DESPITE the re-branded league, new players and the fresh sense of optimism that comes with a new campaign, Celtic’s victory here had a very ‘last season’ feel about it.
As happened on several occasions last term, Celtic struggled to turn their dominance into goals. They also had to recover from an early jolt before recovering to take maximum points.
In the end, Anthony Stokes was the match-winner. Though he missed a couple of other opportunities and took the wrong option on a number of occasions, the Irishman showed that he is an adequate replacement for Gary Hooper, on the domestic scene at least.
Some doubts may exist about his ability to be as productive on the European stage, but here he showed why he is has been offered a new contract by Celtic. Without his persistence and ability to shrug off earlier misses, Neil Lennon’s side might have experienced a rather flat flag day in the early evening sunshine. It is a mystery why both parties have not yet signed and sealed the long talked-about contract extension.
Before Stokes struck with three minutes left, Celtic faced the very real prospect of dropping points on the day they began their defence of the title. Ross County greeted the new season in stunning fashion, when, after only three minutes, Darren Maatsen rifled in a shot from the edge of the box that rebounded down off the bar and then up into the roof of the net.
Remarkably, although Ross County came so close to securing a point, manager Derek Adams later said he would have taken the 2-1 result had he been offered it before kick-off. “The season kicks off for us next weekend,” he added.
In the end, the only real setback as far as Celtic were concerned was the injury suffered by new signing Derk Boerrigter, who limped off in the first-half after jarring his ankle when stretching to reach a Stokes cross.
Celtic delayed making a substitution for several minutes in the hope he might shake the knock off. However, Boerrigter is now a doubt for Wednesday’s second leg Champions League qualifying tie against Elfsborg in Sweden. It is frustrating for Lennon, who watched the former Ajax striker make a lively debut in the time he was on, although he was culpable for missing at least two good goal-scoring chances.
Not that he was alone in this. Kris Commons as well as Stokes should have made this a lot more comfortable for Celtic. All this inevitably encouraged observers to wonder what might have happened had Hooper been playing. However, the forward, who has left to join Norwich City, could miss chances too. And the sign of a good striker is being able to shrug aside spurned chances and keep on getting into positions to score.
Stokes certainly did this after 26 minutes. Indeed, this was one occasion where it would have been harder to miss. Mikael Lustig stabbed a shot across the goal-line after he had got in the way of a Joe Ledley drive. Stokes nudged it over the line from about a yard – a true poacher’s goal. His late winner, after 87 minutes and when it looked like Ross County had weathered the storm, involved slightly more technique. Taking a ball from Commons in his path Stokes then shuffled inside, wrong-footing a pair of defenders in the process. He then unleashed a well-placed effort that beat Mark Brown at his near post, before running to celebrate with Lennon.
Given the pressure heaped on Stokes to become the player Hooper was for Celtic, it was a more than decent afternoon’s work. He will invariably miss more than he scores, but he has the backing of his manager as well as his teammates. “I think it’s harsh, especially with Stokesy scoring two,” said Ledley, when asked if it was fair to speculate whether it might have been more comfortable for Celtic had they still been able to count on Hooper. “Everyone around this club knows how good he [Hooper] was and how good he’s going to be.
“We all look forward to seeing him in the Premier League and we all know he’s a fantastic player. But it’s a chance for other people to come in like Stokesy did. He got his goals. That’s what he is, a goalscorer.”