Celtic travelled to Cardiff for their final friendly prior to the SPL kick-off this coming weekend. With the Scottish season starting 2 weeks earlier than the English second tier, the hosts were understandably rusty; using the occasion perhaps as a fitness and sharpness exercise. Neil Lennon on the other hand looked to assess a couple of new signings in a reasonably competitive environment – particularly on-trial goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa.
To a similar extent, it was also another chance to see new signings Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews in action, with the latter in fact being poached from Cardiff in the summer on a free. The three newcomers slotted in to a very strong Celtic lineup, which resembled closely in shape to Lennon’s first choice formation. That is – a lop-sided 4-4-2 skewed towards allowing Kris Commons as much artistic license as possible.
Joe Ledley returned to his former club to play tucked in on the left of midfield, Ki Sung-Yeung started along-side Beram Kayal in the centre, with Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper resuming a profitable partnership up front.
Cardiff manager (and former Celt) Malky Mackay was also taking the opportunity to get a good look at some new players. His side, reeling from a failed promotion bid last season had lost 12 players and only taken 6 in. Robert Earnshaw, Andrew Taylor, Craig Conway, Don Cowie and Aron Gunnarsson all arrived on a free, with Joe Mason the latest signing, for an undisclosed fee.
There are a few familiar faces to followers of the SPL, with former Celtic players Lee Naylor and David Marshall in the side, along with Kevin McNaughton (formerly of Aberdeen and now sporting peculiar grey hair) and Don Cowie once of Inverness CT.
The focal point of the flat 4-4-2 was beefy target-man John Parkin, forming a partnership with the more mobile new signing Mason.
It will always be impossible to take pre-season friendlies too seriously, especially with regards to analysing strategies and performance and this encounter proved to be no different. Celtic started off more confident, comfortable on the ball, but yet more relaxed. Perhaps as a by-product of using the game as a physical exercise – Cardiff on the other hand were highly competitive and strong in the tackle throughout.
The flat 4-4-2 was matching up with Celtic’s iteration rather nicely, with players on either side having their particular opposite number to stick to. But with Cardiff defending more compact and quite strictly in their own half, the Celtic players finding most time on the ball were those being pressed the least – Glen Loovens and Kelvin Wilson. Mason and the lumbering Parkin generally kept to the half-way line enabling the two centre-backs plenty time on the ball, only – they don’t know what to do with it.
The normal Celtic response is for Ki to drop ever deeper – even into the space between the centre-backs to gather possession and make productive use of the ball, but his opposite number was diligently tracking. Still, Ki’s passing was quick, clever and accurate, and he was perhaps Celtic’s best player on the night. But this emphasis of play in Celtic’s own half led to a first half of trying to crack a stubborn, entrenched Cardiff defence.
Cardiff prickly on the counter
Once play progressed beyond the two centre-backs, Celtic would push out into opposition territory but this asked questions of the unfamiliar back-line – 3 of the 5 at the back (including the goalkeeper) are new to the side. This led to Cardiff’s counter-attacking being slightly more effective. Twice Parkin was able to breach a pretty woeful and unorganised off-side line and a more capable striker wouldn’t have been so wasteful. But this is the purpose of the pre-season.
Celtic’s best chance before the game-killing goal was restricted to a Kris Commons effort. With the 4-4-2s mostly cancelling each other out, it was unsurprising that this opportunity came about from Commons drifting inside where his opposite number was reluctant to follow. With the central defenders “tied up” so to speak, Commons free shot went narrowly wide.
The Hooper/Stokes combination at times continues to worry – when a deep and organised defence clams up, the two can disappear. It was perhaps an opportunity for Stokes to drop deeper into space between the lines, but both he and Hooper were only interested in the penalty area. Equally, when the two combine successfully it serves as a reminder as to why they are so effective. They both possess great close control and share a good understanding, and Hooper in the second half perhaps could’ve done better with a close range effort.
Fittingly, the match-winning goal came from an Emilio Izaguirre cross – the latest to feature in the tictactic Player Profile series. The move also perhaps under-lined how delicate a strict man to man marking policy can have (without “free” defenders to mop up between the lines). Joe Ledley on his homecoming beat his marker and quickly sprayed out a pass to Izaguirre high up on the left. The Honduran’s cross was somehow met by the head of Stokes, and the unassailable advantage was found.
There was little to speak of at all in the second half, as both managers were able to make a raft of substitutions, using the time as something of a training exercise.
One of the main priorities for Lennon in this match was to put Stipe Pletikosa through his paces. Ironically Cardiff were unable to test him – barring perhaps, a straightforward drive that was safely taken care of, and a few shakey moments involving pass-backs. But it would surely be the quietest game of the 2011-12 season for Celtic’s goalkeeper, which doesn’t paint a great picture of Cardiff’s performance!
Adam Matthews was far busier at right-back and had a decent game. Again, it’s a hugely competitive position with Mark Wilson surely first-pick and Cha Du Ri also impressing earlier in pre-season, so Matthews has his work cut out.
His roving was impressive, constantly looking to get forward to support Commons ahead, but his final ball was lacking. It seemed the Cardiff players were gleefully aware that upon shutting down the outside right option, Matthews isn’t great at cutting inside onto his less favoured left. His pace and dribbling is impressive, but needs to develop a cutting edge on his left as tonight he had plenty time and room to use it.
Like Pletikosa, Kelvin Wilson was very hard to judge given the bluntness of Cardiff’s attack, and a few dodgy off-side attempts aside, was fairly solid. But it wasn’t so much a test of defensive strength and guile, and more a test of ability on the ball which for a centre-back is predictably awkward. While his technique may be more Majstorovic than Mulgrew, he does possess notably more pace than the big Swede. But like all the current centre-backs, the acid test will be in competitive battle.
Finally, a first glimpse and cameo appearance for Victor Wanyama who came on for Kayal with perhaps 15 minutes remaining, by which point the game was already well over.