HALF empty or half full? You could apply either description to Celtic Park on Saturday which, with the top tier closed, was operating at just over 50 per cent capacity.
Celtic 1-2 Aberdeen
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes (8); Aberdeen - Anderson (38), Pawlett (49)
When those Celtic supporters in attendance left the stadium after seeing their team’s hold on the Scottish Cup wrenched away by resurgent Aberdeen, they were also left to reflect on whether they now view their season through a half empty or half full glass.
A third consecutive title win has long been little more than a formality for Neil Lennon’s team, who are still unbeaten in the Premiership with a 21-point lead over the Dons at the top of the table. That remains the most significant indicator of a club’s domestic pre-eminence and no-one could dispute Celtic’s status as the best team in the country. But there is also no question that this has proved a far less fulfilling campaign on the pitch for the champions.
The disappointment of missing out on a Scottish Cup final which will be staged at their own stadium on 17 May cannot be underestimated. Saturday’s defeat saw Celtic’s bid for back-to-back domestic doubles abruptly halted. Having also fallen at home to Morton in the last 16 of the League Cup in September, it is the first time for 32 years they have failed to reach the quarter-finals of both domestic cup competitions in the same season.
With the incentive of appearing in the showpiece finale to the campaign now gone, Celtic may find motivation hard to come by in its remaining months. Effectively, the 14 league fixtures they still have to fulfil are now preparation for the Champions League qualifiers which begin on 15 July.
Attempting to complete the Premiership season unbeaten remains an ambition for Celtic to pursue but Anthony Stokes, whose early goal on Saturday was wiped out by Aberdeen’s vibrant response, admits that will prove beyond them on current form.
“We want to maintain the unbeaten league run as long as possible,” said the Irish striker. “But, if we put in too many performances like this, then it won’t last much longer. We need to rectify what went wrong against Aberdeen.
“I really don’t know what it is. Listen, we’ve done well in the league but cup games have been different. We certainly don’t treat them any different. We prepare for them exactly the same as we do for the league. But if I could put my finger on what is going wrong for us in the cups I would tell you – and then I would let the gaffer know too. Every competition we are involved in, we set out to try to win it. It’s as simple as that. That’s the expectations that are there at a club like Celtic. So we are all bitterly disappointed, but setbacks happen in football and we all have to bounce back and move on. We will assess this game and see where we went wrong and try and ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane was at Celtic Park to see Stokes score only his third goal in his last 19 games for Celtic. “I didn’t know he was here and scoring means nothing to me now,” shrugged Stokes. “I haven’t been prolific this season. The goal should have given us a foothold in the game, but we didn’t maintain it. Our performance level just wasn’t there and we can’t hide from that.”
The platform was certainly laid for Celtic to exert a firm grip on the tie when Stokes produced a sublime first touch to bring a lofted Georgios Samaras pass under control and then drive a close range shot beyond Jamie Langfield in the eighth minute. But the home side failed to gather the kind of momentum the breakthrough should have provided. Instead, Aberdeen grew in both conviction and cohesion with Barry Robson and Willo Flood dictating the tempo and direction of the tie.
Derek McInnes’ side fully merited their equaliser seven minutes from half-time, Celtic’s zonal marking proving woefully inadequate as Andrew Considine chested Robson’s corner into the path of Russell Anderson who hooked a right foot volley into the roof of the net from six yards. The winner came just four minutes after the restart, Robson seizing on a poor attempted clearance from Stefan Johansen and picking out Peter Pawlett with a clever reverse pass. Pawlett, who caused the Celtic defence problems throughout, coolly drove a left foot shot across Forster into the corner of the net.
Virgil van Dijk and substitute Leigh Griffiths, on his debut, both missed good chances to level for Celtic but Aberdeen looked just as likely to add to their lead as to be forced to settle for a replay. Heady days indeed for Derek McInnes and his players who, after so many false dawns at Pittodrie, look very much like the real deal.