Neil Lennon was able to rotate in a handful of players on the fringes in his sides Scottish Cup 4th Round win at Peterhead. With the hosts defending deep and doggedly, it took 36 minutes to break the deadlock. But it was comfortable from there on in, with Anthony Stokes profiting with a hat-trick. The striker hit the back of the net 5 times in total, with 2 efforts being judged narrowly offside.
The big news for Celtic was the return of last season’s Player of the Year Emilio Izaguirre, making his first start since the 7th of August. This saved Charlie Mulgrew or Joe Ledley from filling in at left-back, with each lining up in their preferred position.
Kelvin Wilson was another long-term casualty making his return, while James Forrest, Fraser Forster and Adam Matthews were rested allowing the respective appearances of fringe players Paddy McCourt, Lukasz Zaluska and Cha Du Ri.
Former Celt and Blue Toon manager Jim McInally had a full strength side at his disposal, with only midfielder Jamie Redman requiring a late fitness test prior to starting.
It was an intriguing system too, with McInally proposing an ambitious 3-4-3, which seemingly bucks the text-book ‘how to defend against Celtic’ trend in Scotland. Alas in practice, it was more of a 5-4-1, with supposed wide-forwards defending in the midfield band, and the wing-backs dropping to defend alongside their three centre-backs.
And so with regards to defending against a team all of 40 places higher in the league hierarchy, this counter-attacking 5-4-1 started to make sense.
The other classic text-book response is to turn the match into a close-knit brawl, and this was obvious from the outset. From front to back Peterhead had players intent on leaving boots or elbows in, or instigating confrontations where possible. It’s no surprise therefore that Celtic created few changes in the opening third of the match.
The most prominent initial tactical success was the use of Cha Du Ri, who had freedom of the right-hand side. It was Martin Bavidge’s job to track Cha’s runs, but the big forward couldn’t cope with his opposite numbers pace and agility. Sadly for Celtic, Cha was continually, criminally lacking a final ball – be it standard crossing or cutting back from the by-line.
Peterhead’s hopes were pinned on setting lone striker Rory McAllister free on the break while keeping Celtic at bay, but the wheels came off the plan after 36 minutes. Georgios Samaras exploited the space behind the left-wing back (which Cha had some success breaking into) and his accurate low cross was turned in gratefully by Stokes.
Though McCourt started nominally on the right, he was switched to the left early-on, and was continually forced deep to find space. At times he played like a central attacking midfielder seeing as Izaguirre and in particular Cha had so much influence on the flanks, but his impact is muted from central areas and he couldn’t find his place in the game.
Celtic were dominating possession through Brown, Ledley and Ki, with the latter back to his emphatically most effective role, starting moves and dictating play accurately from deep positions. Brown and Ledley therefore were left to much of the ball-winning.
2nd half / Stokes
While Samaras had a good game carving out opportunities for his strike partner, it was the movement of Stokes that Peterhead struggled most with, and McInally’s 2nd half change only opened up the space further.
With Bavidge unable to keep track of Cha and linkup with McAllister, he was shifted up front. Roy McBain moved to left wing-back while Bryan Beasley replaced Graeme Sharp.
Having struggled on the flanks with two wide players on each side, as expected it would become even more difficult with the 3-5-2.
The change quite possibly allowed Izaguirre’s steaming run forward unchecked, linking well with Stokes who finished from a difficult angle for his second.
And unfortunately for McInally, the change didn’t influence Peterhead’s own counter-attacks, and even on the hour the match as a contest seemed over.
As Stokes added his third in the 81st minute, the scoreline was a fair reflection on the course of the match. Celtic are well accustomed to vying with a “low-block” defensive side looking to hit over the top on the counter, and these types of matches are usually defined by whether Celtic can unpick the defence or not, and whether defensive blunders are avoided.
Once the opener goes in, the onus suddenly falls on the defending side, and with respect to McInally’s Peterhead who gave it a go and made positive changes, the only way the Third Division side threatened was via the art of unrestricted violence.
Stokes’ hat-trick is testament to his ‘man of the match’ movement and contribution, and depending on whether Gary Hooper can shake off a groin problem or not, will provide Lennon with a real selection headache for the visit of Dundee Utd on Saturday.