FOR those supporters of Aberdeen who had dared to dream in recent weeks of their club’s return to title-chasing status, Saturday provided a reality check as clear and crisp as the late autumnal weather in the Granite City.
Scorers: Celtic - Lassad (73), Mulgrew (77)
Celtic turned up at Pittodrie on the back of three SPL matches without a win, domestic form which had seen them concede leadership of the table to Hibs and leave themselves vulnerable to also being leapfrogged by Craig Brown’s resurgent Dons side.
But by the time Neil Lennon and his players got back to Glasgow, they had not only seen off Aberdeen with considerable comfort but also found themselves back on top of the pile after any championship pretensions surrounding Hibs had also been exposed by their capitulation to bottom-of-the table Dundee.
So, while the upper reaches of the SPL may be more congested than most of us had anticipated by this stage of the season, it is plain that this is a title race which only be competitive for as long as Celtic allow it to be.
The notion that the champions could still be seriously tested in their defence of the crown, despite the absence of their traditional rivalry and challenge from Rangers, suddenly seems highly fanciful once more.
Celtic may have been distracted, subconsciously or otherwise, by their admirable Champions League exertions so far this season to the detriment of their domestic form.
Yet, despite having gathered their lowest points total from their first 13 league games since way back in 1998-99, when they stumbled unconvincingly under the guidance of Dr Jo Venglos, they are still a point clear at the top of the table with a game in hand.
Celtic currently have one point fewer than they did at the same stage of last season, a campaign which seemed doomed to failure when they trailed Rangers by 15 points. It was at this time of the season when they put together a run of 17 consecutive league victories to transform their fortunes and Lennon’s standing as manager.
There is little doubt they are now the only team in the SPL capable of such a consistent winning sequence and it is why Lennon has been largely unconcerned by the appearance of the league table so far.
In a match at Pittodrie which seldom reached the levels of intensity and excitement which many had keenly anticipated, Aberdeen failed to expose any ongoing vulnerability Celtic have at a time when their main focus is unquestionably on their bid to reach the next phase of the Champions League.
In suffering their first home league defeat of the season, in front of their largest SPL attendance for six years, Aberdeen simply lacked the vibrancy and penetration necessary to trouble their visitors.
“That was our worst performance of the season,” was the brutally frank assessment of Aberdeen winger Jonny Hayes. His deployment in a bold 3-4-3 formation, where he was joined up front by Ryan Fraser and Niall McGinn, was a statement of intent that the home side were unable to back up in deeds. “It was lacklustre and I don’t know why that was” added Hayes. “We were as poor in possession as we’ve been since I joined the club. We just gave the ball away too often.
“Celtic’s league form in their previous few games had been poor, we knew they had been concentrating on the Champions League, so we all felt the chance was there for us to beat them and go to the top of the league.
“Our fans were brilliant today, turning up in big numbers, but unfortunately we have let them down again. We never really looked like winning the game. It just shows you how strong Celtic’s squad is, I suppose. They were missing five or six regulars, but still had too much for us on the day.”
Scott Brown, Joe Ledley, James Forrest, Gary Hooper, Emilio Izaguirre, Thomas Rogne, Anthony Stokes and Miku were all unavailable to Lennon, but the depth of his resources allowed him to send out a side which proved too street-wise for the Dons.
Goalkeeper Fraser Forster, protected by a solid back four in which Kelvin Wilson was outstanding, barely had a save of note to make. In midfield, Beram Kayal is still some way short of his optimum form for Celtic following injury, but his shortcomings were more than compensated for by another commanding display by Victor Wanyama.
As Lennon noted afterwards, the less than perfect condition of the Pittodrie pitch was not conducive to fluent football. Both teams were often guilty of losing possession cheaply but it was Celtic who adapted their approach more effectively, forcing a series of corners or long throw-in opportunities which kept Aberdeen on the back foot for significant periods.
The home team had flickering moments when they threatened to grab what was always going to be the crucial first goal, but were never able to sustain any telling momentum as an attacking force.
Celtic, having missed three clear headed chances through Wanyama, Tony Watt and Mikael Lustig in a fairly dreary first half, finally made the breakthrough with 17 minutes remaining.
Wanyama’s fierce long-range shot smacked off Jamie Langfield’s left hand post, the ball rebounding into the path of Lassad Nouioui. The Tunisian forward, who had replaced Kris Commons four minutes earlier, showed good composure and awareness to drive his first-time right-foot shot into the net.
Four minutes later, the points were secured when Charlie Mulgrew turned in a close-range left-foot shot after a cross-cum-shot from Georgios Samaras was deflected towards him. Mulgrew, in his 100th appearance for Celtic, celebrated with a cupped-ear taunt to the Aberdeen fans who had jeered his every touch of the ball throughout.
For Aberdeen, the potential for their best league campaign in many years has not been fatally damaged by Saturday’s result, but, as they travel to face Hibs at Easter Road next weekend, they have been reminded that second best in the SPL is as much as anyone other than Celtic can realistically hope for this season.