FOR much of this absorbing game, the sheep-slaughterers of Karagandy looked set to be joined in the abattoir by the Butcher of Inverness, the bold Terry looking to all the world –certainly to an agitated Celtic Park – like he was going to send Neil Lennon’s team back into European competition on Wednesday night with a domestic clip round the ear.
The fightback, from 2-0 down to 2-2, might have been admirable and testament to Celtic’s spirit, but the fact that they got themselves into that position in the first place was another indication of their weakness.
Of course, they were without a legion of attacking players – Georgios Samaras, Kris Commons, Anthony Stokes, James Forrest and Derk Boerrigter – but some of those guys won’t be around on Wednesday either.
Samaras and Commons ought to be fine, but Forrest and Boerrigter are rated 50-50 and Stokes is considered doubtful with a calf injury. Beram Kayal went off early yesterday with a sore groin. Virgil van Dijk is feeling his hamstring. Celtic Park wasn’t so much a football stadium last night as a giant casualty ward. The ones who played did themselves few favours. They took until the 81st minute to equalise, a veritable age for a team that had all the possession but none of the wit to break down Butcher’s side, for whom Gary Warren and Josh Meekings set the tone.
Theirs was the kind of concentration and physicality that Lennon is looking for in his own defence, but which he sadly lacks.
If you were looking for signs that Celtic can get the result they need against Shahkter, then you saw nothing here to give you confidence.
They might have other attacking players fit in time for Wednesday, but there is no cavalry to improve this defence. Maybe Mulgrew will play in there instead of Virgil Van Dijk, but Lennon is limited in the changes he can make.
“We’re really stretched, but it is what it is,” said the Celtic manager after the match.
For Inverness’ first goal, Lennon’s men were all too slow to see the danger and paid the price. For the second they were again all over the place from a throw-in just as they had been on Tuesday.
Inverness might have also had a second-half penalty.
Lennon made multiple changes to his team yesterday, but didn’t find the answers he was looking for, didn’t see anything from Amido Balde up front – said to be a long-term prospect with the emphasis on the long – and got another display of vulnerability from too many of his defenders, Matthews apart. The full-back ending up playing as a winger, a position he might well fill against Karagandy during the week.
This was a fine game and it was made that way because of the spirit that Butcher has instilled in his players.
Three wins from three already this season and a win at Celtic Park already under their belt from last season. Butcher is a glass-half-full man so he wouldn’t have bothered about the other three times his team played Celtic. The aggregate score in those matches was 11-4. Butcher would have remembered the 1-0 here last November courtesy of Billy McKay’s winner and cast the rest of it to the wilderness.
They took the lead here when Aaron Doran curled a gorgeous shot into the top left-hand corner of Fraser Forster’s goal. “A good hit,” said Lennon, as opposed to the second, which was a horror show for the Celtic manager. It was a long throw from Meekings which sparked the chaos. Emilio Izaguirre and Richie Foran challenged for it at the near post, the ball coming off the Honduran and carrying to Billy McKay, who headed it back across the six-yard box for the alert Foran to nut home.
It was like watching a re-run of the confused defending from
Tuesday night, a point made by Butcher in the aftermath. “We worked on the long throw having seen Karagandy do it. It worked a treat,” he smiled.
Celtic got themselves together and got a goal back when the
visitors allowed Izaguirre’s cross to fall to Charlie Mulgrew, who put it away from close range, but there was a desperate lack of invention thereafter.
Balde offered little or nothing. Tom Rogic made some inroads but never looked like hurting anybody. Brown tried hard, but that was about all you could say. Matthews was the best of them.
Before the Welshman equalised, though, Inverness had a wonderful chance to score.
Later, they were proud of their point but also mulling over the missed opportunity when Doran skated away from the ponderous Van Dijk but failed to pick out Nick Ross running free in the penalty area. Had he squared it, Inverness might have scored. The move ended when Van Dijk nudged Doran off the ball. The player was claiming a definite penalty afterwards, but his manager gave him short shrift.
“Aaron thinks it was a penalty, but bloody hell, why didn’t he shoot?” said Butcher.
“He’s adamant it was a penalty, but I’m not sure. Why didn’t he just attack the goalie? Earlier, he tried to chip the biggest goalkeeper
[Forster] in the world, tried to chip a 9ft goalie! Donut!”
Butcher’s mood was light and not even the sight of Matthews levelling with nine minutes left could get him down, Brown finding Matthews, who cut inside Graham Shinnie to score at Dean Brill’s near post.
“I’ve cheekily said to the players that it’s two points dropped, but no. It keeps us going. It keeps the boys bouncing along. We’re still unbeaten and it’s a lovely feeling.”
His counterpart, meanwhile, doesn’t have his problems to seek.