IT WAS strange to think that yesterday’s encounter really was the first of its kind in four years for Celtic. Rangers went into administration on this weekend in 2012. Since then there hasn’t been a league game for the Parkhead club against opposition not pushing at the top of the table with the potential to have a bearing on the destination of the title.
Aberdeen’s ability to draw level at the summit of the Premiership – which had everything to do with their recent victory over Ronny Deila’s side – has altered all perceptions. The vulnerability the piercing at Pittodrie exposed in the champions, coming days after Ross County lanced them in the League Cup semi-final, meant the reacquaintance with the Dingwall side was a pressure-laced assignment.
In truth, Deila’s side never looked particularly troubled by the need to win to restore a three-point advantage over Derek McInnes’s challengers, who will contest six points before Celtic again take to the field. There was no real pizzazz in the home team’s workaday efforts but neither was there much in the way of the flakiness that has scarred the Norwegian’s tenure across his second season.
County, who breached the Celtic goal three times in claiming their famous Hampden win a fortnight ago, couldn’t even manage as much as three shots on target in Glasgow’s east end yesterday. In fact, two such efforts proved beyond them.
It may have taken Celtic all of 45 minutes to open the scoring – almost inevitably through Leigh Griffiths, to bag the striker goal number 30 of the season – but across the 90 yesterday the visitors had only one shot on target, Jonathan Franks drawing a save from Craig Gordon midway through the second period. County’s shortcomings were freely acknowledged by manager Jim McIntyre.
“I think the boys gave it everything today but we looked leggy, I’ve got to say that,” he said. “The game against Hearts on a really heavy pitch at Dingwall [lost 3-0 on Wednesday] certainly didn’t help us. Celtic deserved to win. We didn’t carry the same threat that we’ve carried in the past games against Celtic in terms of creating. That was the disappointment of today but our work-rate and organisation was very good.
“When you come to places like this there are times in the game you try and get to, and a minute before half-time is the worst possible time to lose the goal. You obviously set up to frustrate and play on the counter-attack and get the crowd grumbling, which they were certainly starting to do. To lose the goal just before half-time was sore.”
Celtic’s meagre support – the 42,000 crowd was a ‘paid for’ tickets figure, not an attendance – seemed to have decided their default position yesterday was grumble. Stefan Johansen bore the brunt of a general disaffection with the Deila era. Even though he was the man to provide the passes that carved open a compact County at irregular intervals in the first period, when substituted late in the second, his withdrawal brought cheers.
“For me, he was one of the best players on the pitch today,” Deila said. “He created a lot and worked really hard. Stefan had a tough start to the season but for the last month he has played very well.”
It was unusual to see a through ball that sent Griffiths away and allowed him to round keeper Scott Fox not capitalised on, the Celtic No.9 smacking the base of the post. He made amends just before the interval, for his 30th goal of the campaign and 11th in nine games, when a deflected left-wing cross from Kieran Tierney was headed into his path with a misdirected clearance by Chris Robertson. Griffiths pounced to lash a left-foot shot low into the corner with the conviction of a man who is right to expect plundering many more this season.
“I said it [my goal target] would be 30 and when I hit the mark I would look to the next one, so now it is going to be 35,” Griffiths said. “It has been not a bad few months. I just try and concentrate on what I do on the pitch. If chances come my way I try and put them away.”
Celtic put County away when a fine hanging cross out on the left flank delivered by Stuart Armstrong was powered in by the head of Dedryck Boyata as he was being tugged by Paul Quinn, who played with a groin strain on an afternoon when the visitors lost Marcus Fraser to a dislocated shoulder.
Griffiths also looked to have picked up a knock earlier on, and explained it away using East Coast rhyming slang for the most delicate part of his anatomy. “I got hit in the Niddrie Mains… they ended up in my stomach and I was just trying to catch my breath,” the Leither said.