ANY time that Celtic do not look quite at it in terms of demonstrating an incisiveness in front of goal in these early months of the Scottish Premiership campaign, or in Europe as happened in midweek, the loss of Gary Hooper will be raised and debated.
Scorers: Celtic: Stokes (25, 87); Ross County: Maatsen (2)
Anthony Stokes spared himself and his team-mates from having to field such questions with a goal that was every bit the sort of matchwinner the Englishman regularly conjured up.
Celtic’s bid to post a 14th consecutive home league win in their first day of the new campaign looked set to be coming to nothing when the Irishman picked up the ball to the left of goal with three minutes of normal time remaining. He had players in front of him but he neatly nudged the ball past two of them with the outside of his right foot then readjusted his body and delivered a pinpoint low effort that squeezed between the outstretched hand of Mark Brown and the keeper’s right-hand post. It made for an afternoon when Stokes scored two and in so doing turned one point into three.
It might be the start of a new season, under a new league structure, under a new name, but all the traditional formalities with which the champions open up their league season were unchanged. The club captain lugged on the trophy, the flag was unfurled – by Celtic honorary chairman John Keane – and Neil Doncaster was booed. Oh, and the club’s MC made some reference to Celtic’s “unbroken history”.
The traditions didn’t quite end there, either. At least in the early part of last season, with the outcome of a rivalless championship a formality, it became bog standard for Celtic to require a jolt before they were sparked to life at home. In the evening sunshine made more seductive by the 5.15pm kick-off, the glow initially cast was the result of the Highland club’s efforts.
It has been intriguing to ponder how County might fare following their breakthrough season with their canny manager Derek Adams required to extensively recast his side. Most of the pre-match natter has centred on four recruits from Holland. It took one of them, Darren Maatsen, only two minutes to make a mark. A short corner allowed the 22-year-old to work his way just into the box from where he unleashed a venomous effort that beat Fraser Forster off the underside of his bar.
County, lining up in a 5-4-1 formation that featured other new signings Kevin Luckassen – another of the Dutch quartet – Graham Carey, Ben Gordon and Brian McLean, were soon pegged back and again a national from the Netherlands was to the fore. On his debut following his £2m move from Ajax early this week, Derk Boerrigter was a frisky figure in the wide-left role Georgios Samaras was given leave from ahead of the club’s trip to Sweden for their Champions League qualifying encounter.
Early on he looked certain to become the second of his countrymen to make a scoring contribution when sent through on goal by a fine pass by Kris Commons. The winger steadied himself, eyed his spot and then placed the ball precisely where the alert keeper Mark Brown was able to stick a foot out to stop it. Alas for Boerrigter, his afternoon lasted little more than half an hour with the player, who told us the other day rumours of his injury-prone nature were greatly exaggerated, required to leave the field with an injury. The Celtic bench didn’t seem to believe his afternoon need be ended by an ankle knock sustained when he rushed in to meet a cross as two County defenders closed him down. They encouraged him to run off the problem. He tried, failed and was replaced by Tony Watt.
By then Celtic were seeking to add a second goal to their evening endeavours, having equalised after 25 minutes in the scrappiest fashion. Carey attempted to control the ball following a Celtic corner and only succeeded in knocking it in to the path of Joe Ledley. His low drive caught in the body of Mikael Lustig as if his body were a catcher’s mitt. A completely scuffed shot on the turn that followed from the Swede trundled across goal where it was helped in by Anthony Stokes.
In an encounter with bags to sustain the interest, it was a deserved equaliser.
Stokes’ late winner, which came after he had a good penalty claim turned down, spared his team-mate requiring to muse much on a unproductive afternoon.