CELTIC maybe should have considered hoisting their championship flag merely two-thirds of the way up its pole yesterday.
Only if they claim a place in the Champions League group stages truly can their pennant proudly flutter these days, and a feeling persisted across the afternoon that barely two-thirds of their attention was on the opening Premiership game.
Sandwiched between the two legs of their third-round qualifier against Qarabag, the Scottish champions handled the visit of an energised and evolving Ross County dutifully at times, and with a distracted air at other points. The supporters were somewhat the same. The fitness and form of the home players was assessed in light of how it might impact on the trip to Azerbaijan for Wednesday’s second leg of the third qualifying round tie, with Celtic having established a 1-0 first-leg lead during the week.
That made Leigh Griffiths limping off, 19 minutes and one penalty creating-and-converting success into the encounter, a key moment, even if his manager Ronny Deila sought to play down any possible problem for the striker afterwards.
The other talker from the tussle came three minutes later, following a misplaced Dedryck Boyata pass that resulted in Jackson Irvine darting beyond the Celtic defence down the inside left channel. Craig Gordon bounded from his penalty box to impede the Australian… even as he clearly realised the error of his actions and attempted to draw back. A red card was anticipated from referee Willie Collum but he elected to show Gordon a yellow.
Deila admitted that he could understand if County felt aggrieved by the referee’s call. His Dingwall counterpart Jim McIntyre, meanwhile, couldn’t decide if he was aggrieved.
“For me it’s a scoring opportunity,” he said. “I certainly think Van Dijk was getting round so I’m not sure it’s a red card. But Jackson could’ve got on to the ball and scored. But obviously Willie has deemed he didn’t think it was an obvious scoring opportunity so we’ve got to grin
and bear it. If the ref doesn’t feel it’s obvious he can’t give it. It’s a sore one because it would’ve been interesting if he’d have given it. You need decisions to go your way against the top sides.”
Celtic, through suspensions and the desire to rest players following Wednesday’s exertions against Qarabag and those to follow, did not have what might be considered their top side on the field. A ban for Emilio Izaguirre and an injury to Charlie Mulgrew meant a first start for youngster Kieran Tierney at left-back, while yesterday marked the first of the six domestic games Nadir Ciftci will miss for biting Jim McAlister in the Dundee derby on the final day of last season. Mikael Lustig and Nir Bitton were rested as precautions, while County had five new faces in their ranks following a summer signing spree that has resulted in the Dingwall club dishing out a dozen new deals.
One of these came the way of Andrew Davies, instantly installed as captain of County on heading north in June. His first competitive contribution for his new club came in the form of clumsily leaning into Griffiths to ground him after only three minutes of the season. He bowed his head embarrassedly as Collum pointed to the spot, while Scott Fox was left cursing when he failed to stop the Celtic player’s tepid effort, which was close to him on his right and slipped under his body.
It looked like it could be a long afternoon for County when Stefan Johansen thumped in the home side’s second on the half-hour mark. A rasping 14-yard drive brought the Norwegian his third of the season, Gary Mackay-Steven teeing him up after shuffling across the edge of the box.
McIntyre’s side, though, weren’t willing to play patsies and Gordon produced three good stops as Craig Curran and Raffaele De Vita punished slackness from a home side going through the motions for much of the second period. At least until a second-half cameo from the returning-to-fitness Kris Commons forced activity from County keeper Fox.
“It was OK. Now the season really starts. We have the league and now the Champions League,” said Johansen of his team’s win.
There are no prizes for guessing which matters more to the midfielder, his team-mates, their manager and the masses that follow the club right now.
Celtic: Gordon; Ambrose, Boyata, van Dijk, Tierney (Janko 60); Brown, Johansen (Commons 60); Forest, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven; Griffiths (Scepovic 19). Subs not used: Bailly, Bitton, Rogic, McGregor.
Ross County: Fox; Fraser, Boyd, Davies, Foster; Gardyne, Murdoch (De Vita 56), Irvine, McShane (Graham 86), Quinn; Curran (Boyce 70). Subs not used: Bachmann, Robertson, Holden, Franks
Referee: W Collum.