Celtic enter the new year 2 points clear at the top of the SPL after a narrow win over Rangers on Wednesday. It is an astonishing turnaround for Neil Lennon and his side, having been 15 points off the pace and on the brink of his job as recently as November.
This wasn’t a classic Glasgow derby by any means, with the high winds somewhat stealing the traditional bluster, and (for once) the only off-field occurrence of any note was the effect on the league table.
The focus was instead on the football – where a cautious 4-4-2 hosted a very cautious 4-4-2.
There were various factors for Lennon to contend with in his team selection, with James Forrest and Georgios Samaras shaking off niggling issues, and Anthony Stokes, Adam Matthews and Thomas Rogne back in contention.
Longer term absentees Emilio Izaguirre and Kelvin Wilson weren’t yet deemed ready though made the bench, while Daniel Majstorovic and Glenn Loovens remained sidelined.
Korean duo Cha Du Ri and Ki Sung Yeung were ultimately the only two changes from the win over Kilmarnock, with Rogne and Matthews the replacements.
Tactically, a form of 4-4-2 was always going to be preferred to the more ambitious 4-3-3 that Lennon has used of late, and indeed it was a return to a form of the classic ‘Lennon’ lop-sided 4-4-2. The main gripe here is that without Kris Commons, James Forrest has to adapt to the left hand side (accommodating Brown on the right).
With Steven Whittaker unable to shake-off a knock, Ally McCoist’s main selection concerns focused on Dorin Goian and Lee McCulloch, both dismissed in their previous SPL fixture. McCulloch was able to appeal his straight-red (for violent conduct), Goian, who received two bookings, couldn’t make use of the same silly loophole.
In all it was three changes to the side that lost to St. Mirren on Christmas Eve, with Kirk Broadfoot replacing Whittaker, Kyle Bartley replacing Goian and Sone Aluko replacing Gregg Wylde.
The blue and red garbage (pun alert) blowing across the pitch was indicative of the tricky conditions, and therefore (cliché alert) not conducive to good football. Possession was turned over quickly with both teams aiming for targetmen – Samaras for Celtic and both Lafferty and Jelavic for Rangers.
It could be argued that playing long-ball in such wind is as effective as (cliché #2 alert) the proverbial urination, but both managers would’ve been preying on defensive mistakes – a regular source of goals in these derbies.
The tactics initially suited the visitors – two targetmen allowed for a higher degree of separation between midfield and attack. A lone striker would be thought of as isolated but here the two worked hard together. The other 8 outfield players meanwhile (Aluko perhaps, aside) stuck to defending.
All four at the back have once been considered centre-backs, with Wallace on the left also normally considered a defender (albeit playing of late on the wing) and not forgetting ‘hatchetman’ (also a natural centre-back) Lee McCulloch in the midfield.
Considering the wind and how suited Celtic are to football on the deck, it is strange that they were so keen to use Samaras’ height, with Forster’s distribution frequently aimed overtly that way. Going on a tangent, the Greek’s emergence as a targetman this season has been peculiar – coming into form in November high up on the left, it’s a rarity in football to see a targetman used wide. Whether nominally a striker or left-winger, the area he occupies is generally the same – at least when receiving high supply, and what Celtic are improving on is getting players to support him.
Unlike Rangers (who in the first phase of attack, attacked with two) Celtic looked to get Hooper and Forrest as close to Samaras as possible, making for at least 3 in that first phase.
For all Celtic’s attacking intent, it was Rangers who gleaned the closest chances from the first half, with the most controversial being Wallace’s 6th minute header which appeared to cross the line. It was a difficult call for either ref or linesman, but what is underplayed is just how good a save it was from Forster, hooking the ball from behind his own body – his quick instincts preventing a certain goal.
Wallace came across that chance after Celtic failed to clear their lines, and the defence were guilty again when Bocanegra came close – using his thigh to direct the ball over from close range.
That’s not to say Celtic didn’t create chances of their own – with Forrest, Samaras and Hooper knocking at the door. But it was Joe Ledley early in the second half who broke the dead-lock, in as simple a situation as a corner. Celtic’s left-back rose easily above Kirk Broadfoot to head past McGregor from close range.
With the pressure largely off, the pattern of the match continued and with Celtic on the rise, Rangers, lacking options on the bench, became frustrated.
To ‘even-up’ Lee Wallace’s erroneously chopped off early goal, Gary Hooper was wrongly flagged offside after being put through by the superb Beram Kayal.
And from there, sadly, the only major talking point is Rangers’ cynical and desperate attempts to get a rise from the opposition. From Bartley’s pathetic goading, to substitute David Healy’s disgraceful foul on James Forrest.
Worst of all was Lee McCulloch’s lunge on Kayal. How ironic that a player who (temporarily) loopholed a charge of violent conduct was allowed to cause injury via violent conduct. Kayal faces a month on the sidelines.
In footballing terms, the weather curtailed any real chance of a quality technical display, and the two similar systems that are each suited to such conditions went head to head without any tactical divergence.
While the difference came from a simple corner, Celtic’s more pro-active approach and old-fashioned stronger will to win ensured that the greater volume of chances fell the right way. The stats of 9 attempts on target to 2 and 56% possession goes some way to justify this.
In short: more hunger, more chances, more goals.