ON A hugely anti-climactic afternoon for Aberdeen and their supporters, Celtic rediscovered the level of domestic form required to successfully marry their defence of the SPL title with their Champions League ambitions.
Celtic - Lassad 73; Mulgrew 77
Two goals in the space of four second-half minutes – a maiden strike from Tunisian forward Lassad Nouioui and an opportunistic effort from Charlie Mulgrew on his 100th appearance for Celtic – earned Neil Lennon’s side what was a fully merited first league victory in four. They will now travel to Portugal tomorrow full of confidence ahead of their pivotal European tie with Benfica on Tuesday night. Aberdeen were unable to meet the expectations of those who believed them capable of a win which would have catapulted them above Celtic in the SPL table. In front of their biggest home league attendance in six years, Craig Brown’s side lacked the intensity and conviction necessary to overcome opponents who ultimately collected all three points with a degree of comfort.
“It was disappointing, we didn’t do enough to win the game,” admitted Aberdeen manager Brown. “It looked like a 0-0 to me, but that was maybe being optimistic. That’s the mark of champions from Celtic, though. When they need to win a game, they do.”
Brown certainly adopted the kind of positive approach which matched the sense of optimism which had permeated Aberdeen’s support in the build-up to the match. He deployed a 3-4-3 formation, with wide men Ryan Fraser and Jonny Hayes flanking in-form central striker Niall McGinn, as they sought to take the fight to the champions at every opportunity.
Hayes gave encouragement to the home fans with a couple of early efforts at goal, the first driven just wide from a tight angle and the second comfortably held by Fraser Forster, but they generally found it difficult to find space in behind the Celtic defence.
McGinn’s bid to score in an eighth successive league match for Aberdeen, a feat last achieved by Frank McDougall back in 1984-85, would prove fruitless. The closest the Ulsterman came to netting against his former club was a smart shot on the turn which flew narrowly wide.
It was the visitors who had the clearest opportunities throughout the afternoon, passing up a trio of headed opportunities in the first half alone which they would have expected to convert.
Victor Wanyama was the first culprit, nodding over from inside the six-yard box after being picked out by Mulgrew’s sweetly delivered corner. Tony Watt, leading the Celtic attack in the continuing absence of Gary Hooper, came closer when he got on the end of Kris Commons’ cross from the right but his glancing effort struck the base of Jamie Langfield’s right hand post.
The threat to Aberdeen from set pieces was constant and Mikael Lustig was the third man to fail to make the most of a headed chance, the Swede badly miscuing from six yards.
Aberdeen were forced into a change at the start of the second half with Clark Robertson replacing Gavin Rae, the loss of the experienced former Scotland international lessening their competitive edge in midfield. They almost snatched the opener in the 68th minute, McGinn bursting down the right to set up a chance for Hayes who could only drive his shot wide.
With a goalless stalemate beginning to look the likeliest outcome, Celtic went ahead five minutes later. Wanyama unleashed a thunderous 25-yard shot which crashed back off Langfield’s left hand post. The ball broke to substitute Lassad, who had replaced Kris Commons moments before, and the 25-year-old coolly guided home a first time right foot shot from around 14 yards.
“Lassad is a great asset for us,” reflected Celtic manager Lennon. “He’s had a few injuries since he came but we know what a good player he is. His performance for 20 minutes today was superb.”
Before Aberdeen could regroup, Celtic doubled their lead and effectively killed the game as a contest. Georgios Samaras’ cross-cum-shot from the left was deflected into the path of Mulgrew who turned sharply to beat Langfield from close range.
Celtic thought they had added a third in the 82nd minute, but Wanyama’s close range header was ruled out for offside after an Efe Ambrose effort had been parried by Langfield.
Although Celtic were the more effective side, the match as a spectacle was less than memorable.
“The pitch wasn’t conducive to good football today,” observed Lennon. “So we went with a powerful team, trying to exploit corner kicks and throw-ins. It wasn’t our normal way of playing but it was necessary in the conditions.
“We had good control of the game, my back four were excellent and my goalkeeper had very little to do against an Aberdeen team with their tails up and a big crowd behind them. It was a real test for my players today and they came through it very well.”