PROGRESS to the last 16 of the William Hill Scottish Cup was almost more troublesome for Celtic than their passage to the same stage of the Champions League as they edged their way past Arbroath in a fourth round replay.
Celtic - Matthews (18)
Referee: C Charleston
A magnificent first-half goal from Adam Matthews, the Welsh international’s first for the club, proved enough for the Scottish champions to overcome their Second Division hosts.
But it was the Angus team who emerged with most of the plaudits, especially for an admirable second half performance in which they caused considerable consternation to their illustrious visitors.
The sight of Celtic manager Neil Lennon in a state of near apoplexy at times during that 45 minutes was an indication of the unconvincing nature of his team’s display.
Celtic still remain in contention for every competition they have entered this season, however, and are hot favourites to lift the Scottish Cup in which they will next face Raith Rovers at Starks Park in the first weekend of February.
Having indulged in a degree of experimentation in the first match between the teams 11 days earlier, Lennon reverted to a more tried and trusted selection. There were no fewer than eight changes to the starting line-up which had been on duty in the 1-1 draw at Celtic Park with Matthews, Efe Ambrose and Scott Brown the only constants.
The Gayfield playing surface was in good condition, the freezing conditions having been thwarted thanks to pitch covers purchased by the home club with some of the proceeds from their Scottish Cup tie at home to Rangers last season, which also attracted lucrative live coverage from Sky Sports.
The absence of any significant wind sweeping in from the North Sea meant it was actually something of a mild night by local standards at this time of the year, although the majority of the Celtic players opted for long sleeves, many of them also wearing gloves.
The visitors warmed to their task quickly enough, dominating possession as expected of them. Lennon retained the 3-5-2 formation which proved so effective in Saturday’s SPL win at Kilmarnock, providing plenty of width in midfield through wing-backs Matthews and Emilio Izaguirre.
Celtic should have gone in front as early as the fifth minute when Beram Kayal sent Lassad Nouioui clear on the right and the Tunisian international picked out his strike partner Georgios Samaras with a perfect cross. But, with the whole goal to aim at from close range, Samaras directed his header straight at grateful Arbroath goalkeeper Scott Morrison.
Matthews had an initial range-finder in advance of his opening goal, blazing a 20-yard shot well over the top to the derision of the home support. Their chant of “are you Montrose in disguise?” is not one the Celtic players are likely to have understood.
Lassad had the ball in the net in the 11th minute but his joy was short-lived as his close range conversion of a Samaras cross was ruled out for offside.
Arbroath, competing fiercely in central midfield, where Paul Currie was ensuring Celtic captain Scott Brown did not have things all his own way, had their moments as an attacking force.
It took a terrific tackle from Charlie Mulgrew to deny Steven Doris a clear scoring chance in the six-yard box after player-manager Paul Sheerin’s free-kick had been headed on by Alex Keddie.
Sheerin then saw a netbound effort blocked by the head of Kelvin Wilson as the home side began to gain more of a foothold in proceedings.
But that crumbled away thanks to Matthews’ stunning 18th-minute goal.
The young Welshman dispossessed Arbroath left-back Colin Hamilton and surged down Celtic’s right flank before smashing a 20-yard shot beyond Morrison into the roof of the net. It had taken Matthews until his 63rd appearance for Celtic to claim his first goal for the club but he may never score a better one. Despite the setback, Arbroath remained competitive and,
occasionally, looked threatening on the break through Lee Sibanda on the right and the hard-working Doris in the lone striker’s role.
Celtic, though, should have doubled their lead in the 33rd minute. Mulgrew’s crossfield pass from the left found Samaras on the right of the Arbroath penalty area. The Greek international’s first touch was excellent and he squared the ball into the path of the unmarked Lassad who seemed certain to score but his shot was weakly struck and straight at Morrison, who saved comfortably.
The comfort of a second goal was certainly desirable as far as Lennon was concerned. His demeanour on the touchline indicated that he was less than fully satisfied with the level of his team’s performance.
Arbroath, having come back from a 1-0 half-time deficit in the first match at Parkhead, were still playing with plenty of belief that they could recover the situation once again.
They made a positive start to the second half, Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster troubled by a Sheerin free-kick.
Arbroath defender Stuart Malcolm was booked for leading with his studs as he challenged the big Englishman for the ball.
The quality of Sheerin’s delivery from the left was a source of concern for Celtic and, when Forster flapped at his 62nd-minute cross, Izaguirre needed to be alert to deny Sibanda a chance with defensive header at the far post. A minute later, Arbroath seemed extremely unfortunate not to draw level when they had the ball in the net through Doris.
The striker had pounced from close range after Forster had failed to gather a Sheerin corner, but it was disallowed for a foul on the goalkeeper by Keddie.
Lennon responded by making a double substitution, Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama entering the fray, but Arbroath continued to play with both purpose and confidence.
It was one of the home side’s subsitutes who almost made an instant impact, Connor Birse bursting clear with his first contribution to force Forster into a smart save with his feet in the 77th minute.
Arbroath: Morrison, Baxter, Malcolm, Keddie, Hamilton; Sibanda (Rennie 73), Robertson, Kerr (Birse 76), Currie, Sheerin (Holmes 76); Doris. Subs not used: Gribben, Bullock.
Celtic: Forster, Lustig, Ambrose, Wilson; Matthews (McGeouch 90), Brown, Kayal, Mulgrew, Izaguirre (Wanyama 66); Samaras, Lassad (Hooper 66). Subs not used: Zaluska, Miku.