s simply not as defensively sound as the favoured lop-sided formation which sees 3 central midfielders on the park – and with a questionable pair of centre-backs, this is a worry.
The second major disadvantage is the affect the wide midfielders have on the full-backs. It’s been a tremendous season for attacking full-backs in the Hoops, but when the wingers are hugging the touch-line, your ability to get forward is severely inhibited. A third disadvantage is that the strikers do not relish getting on the end of the crosses that a wide 4-4-2 would generate, and last but not least, Kris Commons seems to be more devastating as the player with the freest role starting from the right and cutting onto his favoured left foot.
In general, a myriad of reasons justifying Lennon’s lineup.
Jim Jefferies went with a fairly positive formation – not unlike Celtic’s. David Obua tucked in helping out in the centre while Skacel played slightly further forward. Unfortunately for Hearts, the ageing Czech seems to have lost the sharpness that once made him one of the trickiest attackers in the SPL (while still retaining the selfishness).
Winger Ryan Stevenson plugged the gap as targetman up front in the absence of Kevin Kyle with Stephen Elliott playing just off him. Ryan McGowan and Ian Black provided the shield in front of the defence, where Marius Zaliukas returned from absence to Captain the side.
Grip slowly tightens from beginning
Celtic started off well, clearly fired up after last weeks abysmal defeat to Inverness. Hearts (and to some extent Georgios Samaras) started off fairly lazly, giving the ball away continually and with Gary Hooper and Commons looking dangerous and being provided with early ammunition, Hearts (with little to play for in SPL terms) looked interested only in fouling.
The returning Zaliukas having given the ball away in ridiculous circumstance via a free-kick straight to Samaras, shortly afterwards gave the ball away again – only this time Commons setup Hooper for an easy tap-in.
The clearest reason that Celtic were bossing the game, was the ease that Scott Brown and Ki in particular were finding space. The classic trick played time and time again would be for Ki to intelligently draw in two players, Brown would drift into space, and Ki would play him the simple pass. It was brutally effective, and the cleverness of the Korean was a joy to watch. This led to Brown getting into more and more advanced positions, in one case leading to Commons hitting the post.
As Celtic’s dominance continued, an agitated David Obua recklessly threw a punch at Charlie Mulgrew and was rightly sent-off. This effectively ended the tie as a contest
and Jefferies was forced to reshuffle as a result. McGowan swapped roles with Skacel, and Elliott dropped to right midfield.
The intention was to get reasonable crosses onto the head of Stevenson and for Skacel to provide the support (and possibly big-game inspiration) to put the Celtic backline under pressure – and in fairness this worked to some extent.
But into the second half, Hearts were unable to cling onto that one goal deficit that kept them in the match, as superb work from Commons and Ki released Hooper to score his second. It was good movement from Ki to allow the ball to come across him, and the pass as usual was precise.
And if the second goal didn’t end the game as a contest, the shameful attack from a Hearts fan on Neil Lennon certainly did. As the opposing fans verbally tore into each other in the aftermath, the footballing side of the game seemed to vanish and a degree of perspective became apparent. Lennon is simply a man doing his job and to see him persecuted by the bigots of Scotland was at once upsetting and outrageous.
Easy win wrapped up
In-form Kris Commons was rewarded with a goal and Celtic’s third – again linking well with Hooper to blast in. Being on a yellow after a supremely soft booking (getting out of the way of a dodgy lunge from Ian Black, construed as a dive) Commons celebrated his goal by slowly edging into the crowd. But this was enough for referee Craig Thomson to produce a quick-fire second, and Commons had to go.
But by now the damage was done – in all respects. Celtic ran out comfortable winners (with cameos from Shaun Maloney and Daryl Murphy), Hearts had lost control of their own support, and the SFA has now lost it’s respect.
All eyes are now focused on Sunday. Celtic need at least a point from Motherwell while hoping that Rangers (who are a point ahead) lose.