ON THE face of it, this was an all-too-familiar story for Aberdeen supporters and a satisfyingly predictable outcome for the travelling Celtic fans.
Aberdeen 0-2 Celtic 2
Scorers: Celtic - Commons (pen 45), Forrest (87)
But, if Saturday’s victory for the champions at Pittodrie simply underlined the absolute certainty that Celtic will steer a path to their third consecutive title win, it should not have yet squashed the belief that Aberdeen are finally emerging from the numbing ordinariness which has been their hallmark for too long.
For this was a 90 minutes from which judgement on what Derek McInnes is seeking to achieve with the Dons should reasonably be suspended. It became unreliable evidence the moment that goalkeeper Jamie Langfield was sent off by referee Calum Murray in the final minute of an absorbing but largely attritional first half.
McInnes was forced to sacrifice one of his strikers, Calvin Zola, to introduce substitute keeper Nicky Weaver, who could not keep out Kris Commons’ penalty kick, the result of Langfield’s foul on Georgios Samaras as the Greek striker raced through on goal.
The response of Aberdeen’s ten men after the break was gutsy and unwavering but, apart from a close-range Niall McGinn header superbly saved by Fraser Forster, there was never really a stage of proceedings when Celtic did not appear to be in control.
James Forrest’s freakish 87th-minute goal, when his low cutback took a devilish deflection off Mark Reynolds’ boot before looping over Weaver, sealed a merited three points for Neil Lennon’s men to send them off to Dyce Airport and their marathon Champions League trip to Kazakhstan in high spirits.
The Aberdeen fans, who had pushed the attendance at Pittodrie through the 20,000 barrier for a live televised lunchtime kick-off, trooped out of the old stadium with their feverish pre-match anticipation considerably cooled. But they will perhaps have at least recognised signs of a fresh spirit and conviction in their side which persuade them that better times are in store. “The fans didn’t get to see the Aberdeen they wanted in the second half,” observed McInnes. “But they saw a team that won’t give up. We never got a chance to go toe-to-toe with Celtic after the red card, which was frustrating, but our day will come again. We will have more good days than bad.”
In difficult blustery conditions, the match never reached the heights many had expected. The tempo was pleasing, but, while Celtic passed the ball neatly at times and Aberdeen always tried to be positive, there was a general lack of fluency and penetration.
It took until 29 minutes for the first attempt on target, Joe Ledley’s low left-foot shot saved by Langfield.
But the contest was intriguingly poised until the home keeper received his marching orders. “The red card was definitely the turning point,” observed Aberdeen’s impressive young Irish right-back Joe Shaughnessy. “I don’t know if Jamie has caught Samaras or not but I don’t think he was going to score anyway as it did look as if he had put the ball out. The referee has given the red card though and we just have to accept it.
“It’s hard enough playing against Celtic at the best of times but, when you go down to ten men, it makes it even harder. We did well with ten and didn’t let them get any clear chances. Even their second goal wasn’t a clear chance as the ball looped over the goalkeeper and into the net. It’s important how we respond to this. We lost the game but the performance was good and we didn’t let Celtic break us down. Next week, hopefully, we will bounce back. Had Niall scored with his header it would have given us a lift. I was behind it and it was a good save from Forster.
“The fans were right behind us all the way and going down to ten men seemed to put them behind us even more. It’s really important the crowd stay with us. They were amazing and it’s the first time I’ve seen the stadium packed out here. It gave us a big lift and, hopefully, they will stay with us and we can get a big win next week.
“It makes a big difference when you are getting big crowds at home. As a player it’s great to walk out the tunnel and see the seats are full. There is potential here to fill the place every week but we have to keep winning. If we do that I am sure they will keep coming.”
While Celtic manager Lennon continues to seek reinforcements to his squad for what will hopefully be another Champions League group stage campaign, it is clear his existing resources are more than capable of maintaining domestic superiority.
There was an impressive competitive debut for French central defender Steven Mouyokolo, joined later in the game by Dutch stopper Virgil van Dijk who also looked assured during his brief substitute outing.
“He’s a very good player, a typical Dutchman who likes to play it out from the back,” observed Charlie Mulgrew, who started the game in central defence before being switched into a midfield role. “He will do well for us. There is plenty of competition for places at the back now, which is how it should be at Celtic.”