To close Rangers FC’s darkest ever week, Celtic stretched the gap at the top of the league to 17 points thanks to a hard-fought win over Hibernian. The hosts started aggressively, employing a tight man-marking system all over the park, but the clinical firepower of Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper was the clearest difference. The drubbing leaves Hibs perilously close to the relegation spot.
Neil Lennon had just about a full-strength side to pick from. Long-term absentee Beram Kayal the only actual casualty, with Thomas Rogne, Daniel Majstorovic, Emilio Izaguirre and Mikael Lustig all returning to availability from a range of travails.
Lennon continued his preferred flexible 4-4-2 system, with Anthony Stokes and Rogne the only changes from last week’s win over Inverness CT. Georgios Samaras and Majstorovic, respectively, dropped to the bench.
A trio of players return to the starting 11 for Hibs, with Leigh Griffiths, Paul Hanlon and James McPake available again. Tom Soares, Callum Booth, Danny Galbraith and Ian Murray remain sidelined, while Gary O’Connor wasn’t quite fit enough to start.
This was Pat Fenlon’s first attempt at taking on Celtic, though like his predecessor Colin Calderwood, set out ambitiously – matching Lennon’s 4-4-2.
Fenlon’s entire gameplan centred on denying Celtic time on the ball, with every one of his players accountable for a specific opposite number. This led to an uncomfortable opening for Celtic, who tend to have a spare man at the back against teams employing a sole striker.
Distribution was therefore long and hopeful, at least initially. The classic problem with the Hooper/Stokes partnership reared it’s head again, as neither enjoy receiving high balls, and serves to at least partly explain why Samaras frequently breaks up the partnership.
The flip-side from a defensive point-of-view, is that a single slip-up can quickly lead to an overlap. The key to avoiding such slip-ups is concentration and energy – and it takes a well organised, in-form side to maintain that over 90 minutes.
Fenlon’s side initially stuck to the task with their best spell in the first ten minutes or so, with Celtic mainly restricted to the aforementioned long-balls from the back. But after only 14 minutes Stokes broke the deadlock. Hibs defended poorly from a Mulgrew corner (with the goalkeeper kept at bay by Hooper), leaving the onrushing Stokes free to nod in.
The risk of Hibs’ adventurous approach saw them caught out again on the attack, and Stokes and Hooper were again ruthless in exploiting the gaps. When marking, space is everything, and with the two centre-backs exposed on the half-way line, it was basically a free-rush back to goal. Stokes dragged the centre-backs one way, revealing space for Hooper to receive a pass and ultimately deliver the killer second. It was a move clearly underlining the danger of leaving Celtic’s strikers man-for-man, especially with swathes of space to attack.
Despite the setback, Hibs stuck to the game-plan coming close with arguably their best chance. Demonstrating the benefits of the high-press man-marking system, Adam Matthews was caught under the pressure of Lewis Stephenson, with no easy out-ball. The Hibs winger nudged him aside, but couldn’t finish.
With that chance gone, Hibs were 2 down, just 30 or so minutes into the match and sinking fast. The gamble had back-fired, and the concern for Fenlon was that a system depending on high energy levels and concentration would only deteriorate as the match wore on.
The dilemma is that when trailing 2 goals you can’t make a defensive change and try to get something from the match, and so the capitulation begun.
The second half proved therefore to be a mix of a showcase of Celtic’s attacking talents, an opportunity for Lennon to rotate his squad, and Hibs worsening resolve. The dithering Matt Doherty was removed at half-time, partly due to a blood injury but mainly due to performance. Immediately after the restart Mulgrew fired in a free-kick on Graham Stack’s side – and the ‘keeper should’ve done better.
Hooper grabbed his second when Hibs once again were caught on the attack. Mulgrew’s ball from the back on the counter released James Forrest (now employed on the left-flank). The ball was eventually worked to Hooper on the side edge of the box, who managed to curl a low shot over the arm of the disappointing Stack.
The fifth and final goal exposed another weakness in Hibernian’s plans, and also the usefulness of a ‘number 10’. Hooper by now was replaced by Kris Commons, who operated behind Stokes in a 4-4-1-1. This begged the question of the Hibs defence – who should mark Commons? Previously Hooper was picked up by a centre-back. But by this stage, Commons was allowed space between the lines, and on retrieving the ball in such a position, set Stokes free down the left.
The ball was worked back to Commons in the box, who thrashed a cross-cum-shot fortuitously in off the shin of Ki Sung Yeung. Such luck was the icing on the cake of a momentous week in Scottish football.
5-0 is a damaging result for a side facing relegation, but Fenlon should at least be applauded for taking a positive approach that at least initially held it’s own. For a bottom half club facing Celtic, the options tend to be either ‘have a go’ or ‘park the bus’. The early goals crushed the purpose of the system.
The other football trend when a side goes ‘mano-a-mano’ in terms of formation, is that generally the stronger, higher quality side will prevail and tactics take a back-seat. In this respect Celtic were diligent – depending on passing, movement under pressure and putting trust in their own ability under pressure. It was also important for Scott Brown – targeted for some rough-handed treatment – to keep his cool when the tackles crunched his way.
With the eyes of the media, considering Rangers’ demise expectant of a slip-up, there was more pressure on Celtic than is normal. In that respect it was a hugely impressive victory, from the coach down to the players.