It says everything about Celtic’s current command of the Scottish game that Brendan Rodgers seemed to relish his side being reduced to ten men at Hamilton on Saturday.
He might not have welcomed the laughable second booking by Willie Collum that ended Callum McGregor’s afternoon just after the break – an “awful” decision he called the sending off – but it provided him with another opportunity to demonstrate his ability to impact games with a tactical astuteness.
Celtic were better with ten men than 11. Helped in no small part by the wondrous 28-yard hit by Stuart Armstrong only seven minutes after McGregor’s 47th minute dismissal that effectively ended the contest, certainly, but also by Rodgers avoiding the obvious when presented with the situation of being a man short.
By then Moussa Dembele was in the lone striker role in place of Leigh Griffiths. The Scotland striker was withdrawn at the interval with a tightening calf as a precaution – a problem that did not prevent him producing a lethal finish just before the break in racing through to squeeze a low drive into a space that didn’t seem to exist inside the near post.
The standard response of a coach to his team being one man down but one goal up in stormy conditions on a synthetic surface built up to be dangerously unpredictable is to shore up; protect what he has with a 4-4-1. Such passivity, in essence, is not the proactive Rodgers way. At least not in an environment wherein his club are so equipped to outmuscle opponents in terms of both monetary and manpower they could probably win the league with a season-long handicap of fielding only ten men.
“To get a man sent off presents us with a different challenge. And it was a challenge we prepared for back in pre-season,” Rodgers said. “The players will tell you that we do a lot of work on overload, on ten versus nine, eight against seven, and that was our first chance to look at it. I was looking forward to that.
“We go to 4-3-2 so we can still be attacking with two strikers up and we still have our three in midfield. There is not a lot of change, but there is a subtle change. When we get to that we still looked really threatening. We get a great second goal and the third was a really good bit of play – and we could have added to it as well. So it was a very good win and a notoriously difficult place. Hamilton have drawn ten times this season which shows how difficult they are at home, especially, to play against. “
The 84th-minute third goal, a smart cutback that featured in a bright cameo by injury-returnee James Forrest converted by Dembele for the French striker’s first from open play in two months, meant a return to the convincing scorelines that have framed much of this incredible 13-game Premiership winning run in a remarkable 22-game unbeaten domestic season comprised 21 victories.
Dembele is likely to get the nod for the Hogmanay trip to Ibrox despite the fact that Griffiths has now netted in each of his past four starts. Before that, there is Wednesday’s visit by Ross County for which McGregor will be suspended because of another seeing-something-that-simply-wasn’t there moment from Collum. A mere coming together with Scott McMann, caused by his stride after he challenged for a ball, was deemed a second bookable offence that even Collum won’t be able to justify to himself on reviewing the incident.
“It’s a bad decision,” said Rodgers. “I could tell at the time. You could sense from the crowd, and obviously three quarters is Celtic, but I could sense from the home supporters as well. I know my player. Callum intercepts and blocks. He isn’t one to make tackles. He did what I asked him to do. He went to press the first one when the throw comes in, then press the next one. He was trying to jump to protect himself in case he gets hit by the ball and, of course, his momentum takes him forward. So how he can send him off for that? It’s a really poor decision. I am not sure if we can do anything”
Rodgers continues to do no wrong and presents that as doing right by his entire squad. His turnover of players in the starting XI has allowed him to franchise so many individuals in a top-heavy pool. He wants to cut the numbers – and has determined he will help Efe Ambrose, linked with Marseille, find the right new club because of his regard for the Nigerian as “a human being” – but has such authority that the fact he has so many players he has succeeded in practially turning into a virtue when for predecessor Ronny Deila it was such a headache
“We have a plan for them all and they all understand that in here there are two important things. First of all they defend the culture of the club, which is about respect, and they defend the values of the team. There is no individual – any of them – who is better than the collective.
“They all buy into that. When they score they all want to be with each other. They all have an important role. They understand that if we are going to play 60-odd games, win trophies and be at the highest level you can, then they can’t all contribute [all the time].”