Celtic had to deal with a bright and forward-thinking Falkirk side to progress to the final of the Scottish Communities League Cup. With Gary Hooper already having a goal erroneously chalked off, Scott Brown opened the scoring with a penalty. Falkirk clawed a goal back through Jay Fulton, but Anthony Stokes grabbed a brace to settle any doubts.
At 2-1 down Steven Pressley’s side threatened briefly to equalise, but overall Celtic created more chances, defended well and deserved the win.
Lennon didn’t take the opportunity to field a weakened side, but did make one or two changes from the side that beat St Mirren last weekend. Emilio Izaguirre’s rehabilitation continues, and his inclusion had a knock-on effect on the side that served to balance a few incongruities.
The biggest challenge recently in implementing a lop-sided 4-4-2 has been getting the most from the Captain, Scott Brown, and James Forrest – one of Celtic’s best performers this season. Brown suits the right of midfield with Kris Commons higher up on the left, but Forrest is far more effective high on the right.
So Izaguirre allowed Joe Ledley to perform something akin to Brown’s right-sided role, Forrest got utilised in his best position, and Brown moved into the centre.
Ki Sung-Yeung was the player dropped, and Anthony Stokes came in for Georgios Samaras.
Pressley was able to name a full-strength side with striker Farid El Alagui shrugging off a muscle strain. The former Celt has generally stuck to a tried and tested 4-4-1-1 system, with the only question mark surrounding who would play from a range of wide midfielders. Blair Alston and highly rated 16 year-old Craig Sibbald missed out, with Fulton starting on the right.
It was a classic counter-attacking system complete with all the usual hall-marks. Pacy wide-men, a big targetman, a creative number 10 mucking in the midfield, and a destroyer/passer (Murdoch and Millar respectively).
It was also an impressively young lineup, with the old heads of Darren Dods and Michael McGovern dragging the average age from 21½ to 23½. But equally, Celtic’s youthful side figures around the 23½ mark.
Taking control early
Falkirkwere eager to impose physically but Celtic assumed early possession. As can frequently occur against a more numerous midfield, much responsibility fell on Charlie Mulgrew and Thomas Rogne to keep the ball under control sensibly. Rogne still has the impetuous habit of lumping the ball forward too often (inaccurately), but sometimes the long ball can stretch a defensive shape and shouldn’t be frowned upon too heavily.
With Celtic pressing on, El Alagui’s movement caused problems on the counter – the Moroccan keen to build on his growing reputation. Pressley’s plan looked to be working – the five man midfield and deep defence proving hard to weasel past. Furthermore two players stood out in terms of passing and creativity –Higginbotham as an attacking midfielder and Millar in a deeper role.
And in a theme repeated throughout the match, just as Falkirk looked to be on the ascendency, Celtic had the quality to thump them down. Gary Hooper showed good reactions to bury a rebound from Brown’s shot off the post, but the linesman erroneously flagged for offside. At set-pieces Rogne was really establishing himself as a force in the air, first hitting the bar with a header, and then impeded by Darren Dods to win a penalty – converted by Brown.
Errors lead to equaliser
Victor Wanyama has largely been attributed to Falkirk’s way back into the match. His slack pass being pounced on by David Weatherston. But equally, Cha Du Ri (possibly least culpable) reacted sluggishly to Wanyama’s pass, and Izaguirre was caught too far forward and didn’t react urgently enough.
The goalscorer Fulton, had a reasonably casual stroll to the backpost as Izaguirre sauntered back – forgetting the grass-roots mantra of getting goal-side of the man you’re marking.
There was still time for Rogne to threaten again from a set-piece, and for Forrest to come close with a copy of Falkirk’s goal. He lost the left-back Scobbie, who was ball-watching, and instead of shooting was too intent on Stokes movement at the back-post. By the time of the shot, McGovern was too close and smothered well.
Izaguirre was removed at half-time – possibly as a result of the slack marking – but he also, understandably given his return from injury, lacked sharpness and at least half a yard of pace.
Ki came on into the midfield, meaning Mulgrew was moved to left-back and Wanyama dropped to centre-back.
While the course of the match didn’t change too significantly, the substitution made sense and highlighted what Ki can bring to the side. Most supporters generally rank him as 4th choice (or less!) in the centre, the fact remains that he is the most composed and creative midfielder with the ball. And when you’re playing a side where you have the majority of possession, his inclusion is justified.
Not for the first time, just when Falkirk looked like establishing momentum, Celtic used a set-piece to open a gap. With a range of free-kick experts hoping for a chance, it was Anthony Stokes who curled the ball over the defensive wall to take the lead.
Falkirkhad one last spell of positivity. With Higginbotham the number 10 operating between the lines and against a numerical disadvantaged midfield, his piercing runs forward helped open up space – particularly for the right-midfielder, who by now was Blair Alston. The youngster had a decent chance to score with a shot dragged wide from the edge of the box.
Frazer Forster was the man to spurn Falkirk’s last shot at equalising. His defence were at their casual worst and couldn’t clear their lines from a set-piece. Forster was then forced into a fantastic double-save from close-range, denying Dods and Murdoch – the value of a quality goalkeeper.
Falkirkthereafter slipped from the match, and Celtic could retain possession easily, allowing Hooper the chance to showcase his exquisite first-touch and acceleration to setup Stokes for his second and Celtic’s killer third.
Falkirk’s excellent display has been sullied somewhat by Pressley’s needless half-time rant at the referee, while clearly in the wrong. It’s the unfortunate foible of football that in competing against a side far higher in the league structure, you require not only a very good performance from yourself but a poor one from the opposition.
Lennon’s only complaint can be the muted performance of some recent stars. The erratic (though often devastating) combination of Hooper and Stokes was again underlined as being quite straightforward to defend against, and Forrest and Wanyama had perhaps their poorest performances in a while. Given the result, the argument might be tenuous, but perhaps more thorough rotation could’ve been employed – particularly given the size of the squad.
But Celtic overall played well, and made good use of set-pieces to help quieten the Bairns.