Celtic made it 3 SPL wins out of 3 after thumping Dundee Utd in their first home game of the 2011/12 season. Motherwell are top of the table having played one game more albeit only being 1 point ahead. The match was marred by a nasty looking injury to Gary Hooper midway through the second half, although manager Neil Lennon remains hopeful that the extent of the injury isn’t as bad as it first appeared. Whether Hooper will be fit for the Europa League qualifier against Sion is yet to be seen.
The pre-match discussion focused on whether Scott Brown would be fit to play following a knock sustained on midweek international duty. Beram Kayal was definitely ruled out and Mark Wilson returned at right back. These points aside, the lineup was to be as expected, with Kris Commons starting on the left for the first time this season.
It is the preferred of two shapes that Lennon has genuine faith in at the moment. The other (used when Brown isn’t available) is simply a horizontal mirror of the midfield, with Ledley tucked in on the left, Kayal and Ki in the middle with Commons on the right. Charlie Mulgrew was favoured at left-back over either Adam Matthews or Mark Wilson and Lukasz Zaluska had another chance to plead his case for the number one jersey.
As expected, there was no place for Paddy McCourt despite his mid-week heroics for his national side.
Dundee Utd Lineup
The summer exodus from Tannadice has seen a completely different looking Tangerine side visit Celtic Park, having lost some very important players in Prince Bauben, Morgaro Gomis, Craig Conway, David Robertson and perhaps most important of all; David Goodwillie, but Peter Houston still managed to field a decent looking side.
Former Celtic midfielder Willo Flood started on the right, drifting in, with 19 year old Scott Allan just ahead of Robertson and John Rankin on the left. Johnny Russell played just behind target-man John Daly in something approaching a free-role.
Early goal settles nerves
It’s often said that sides visiting Celtic Park set out to keep a clean sheet for the first half hour, both settling down themselves and frustrating Celtic, but this was not to be the case today. A pin-point Ki Sung-Yeung delivery from a corner found Daniel Majstorovic, whose header was toe-poked in by the prolific Anthony Stokes. It must be galling for a manager to have his plans thwarted by an early set-piece – but United rallied and stuck to their guns. It’s also refreshing to see Celtic taking some end-product from corner kicks; an area that’s been poor for years. But having set-piece takers like Commons and Ki certainly helps.
Celtic were finding it difficult to break down the narrow, congested United backline, and Zaluska was called in to action, not dealing at all well with a Keith Watson cross. In theory, the most exposed areas for Celtic to attack were down the flanks, but with Commons and Brown fairly central thinking players, with no Izaguirre and with Mark Wilson kept busy by Rankin, Celtic were unable to make use of the available width. In fact it was United’s full-backs who seemed the more enterprising, getting forward without too much fear of reprisal.
While Celtic bossed possession without any real penetration, United stole a goal against the run of play. Kelvin Wilson got his studs caught in the grass and failed to clear his lines and the ball was fed out wide to the unlikely Gary Kenneth. His cross was centre-backish in nature, and it’s lack of accuracy seemed to fool the Celtic defence. Johnny Russel was in the right place at the right time to knock the ball past Zaluska.
United, though on the back foot for much of the game did seem to have something unexpected in their locker, with Flood drifting in from the right, who we know can cause damage and young Scott Allan pulling the strings from the centre with an assured performance.
While the goal was a shock, it didn’t really change the course of the game. Celtic continued to dominate possession (enjoying at least 65% overall) and very quickly took the lead again – and again a corner was the unlikely source. United couldn’t clear a Commons delivery, and Hooper eventually nodded the ball in from point-blank.
Houston’s half time response was an attempt to make better use of one of Dundee United’s most effective players. Russel spent much of the first half in a (defensive) fairly free role, tracking back and showing a lot of spirit and fitness. But it was energy wasted that could perhaps be better used pushing higher up the park, alongside the quiet John Daly.
With the energetic Russel evacuating the midfield, this only seemed to free up Celtic’s time and space in the centre of the park, and the gamble back-fired. After United’s change in shape, Commons hit the inside of Pernis’ post and shortly after setup Ki on the counter-attack for Celtic’s third. While Celtic seemed in control for the entirety of the game, this was now curtains for the away side.
Points of interest
With so much of the ball, Celtic also happened to be on the end of numerous hefty late challenges. While Ki was booked on his first offence (correctly) it seemed the United players could foul with impunity. Scott Robertson was perhaps offender in chief, and was lucky to stay on the pitch at all after hauling down Anthony Stokes who was clean through on goal while on a yellow.
Generally Gary Hooper and Anthony Stokes link up well together and are seemingly on the same wavelength, but today the United defence dealt with them convincingly (at least in open play), and the real damage came from midfield. It’s no surprise that four of the five goals were scored by midfielders, with Ledley and Ki’s bursts from deep in particular, something that Celtic fans have wanted to see from their midfield for a long time.
Georgios Samaras might be feeling a little hard done by that Shaun Maloney got the nod to come on for the injured Hooper, could it be that Maloney has taken third place in the pecking order? It’s difficult to say, particularly as the substitution came at a time when the contest was effectively over. Perhaps Lennon was allowing Maloney some competitive game time to develop a bit of match sharpness – but as a striker his similarities to the superior Stokes and Hooper makes you wonder if he has any future as a striker.
Lastly, this match will serve as a reminder to Lennon and Peter Lawwell that a new goalkeeper is urgently required. Zaluska’s impotent flapping and uncertain charges from his line were punctuated by the odd decent save, but surely this club has enough experience with dodgy goalkeepers to know that it’s not a position to skimp on.
It would be unfair to end on that negative note – this was a consummate and comfortable performance with positives to be found in most areas. The defence looked mostly solid, Ki was yet again a joy to watch and Commons looks to be approaching that scintillating form from last season. One or two more signings could make this squad very special.