FOR Celtic, a nightmare journey through the night to Kazakhstan, but one made infinitely easier by the quelling of the mini red revolution.
Scorers: Commons 44 (pen), Forrest 87
For Aberdeen, the pain of seeing their challenge disfigured by the dismissal of their goalkeeper, Jamie Langfield, and the concession of a penalty to boot, a penalty that Kris Commons scored to put Neil Lennon’s team on their way.
This was not the game we hoped it would be but the Celtic manager didn’t give a damn about that. Aberdeen really fancied their chances here, really thought their own momentum and Celtic’s possible distraction of a European qualifier to come might add up to one of those days at Pittodrie. It didn’t.
Derek McInnes will have been happy enough to see his players tough it out until the end and expressed hope that the big home following would stick by the team, but it was Celtic who eased through, the Commons penalty added to late on by a fortunate second from James Forrest.
Lennon will have been relieved, if not delighted, to see the competitive debut of his new centre-half, Virgil van Dijk, who came on with 13 minutes left to play and is now, in his manager’s words, bang there in terms of selection for Tuesday night’s Champions League qualifier. Four or five others who didn’t feature – or didn’t feature for the whole match yesterday – will also come into the picture. Amido Balde played no part here.
Up until Commons scored his penalty, there was not a lot in it. Celtic had more of the ball for sure, but they weren’t exactly peppering Langfield with attempts on goal. They had one attempt on target and it was hardly one that bothered the goalkeeper unduly.
Mostly what we had was endeavour and physicality. We had masses of energy and commitment and tackles, some of them lusty, some of them so lusty from the home side that they had their support in raptures. It was that type of game, the tone being set in the opening minutes when Georgios Samaras was ransacked three times to the noisy delight of throngs in red in the stands.
They turned out in huge numbers, but the game, for large parts, was a strait-jacket and there was no escape from the midfield hubbub and the claustrophobia that existed everywhere.
It took half an hour for somebody to get a shot on target. That was the way of it. Everything was snuffed out by a crunching tackle or a badly directed cross. Full house, near enough. But nothing much to see.
It changed just before the break, when Samaras latched on to a long ball and went around Langfield, who hauled him down. From little of note to drama in the blink of an eye.
Langfield was shown the red card. Big Calvin Zola was sacrificed to make way for a new goalkeeper, Nicky Weaver, whose first task to face that Commons penalty. It wasn’t a solid strike but it was good enough. Celtic had the lead and the numerical advantage. Only the most diehard Don would have doubted that they probably had the game, too, at that point.
If there’s comfort to be had for Aberdeen then it came not with a point, or points, but with the sight of their team digging in and refusing to allow Celtic run through them. They were now stripped of their human cherry-picker, Zola, up front but, still, they carved out their best chance of the match a few minutes into the new half when Jonny Hayes curled a cross into the six-yard box where it was met by Niall McGinn.
Of all the Aberdeen players, McGinn was the guy you would have put your mortgage on to execute. He was so close to Fraser Forster that he could almost have stretched out an arm and shaken hands. His header, though, was directed straight at the Celtic goalkeeper, who did a good job in beating it away. A yard either side and Forster would have been helpless.
In such moments are games decided. A goal and a man down, it was decidedly unwise to pass up such a great opportunity. McGinn knew it. Pittodrie knew it. They didn’t get another chance all day.
Not even when they brought on a winger, Gregg Wylde, for a centre-half, Russell Anderson. Ambitious, but unproductive, save for a testing cross that Van Dijk managed to
That was with only eight minutes to go, by which time Celtic should have been further ahead, chances falling the way of Samaras, Charlie Mulgrew, Scott Brown, Joe Ledley and Mikael Lustig.
When Forrest burst clear to score the second, his chip coming off Mark Reynolds and looping over Weaver’s head, then it was only what Celtic deserved.
To Kazakhstan, then. One fish fried yesterday. A juicier one to come on Tuesday.