AT A cost of £2.4m, Teemu Pukki hasn’t exactly pulled up any trees since his arrival from Schalke in the summer, his manager, Neil Lennon, constantly having to make allowances for his flatness in front of goal, his inability to get to the pitch of the Scottish game.
SCORER: Celtic - Pukki 28
The Finn had not scored in 15 games before this dour victory. Not many people would have exited the stadium into the wind and rain with a smile on their face but Pukki was surely one of them. His goal came at last – and it was decisive. Celtic are now unbeaten in 15 matches in the league.
The goal came early and for a moment there was a thought that Celtic were going to continue their recent goal blitz on the domestic front, but such ruthlessness was absent. For Celtic, this wasn’t even a return to their wasteful ways following a brief interlude of clinical finishing against Hearts and Motherwell. They had so much possession in this game, so much pressure and yet they created very little. What shots they had were normally from distance and Ben Williams was equal to them.
The foul weather didn’t help the occasion, that’s for sure. Hibs tried to hound and harry their hosts, tried to frustrate the life out of them, but it wasn’t enough and it made for a grim afternoon at times. Terry Butcher’s team hit a Celtic post in the second half but they didn’t deserve a point, even if they had reduced Celtic to a bit of a mess by the end, the home team hanging on at the death and looking to win a game-clinching second goal courtesy of a penalty appeal from Emilio Izaguirre after he tumbled in a tackle from Michael Nelson. The Honduran was booked for diving. Lennon said the referee, Bobby Madden, got it right.
There wasn’t much noise in the place either but Lennon made a point of praising those who sang in this new age of the broken Green Brigade.
A rare piece of precision won the day and it came just before the half-hour when Scott Brown put Joe Ledley away down the left, the Welshman then squaring for Pukki to put it away. It was the Finn’s first goal since 21 September and only his third for his club and, bhoy, was it needed.
“It was a boost for him,” said Lennon. “It was a good striker’s goal, the way he got in front of the defender at the near post. He finished well. He’s a shy boy, you know. I want him to bring out more of his personality on the pitch and off the pitch. I’ve been pleased with his contribution at times. He’s not prolific and he never will be, but he’ll weigh in with his fair share of goals and has something to offer.”
It was helpful for Lennon that his team began their recovery from the midweek mauling in Barcelona against a side that cannot score as opposed to the Spaniards who could barely stop. Butcher’s job at Hibs is a multi-layered project: firstly, solidifying his defence and bringing some resistance and consistency to the team – he seems to be getting there on that one – and, secondly, trying to introduce an element of goal threat. That’s a task that might take some time and require new personnel.
They had their moments, including a Liam Craig shot that slapped off Fraser Forster’s post in the second half, but the bottom line is that they have scored only one goal in their last eight matches and are attempting the impossible. No team has ever made strides while having the equivalent of a water pistol for an attack. If there is one player that this team is crying out for then it was one Butcher knows better than anybody. If the Hibs manager could prise Billy McKay away from Inverness Caledonian Thistle then he might get somewhere a whole lot quicker than if he has to stick with what he has got. You wouldn’t dismiss them on this performance, but quite plainly Hibs have precious little firepower.
“The gameplan was to frustrate them,” said Butcher. “Apart from the goal they haven’t really cut through us. They haven’t hurt us, but we haven’t hurt them either. We had Liam’s shot and a few skirmishes, but I’m really pleased with the effort and the commitment. We’re becoming hard to beat and resilient. We’re making progress and taking baby-steps forward.”
In his inimitable way, Butcher spoke of his pre-match team-talk, an epic by the sounds of it. “I mentioned Lawrence of Arabia, David and Goliath and George Washington,” he said, before admitting that his players probably hadn’t a clue what he was on about but that he felt pretty pleased with himself in saying it. “We’re building foundations,” said the Hibs manager.
“We’re getting a strong base in place and then we can add the glamour bits like pace and craft. We don’t want to build a two-up, two-down, we want to build a luxury penthouse.”
Celtic’s victory, but for undiluted optimism Butcher really does take some beating.