A SECOND successive seven-goal Hampden thriller in just over 24 hours resulted in Celtic warding off their recent hoodoo at the National Stadium to book a return on 26 May when they will face Hibs in the 2013 William Hill Scottish Cup Final.
Dundee United: Mackay Steven 24; Daly 30, 71.
Celtic: Commons 2, 60; Wanyama 31; Stokes 105.
Bookings: Flood, Millar, Armstrong (Dundee United), Wanyama, Kayal (Celtic)
Referee: Craig Thomson
Substitute Anthony Stokes’ goal, 14 minutes into extra time, settled a pulsating semi-final in favour of the tournament favourites who were given an almighty scare by a Dundee United side growing in stature under the management of former Celtic captain Jackie McNamara.
In contrast to Saturday’s first semi-final, when Hibs hit back from 3-0 down to claim their 4-3 extra-time triumph, this tie was on a knife-edge with neither side opening up more than a one-goal lead at any stage.
Appropriately enough, it came down to a case of the finest margins during the additional 30 minutes which the teams went into tied at 3-3. Jon Daly, outstanding throughout for United, was denied a hat-trick when his 100th minute header struck a post and just four minutes later Stokes nodded home what proved to be the winner.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon, whose team is poised to wrap up a second consecutive SPL title win next weekend, can now set his sights on achieving his club’s first championship and Scottish Cup double since 2007.
During the build-up to this tie, McNamara had consistently stressed the need for his team to be more defensively diligent than they were in their 6-2 SPL defeat at Celtic Park two months earlier.
It took them just 83 seconds to disappoint him in that regard as they conceded the opener to Kris Commons. While it was a magnificent strike by the Celtic forward, who has enjoyed a fine season for the champions, United were lax in closing him down when he received the ball from Victor Wanyama.
Mark Millar and Willo Flood both failed in half-hearted challenges on Commons who took full advantage of the space afforded him as he swept a terrific left-foot shot high to the left of Radoslaw Cierzniak and into the roof of the net from around 20 yards.
To United’s credit, they were not panicked by such an early setback and proceeded to give as good as they got in a hugely entertaining first half. McNamara had opted to fight fire with fire tactically, matching up to Celtic’s 4-3-3 formation with Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Gauld given licence to support central striker Daly in attack.
Their first sight of goal came in eight minutes when Fraser Forster was
penalised for gathering Mikael Lustig’s passback with his hands. From the close-range free-kick, Millar, Flood and Mackay-Steven saw successive attempts blocked by some resolute Celtic defending.
Gauld, generally catching the eye with his confidence and composure, was then unable to capitalise on a sharp chance presented to him by a Daly knockdown, the youngter unable to get the ball under control quickly enough.
In a remarkably open contest, Celtic threatened to double their lead through long-range efforts by Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest which both flew just over. They then missed a glorious chance to make it 2-0, Lustig getting on the end of an Emilio Izaguirre cross and contriving to head it against Cierzniak’s left-hand post from no more than four yards.
Lennon’s exasperated reaction to the miss was an indication of how pivotal a moment it might be and so it proved as his team was left stunned when they went 2-1 behind before half an hour had elapsed.
The passage of play which culminated in the 24th minute equaliser began with Joe Ledley being dispossessed inside the United penalty area by John Rankin, sparking a sweeping counter attack. Daly held the ball up smartly before Mackay-Steven exchanged passes with Gauld and guided a firm left-foot shot beyond Forster from 14 yards.
United had a penalty claim turned down two minutes later, Mackay-Steven going down in the box under Wanyama’s clumsy challenge, before going in front through Daly’s first goal of the afternoon. Izaguirre fouled Mackay-Steven to concede a free kick which Barry Douglas delivered from the left, picking out Daly whose close-range header gave Forster no chance.
Frustratingly for McNamara, his team was able to hold the lead for just less than a minute. Almost straight from the restart, Celtic worked the ball to Commons whose clever pass inside Mackay-Steven sent Izaguirre free on the left. The Honduran full-back’s cross was thumped home from seven yards by the head of Wanyama.
In the second half, Celtic were more successful in pressing the ball higher up the pitch, restricting the time and space United had earlier been exploiting. It looked as if the tide had turned firmly in Celtic’s favour when they went 3-2 in front on the hour mark, albeit the goal was not without controversy.
Efe Ambrose began the move with a surging run to send Izaguirre free on the left and his cross found the unmarked Commons who bundled the ball home from close range. The ball appeared the strike the Celtic attacker on his lower right arm, if involuntarily, but there was no appeal from the United defenders nor intervention by the match officials.
Commons was then denied a hat-trick by a brilliant point-blank range save by Cierzniak, but just as Celtic seemed to be turning the screw, United got it back to 3-3 in the 71st minute. Mackay-Steven looped in a cross from the left and Daly rose unchallenged at the far post to nod the ball back across goal and in off Forster’s right-hand post.
Neither side could find a winner in normal time, taking them into the draining additional period. Daly was left to curse his luck when he headed against Forster’s left-hand post from ten yards and Celtic made the most of that let-off, grabbing their 104th minute winner when Stokes bulleted home a Forrest cross from close range.
The only sour footnotes for Celtic were bookings for Wanyama and Kayal which rule both players out of next month’s final but that could not dilute the expression of joy and relief from Lennon at full-time as he ended a run of three successive defeats at Hampden.