SIX points clear with a game in hand going into the new year, Celtic are set to win the title at a canter. At least, that seems to be what their opponents think, and that is half the battle.
Hibernian 1 - 0 Celtic
Scorers: Hibs - Griffiths 9
Referee: C Thomson
In any other season, a defeat such as Saturday’s would be an encouragement to the champions’ nearest rivals. But without Rangers, the intermediary goal of splitting the Old Firm is no longer there for other clubs to aim at, and the hope of winning the SPL itself is apparently viewed as an unrealistic step too far.
So why, if they are stick-ons for the title, did Celtic lose this one? And why, after leading his team in their best
performance of 2012, did Hibernian captain James McPake say their own ambition was second place?
Basically, because most teams raise their game against Celtic, but are incapable of doing so against less daunting opposition. Hibs are a case in point: three days before this inspiring display of defiance, they lost at home to Ross County in one of the dullest games of the season so far. In fact, while they have taken four points out of six from Celtic, Pat Fenlon’s side have got nothing from six against the Dingwall club,
The key difference between Wednesday and Saturday was that this time it was Hibs who fielded a five-man midfield and were able to play on the counter-attack, as Derek Adams’ team had done. In the first match, it was Hibs who had been unable to increase the tempo: here, it was Celtic who seemed to
believe that as long as they kept strolling upfield, a goal was sure to come.
And that seemed a reasonable belief for an hour or more. Not at all rattled by going behind to an early Leigh Griffiths goal, Celtic looked sure to go on and win the match once they got the equaliser. Their build-up was a pleasure to watch, and it would be easy to put
together a highlights package which
illustrated their technical superiority.
But such a package would tell no more than half the story. It would say nothing about Celtic’s inability to create more than a couple of clear cut scoring chances, and nothing about the discipline with which Hibs stuck to their gameplan.
Jorge Claros was praised by Fenlon for the manner in which he nullified Gary Hooper’s influence on proceedings, but the manager could justifiably have made just as positive a mention of McPake and his partner in central defence, Paul Hanlon. With Hooper unable to prompt attacks from behind the strikers, Celtic spread the ball wide and relied on crosses into the box – crosses which were dealt with time and time again by the two centre-halves.
Ben Williams did have to make a couple of good saves, notably one from substitute Paddy McCourt deep into the second half. But on the whole, the goalkeeper was protected by his back four, whose showing was all the more commendable given the absence because of a hamstring strain of Ryan McGivern, Hibs’ most impressive defender in
The introduction of McCourt midway through the second period made sense, because it was obvious by then that Celtic needed to produce something less predictable. But he spent more time helping retrieve possession than he did in an attacking position, and was unable to embark on the sort of slaloming run with which he can twist opponents inside out.
Beram Kayal came on after McCourt, and Dylan McGeouch joined him for the last few minutes, but neither made a positive contribution. The man who was best placed to make the difference for Celtic was one who had been on from the start, Efe Ambrose, but from less than a yard out he succeeded only in kneeing a corner from the right past the post.
It should be said, however, that long before then Hibs might well have had the points wrapped up, as Eoin Doyle twice had chances to add to Griffiths’ goal. A mistimed header which the Irishman was only able to glance into the arms of Fraser Forster was the easier of the two, but he should at least have been on target with the other, when he screwed his shot wide when through on the goalkeeper.
With the latter incident coming three minutes before the interval, it looked then as if it could be a costly miss. As it turned out, though, Griffiths’ opportunistic strike made the difference.
A high through ball by Hanlon caused the initial danger – or at least it became a danger when Thomas Rogne misread its flight and failed to cut it out. Forster rushed out of goal to try to mop up, but Griffiths nicked the ball beyond him then scored first-time from a difficult angle.
Hibs’ defensive display was commendable, but it was that one moment of inspiration from the on-loan striker that made the real difference in the end. If, as looks probable, Griffiths goes back to Wolves next month, that will be one more reason for Hibs to accept that
neither they nor the rest of the league can catch Celtic.