FOR a game that hardly got out of the starting blocks in terms of quality and entertainment, this antsy contest had had a number of talking points and no shortage of bitchiness and edge.
SCORER - Stokes 87
ATTENDANCE - 10586
Neil Lennon and Jackie McNamara had a contretemps in the aftermath, both on the touchline and in some verbal jousting in their respective post-match comments. Both managers accused a player from the other side of committing a reckless tackle during the game and in the business of the winning goal – a gorgeous Anthony Stokes free-kick with three minutes left to play – there was disagreement also.
The upshot is that Celtic dug deep and hoisted themselves above what was a mundane performance. There was huge relief on that count. Too many times last season they
followed a positive result in Europe with a negative one in domestic competition and it looked like it
was heading that way again until Stokes struck what was his 50th goal for the club.
Defensively, they were a different team to last weekend, with Virgil van Dijk and Efe Ambrose providing authority at the heart of the back four, where a week ago against Inverness they were jumpy and vulnerable. United’s terriers, Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven and David Goodwillie, got little change out of the Celtic defence. If we turned up expecting to see some class from these guys – and their counterparts down the other end – then we were disappointed. Derk Boerrigter was an anonymous presence for much of the day, for instance. Lennon blamed a sticky pitch for the lack of impact from the ball players. He questioned whether United have a sprinkler system so dry was the surface.
United didn’t do nearly enough to win it, but might have thought that they defended well enough themselves to avoid losing it. To the winner, then. And the source of much frustration for the hosts.
Celtic may have signed a new striker yesterday in Teemu Pukki and then brought on another new one before the end at Tannadice, but it was the old stager Stokes who made it two late salvage jobs in a week for Lennon’s team. The finish, a cushioned curler that slapped off the inside of Radoslaw Cierzniak’s right-hand post before finding the net on the opposite side of his goal, was emphatic but the award of the free-kick in the first place, and the position it was taken from, were the reasons for the home team’s disquiet.
“I didn’t see much contact there,” said Gavin Gunning of his team-mate Stuart Armstrong’s challenge on Stokes that led to the award. “I didn’t think it was a free-kick.” Stokes, not surprisingly, disagreed. “He’s caught me 100 per cent,” said the striker. “No doubt about it. There was contact. He dived in.”
McNamara chipped in as well. “Whether it was a free-kick or not, I don’t know. I’ll have to watch it again. But before he [Stokes] took it, he moved the ball back a few yards and gave himself an advantage that he shouldn’t have got. And that was the difference between the goal going over Armstrong’s head in the wall. It was a sickener to lose like that.”
McNamara wasn’t unhappy about something else as well. Mikael Lustig had to be stretchered off early in the second half after a collision with Gunning. Immediately on impact, Lustig started signalling frantically that somebody was badly wrong, hitting the floor clutching his right ankle. Later, the prognosis wasn’t as grim as was first feared. No tear and no cause for a long-term lay-off. Lennon described Gunning’s tackle as “reckless”. McNamara retaliated. “It was two honest guys going for the ball. A reckless challenge would be the Scott Brown’s on Stuart
Armstrong.” For Gunning’s part, he went to see Lustig once the match was over to make sure he was okay. “The way I saw it, we both went for the ball and there was no malice in it,” said the United man.
Lennon had more things on his mind than getting involved in a drawn-out spat with his opposite number. With the transfer window closing last night, he was keen to get back on the road to Glasgow and check in with Peter Lawwell to see how his pursuit of new recruits was going. Such is the difference in their respective worlds that nobody thought to ask McNamara about any transfer business he might be involved in himself. The question didn’t really need to be asked, in fairness.
His team were dogged yesterday, they defended well, showed good attitude and were largely untroubled by Celtic for the most part but, in the end, a bit of class did for them.
They had a few early scares when Celtic started brightly, Boerrrigter, Stokes and two efforts from Van Dijk indicating that Celtic might be about to give them a going-over. It was a Celtic without Georgios Samaras – his manager said he was given time off to attend to a “serious personal issue back home” – but they looked alive and dangerous. It didn’t last.
United forced first half saves from Fraser Forster, one from a Goodwillie header and another from a Nadir Ciftci free-kick and that was as good as it got for United. Celtic had much of the ball but created precious little until Stokes won that free-kick and promptly swept his side to
victory with his clinical finish. After his work for the winner on Wednesday night, the Dubliner sent out a message to Pukki and the rest that he’s going to take a bit of shifting from this team.