NEIL Lennon’s reluctance to contemplate his prospects of winning the treble this season proved painfully prescient for the Celtic manager as his team suffered a stunning first hurdle elimination from the League Cup.
Scorers: Morton: Imrie (97 pen)
He had warned that it takes just one “off-night” to scupper an assault on the domestic clean sweep and this was all of that and more for the Scottish champions.
Dougie Imrie’s penalty five minutes into extra time earned a famous triumph for a Morton side who came into the third round tie on a run of desperate form in the Championship. It was an extraordinary evening for the Greenock club, who recorded their first victory at Celtic Park for 43 years.
Allan Moore’s men can look forward to the quarter-final draw with relish after a heroic and at times backs-to-the-wall effort.
For Lennon, this was an occasion with no redeeming features, with many of his fringe men failing to make any case at all for regular inclusion in his side. As he looked to strike the right balance in his squad rotation ahead of Saturday’s Premiership trip to Kilmarnock and the Champions League visit of Barcelona next Tuesday, he made five changes. There were first starting appearances of the season for Lukasz Zaluska, Nir Biton and Dylan McGeouch, while Tom Rogic and Mikael Lustig also stepped in.
The top tier of the stadium, where there will not be a spare seat in sight when Lionel Messi & Co come calling, was closed last night. But a predictably sparse home attendance was at least supplemented by an impressive Morton support of around 2,500 whose voluble presence was certainly felt. Their journey up the M8 was well worth it.
They saw their team, deployed in a tight 4-4-1-1 formation, make an encouraging start as they contained Celtic and staved off the early barrage of pressure they might have expected to be placed under. Indeed, it was Morton who posted the first effort on target, although Slovakian midfielder Michal Habai’s curling shot was comfortably saved by Zaluska.
Celtic’s advanced midfield trio of McGeouch, Rogic and Derk Boerrigter struggled to find any rhythm or togetherness in support of central striker Teemu Pukki. The home side’s first sniff of goal came from a Charlie Mulgrew corner, but neither Lustig nor Virgil van Dijk could connect with the inviting set piece.
Morton goalkeeper Nicolas Canaux was called into action for the first time in the 17th minute. The young Frenchman looked less than wholly convincing as he held Pukki’s shot on the turn at the second attempt. As Celtic tried to build some meaningful momentum, Boerrigter should have done better than head an excellent cross by Lustig wide from around eight yards out.
Most of Morton’s defensive work was impressively composed, but Tomas Peciar resorted to more agricultural methods when he left Rogic in a heap 25 yards out. Mulgrew bent the resulting free kick towards Canaux’s top right-hand corner where the ’keeper made a spectacular one-handed save.
Van Dijk ventured forward to try to inject some variety into Celtic’s attacking efforts and the big Dutch defender caused mild panic in the Morton penalty area with a fine run and cross in the 30th minute. The ball was cleared only as far as Biton who, with plenty of time to size up his volley, might have been expected to do more than blaze it over the crossbar.
Morton suffered a blow five minutes before the interval when David O’Brien was carried off on a stretcher after suffering an injury in a challenge with McGeouch. The midfielder was replaced by Tony Wallace and the visitors saw it through to half-time with the scoreline still blank, much to the delight of their fans.
Lennon resisted what must have been a temptation to make at least one change to his lacklustre side for the start of the second half. There was little immediate improvement in the incisiveness of their play as they were restricted to long-range efforts by their obdurate opponents.
Rogic weaved neatly past a couple of challenges to fire in a 20-yard shot which Caraux threw himself to his right to clutch safely, then Biton tested the ’keeper with a firm, low drive from all of 25 yards which was held low to his left.
For all of their stubborn resistance and compact shape, Morton were seldom seen as an attacking force. Lone striker Kabba-Modo Cham did manage to burst clear in the 61st minute, but he was halted on the edge of the Celtic penalty area by the combined efforts of Van Dijk and Efe Ambrose. The optimistic appeals of the Morton fans for a penalty went unheeded by referee Bobby Madden.
Lennon decided the time was right for his first substitution of the night four minutes later, replacing the largely ineffective Rogic with Anthony Stokes. As the home side’s frustration intensified, Adam Matthews and then Kris Commons were also called into action at the expense of the disappointing duo of McGeouch and Boerrigter.
Celtic continued to dominate possession to little effect and there was the scent of late drama for Morton when they won an 89th minute free kick, Tony Wallace fouled on the edge of the penalty area by Van Dijk. But Dougie Imrie swept the set piece a couple of yards over the crossbar.
Taking the tie into extra time was an achievement in itself for Morton and the perceived wisdom would be that they would eventually succumb to Celtic’s superior fitness. The penalty award to Moore’s side five minutes into the extra period soon changed that view.
There was little doubt about the decision, Ambrose handling the ball just inside the area as he slipped in trying to dispossess Morton substitute Archie Campbell. The tireless Imrie stepped up to send Zaluska the wrong way from the spot and the Morton fans into raptures.
Morton survived some desperate pressure from Celtic in the second half of extra time, culminating in Mulgrew striking a post in the 120th minute before their wild celebrations could begin.