THE only possibility of argy-bargy as this – previously – fizzing, four-game series came to an end would have been if the two sides had indulged in a pillow fight at full-time. This was a slumberfest of an afternoon. In part because of the sunshine, in part because of the anodyne nature of Dundee United against Celtic.
Scorers: Celtic - Mackay-Steven 16; Guidetti 33; Denayer 45
According to onlookers, the Tannadice team slouched off their team bus. They couldn’t be blamed for possessing little enthusiasm for facing up to a Celtic side who in the past week had taken six goals off them for the cost of one as they effectively destroyed their season.
Too much has been made of the red cards in this unique Scottish football serial, with six sending-offs in the previous three meetings across the past fortnight. Not enough had been made of the absence of any attacking intent since United drew with Celtic what seems another lifetime ago to set up Wednesday’s Scottish Cup final replay that provided them a 4-0 flaying. On the back of the 3-0 reverse in the League Cup final a week ago, before yesterday the heart seemed to have been ripped out of Jackie
McNamara’s side for such contests.
Yet, on a day when Celtic tightened their grip on the title with a win that allowed them to move five points ahead of an Aberdeen side that drew at Dens, it was how that the heart had been ripped out of United side even before this quartet of confrontations came to pass that would have caused those of a tangerine disposition to believe Celtic were squeezing the juice from the pip.
It just had to be Gary Mackay-Steven – with a 20-yard swerver that seemed to find the far right-hand corner of Radoslaw Cerzniak’s net with guided-missile precision – that set the Scottish champions up for a breeze of an afternoon. Owing to his cup-tied status for the previous three games in this saga, the winger was playing in his first game against the side he left in January along with fellow midfielder Stuart Armstrong. Out of respect he chose not to celebrate the 16th-minute opener.
The heavy symbolism in Mackay-Steven – it could have easily been Armstrong – showing a potency on a day when Celtic changed their entire quarter of attackers from midweek, with the former United pair joined by John Guidetti and Stefan Johansen, was not lost on
McNamara. The opener hurt, but so did the “softness”, the “lack of belief” and the fact players “were feeling sorry for themselves” in going into the interval with facing a 3-0 deficit.
“Obviously there has been a lot made in the last month of the departures of the two boys,” said Mcnamara, who admitted the last two games, not just yesterday, had been games “too far”, mentally as much as physically for his players. “But teams go on, players move. You can’t look back, you have to look forward. We have to regroup. The lads will recover now and we have to for the games coming up.”
United never looked like recovering from the early blow. Frankly, they looked beaten before they started. It is little wonder McNamara could take some comfort from their “rolling up their sleeves” in the second half. After Celtic’s second and third goals, the latter seconds before Kevin Clancy sounded his whistle for the break, a mere 10-1 aggregate for the four games across 14 days seemed beyond yesterday’s visitors.
What turned out to be Celtic’s final strike was a backheeler from close in by centre-back Jason Denayer, who capitalised to net his sixth goal after a Virgil van Dijk effort following a free-kick had been partially blocked. The Belgian teenager, called up on Friday by his international squad, said afterwards he had his sights set on breaking the ten-goal mark after scoring in a manner he had “never” before. Yesterday was, he said, an “important” day in the championship race, with the importance of players with the “pace and agility” of Mackay-Steven and Armstrong a factor in the difference between the sides.
So too was the increasingly distracted-looking Guidetti, who seemed so unenthused by scoring just after the half-hour mark with a drive he curled into the top corner from the edge of the box, that he didn’t celebrate.
McNamara, privately, may have celebrated the end of a mad run of Celtic encounters. He will surely be relieved to move on from a circus wherein decisions, disputes and the odd desperate dunt has resulted in some classic media exaggeration and manipulation. The United manager is smart enough to recognise that. “Lots has been made over the last couple of weeks, of build-up, of tackles, of the tackle on Wednesday [when Ryan McGowan was red-carded for his challenge on Liam Henderson]. It is what it is. The only one who is missing through injury is our captain [Sean Dillon], through stitches in his shin last week [at the League Cup final] in an accidental injury. It has all been more of a sideshow than anything else.”
Ultimately, it has all been too much of a horror show for United.
Celtic: Gordon; Ambrose; Denayer; Van Dijk; Izaguirre; Brown; Bitton; Mackay-Steven (Commons 70); Johansen; Armstrong (Henderson 76); Guidetti (Scepovic 70).
Dundee United: Czerniak; McGowan; Fojut; Souttar; Dixon; Paton; Butcher (Dow 46); Rankin; Telfer (Muirhead 78); Spittal (Anier 78); Ciftci.
Referee: K Clancy. Attendance: 45,884
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