GIVEN that this match was so disappointingly underwhelming, it is surprising that it should be framed in such a controversial context.
Scorer: Stokes (87)
Referee: C Allan
Recent meetings between these two sides have been awash with goals, so perhaps we were due one that had seemed destined to end without one.
Only one came our way on Saturday, just three minutes before the end of normal time in a contest that perhaps suffered because of the endeavours of both sides in their respective cup commitments in midweek. United probably did not do enough to win the match. However, did they offer little enough to deserve to lose? Their manager Jackie McNamara did not think so.
The difference was a fine free-kick goal by Antony Stokes, who took full advantage of a chance he himself had earned in disputed circumstances following challenges by a combination of Keith Watson and Stuart Armstrong on the edge of the box. It was contentious for a number of reasons.
Although Stokes was adamant that he had been caught, Paul Paton, the United midfielder, reckoned it was simulation on the striker’s part – and he said as much afterwards.
On top of this, United were also dismayed by Stokes being permitted to move the ball back a yard or so in order to obtain some more room in which to make it easier to get the ball “up and down”, as they say in footballers’ parlance.
You say easier, but to execute something Ronaldo now has down to a fine art still requires talent. Stokes’ strike was exquisitely struck. The ball kissed Dundee United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak’s right-hand post and then ran behind the Pole into the side netting on the other side.
McNamara’s ire was heightened by the fact United were awarded a free kick in a similar spot at the other end just minutes earlier. Substitute Ryan Gauld had taken it. Still only 17 years old, the winger has perhaps still to learn how to gain an advantage in slightly underhand fashion. He chose to try to get the ball up and down from a position that was almost too near to the goal. Unsurprisingly, his effort struck the wall and the ball was then cleared.
When Stokes was given his chance in a similar position, he was cute enough to drag the ball back a yard so from where Crawford Allan, the referee, had indicated the free kick should be taken, right on the edge of the box. Had the United defenders in the wall been more alert, they might have shuffled up a yard or two in response. But they didn’t and paid the penalty.
“Maybe that’s why the wall was about 15 yards away when he [Stokes] hit it,” reflected Paton later.
Paton believed Celtic should not have been awarded the free kick in the first place. “It wasn’t me who made the tackle, but I could see that it was clearly a dive,” he said.
Paton showed his displeasure with Stokes at the time, as the pair became involved in a finger-pointing spat. “These things happen in a game,” he shrugged, in reference to the angry scenes. “It is all a bit of a blur now.”
Celtic manager Neil Lennon had already angered McNamara by marching on to the pitch at half-time to remonstrate with the referee, who had blown the half-time whistle just after the visitors had been awarded a corner. Later, McNamara was furious when the referee did exactly the same again – blowing his full-time whistle just as United were preparing to take a corner, and after being implored to do so by Celtic skipper Scott Brown. Allan responded by reaching for his whistle, having originally seemed prepared to allow the corner to be taken. It is unusual enough to see the whistle blown just before a corner, never mind twice in the same match.
It led to angry scenes on the touchline between the two former Celtic team-mates. McNamara believed the referee felt compelled to even things up after Lennon’s original broadside. Some rancour was already festering after Mikael Lustig sustained what initially looked like a serious injury in a clash with Gavin Gunning. The United player had barged into the back of Lustig while they contested a high ball.
To some, it was a 50-50 challenge. In Lennon’s eyes, it was “reckless”. The Celtic manager had a point – Gunning crashed into Lustig as the Swede was in the air, and the challenge did look ill-advised and dangerous.
Fortunately, Lustig’s injury is not nearly as bad as first feared. It provided Lennon with some consolation after later learning that efforts to bring Manchester United full-back Alex Buttner to Celtic before the transfer deadline had failed, while an offer for Peterborough United midfielder Lee Tomlin was rejected by club’s manager Darren Ferguson.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Anthony Stokes (Celtic)
He can be frustrating but he deserves credit for keeping on going even when things haven’t come off for him. As against Shakhter Karagandy, Stokes’ most vital contribution came in the dying minutes, and had a game-changing impact.