LITTLE in the way of Scottish domestic football could ever get Celtic up to speed for the sort of examination awaiting them at home to Internazionale on Thursday night. At least, though, after a series of near walk-overs and 13-and-a-half hours without conceding a goal, St Johnstone extended Ronny Deila’s side at Perth on Saturday. And it was the extending of one set of limbs in the visitors’ ranks that suggests Celtic cannot entirely be discounted in their Europa League last-32 ties against Roberto Mancini’s side.
With Inter now seeming to have found form in yesterday winning 4-1 at Atalanta a week after a 3-0 success over Palermo, Celtic keeper Craig Gordon can expect to be kept on his toes in midweek. The glimmer of hope for Deila – and it is only a glimmer – comes from the 32-year-old’s ability to spring from these toes, as he thrusts his arms in all directions.
His double-save in the final seconds of a compelling encounter at McDiarmid Park will live long in the memory. To first block a point-blank header from Brian Graham by jabbing his right hand in one direction and then the next instant flash his left glove in the opposite direction to stop Dave Mackay’s smashed-in follow-up volley was genuinely breathtaking.
No wonder St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright was moved to call the second save “incredible” and scorer on the day Stefan Johansen moved to joke that it was “world class” and the sort of save you didn’t see “in real life” but only on computer games.
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Celtic’s against-the-odds outcomes in the continent across recent times have all been built on the foundations of a brickwall goalkeeper. The club last eliminated a team from one of the big five leagues in a knock-out competition when a teenage David Marshall produced an extraordinary display against Barcelona in the Nou Camp. It was Fraser Forster’s ability to perform similar heroics at this venue and all others in the club’s Champions League group stage campaign just over two years ago that allowed Neil Lennon’s side to progress to the last 32. The club became the first team to achieve this feat precisely because Artur Boruc saved a penalty against Manchester United in November 2006.
Celtic only earned the right to play Inter this month because Gordon was stupendous in the Europa League group stages, with the string of stops he made to earn Deila’s side a point in Salzburg instrumental to their progress. Reflecting on Saturday’s sparkling efforts that secured his team an eighth straight win, the Scotland keeper as good as admitted afterwards that he knew he had conjured up something special.
“It was good and it is always important when it leads to winning three points,” he said. “I was happy with that, as you could see at the time. The celebration is not like me but I was disappointed after losing the goal and was determined not to lose another one.”
Gordon holds the accolade of making the save voted the best ever in the history of the English Premier League which came when he was in goal for Sunderland against Bolton in December 2010. Frankly, this acrobatic effort can’t hold a candle to his weekend wonder, but Gordon was not prepared to rank their order. “It’s for other people to decide that. I just try to keep the ball out of the net.”
If being picky – and we are – there were plenty that felt the first goal he had conceded in 13 hours 36 minutes, that led to Celtic being pegged back to 2-1 from an encounter that had engaging ebb and flow, didn’t show him in his finest light. The left-wing cross from Tam Scobbie that seemed to bounce off him via Chris Kane sat up all too nicely for the impressive Michael O’Halloran to batter past him. Gordon’s block defence of his part in that goal was pretty unyielding it must be said, though.
“The guy [Kane] coming across the front post got a toe to the ball that put it across me and it came off my knee. There wasn’t really a great deal I could do other than try to block it after the slight deflection. I just threw myself back across the goal and was actually very close to the second one as well. I was just disappointed that the clean-sheet record had come to an end, but there wasn’t anything particularly that I had done wrong.”
There was plenty that Celtic, and St Johnstone, did right on Saturday. Celtic, with Stuart Armstrong having slotted seamlessly into the side, are pulling teams apart with poise and pace. Their two goals were exquisite in their engineering and execution, a lovely defence splitting past from Nir Bitton in 35 seconds being met with a measured one- touch finish from Leigh Griffiths before Johansen was able to ball juggle before netting after a dink from Armstrong and a deft header from Griffths set him up.
Deila said afterwards that his team will “attack” Inter. It is what they “always” do and so “why wouldn’t” they at home? Yet, earlier last week, he talked of adapting Celtic’s natural front foot approach against one of the classically effective counter-attacking teams. If he recovers from a thigh injury that has caused him to miss the last two games, Kris Commons could be crucial in adding guile to a frontline which now seems to have a good blend of artistry and industry.
“I think it depends on how they play as well,” Gordon said of whether Celtic will be able to use attack as the best method of defence. “We were put under a bit of pressure today, towards the end, and managed to handle it after the goal. We know we are coming up against some top quality players and at times will have to defend, but at the same time we want to cause problems of our own.”
Gordon agrees with his manager that Celtic have a better chance of causing problems against Inter now than at any other juncture of the Deila era. “We have continued to build. We probably didn’t have the best start to the campaign but as everything has started to settle in and the manager’s ideas are coming across, things have improved and we look a stronger unit and a more formidable side.
“Celtic have come across big names in football before and done very well. We know we will have to be at our best and a lot of people will have to be at the top of their game to get a result out of this one, but that’s a good challenge and one that we are excited about and ready to go with.”
Gordon, indeed, will be rubbing those ginormous hands at the prospect.