WRITE Dundee United off at your peril. After tamely surrendering their unbeaten home record against Aberdeen a week earlier, Jackie McNamara’s side were back close to their best yesterday to close the gap on Celtic to four points.
Scorers: Dundee United - Ciftci (5), Armstrong (65); Celtic - Griffiths (87)
The champions are much improved after some initial inconsistency under Ronny Deila, and were seeking a ninth consecutive league win in this game. But they never looked like claiming it once Nadir Ciftci had seized an early lead for United, and a late revival proved to be insufficient.
True, at 2-0 down substitute Stefan Scepovic had the ball in the net only to be wrongly ruled offside, so Celtic could argue convincingly that they deserved a point.
But they never looked wholly secure at the back, as was shown when Ciftci all too easily made space and chipped to Stuart Armstrong for the second, and they were also profligate up front, failing to convert nine or ten decent chances in addition to the two that did find the net.
Ciftci was involved in the action immediately, being booked in the first minute for a foul on Scott Brown, whom he had pursued back into his own half after being dispossessed by him.
That was a glimpse of the niggling, negative side of the striker’s game, but we did not have to wait long to see him at his most positive.
After Stefan Johansen tamely conceded possession in midfield, Sean Dillon made progress down the right then passed infield to Armstrong. Efe Ambrose fresh-aired an attempted clearance, allowing the ball to run to Ciftci, and, after cleverly making space for himself in the box, the Turkish striker spun round and sent a chipped shot past Craig Gordon from ten yards out.
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The goal came against the run of play, and Celtic continued their territorial dominance after it, with Brown and Johansen both being presented with chances in the following ten minutes. Callum Morris denied the former with a well-timed challenge, while goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak raced off his line to block Johansen’s poke from the edge of the six-yard box.
Anthony Stokes was next to threaten after breaking clear on the left, but his shot on the turn was too high. While an equaliser looked like being only a matter of time, United continued to be dangerous on the break, and midway through the half Conor Townsend forced Gordon into making a good one-handed save.
Ten minutes before half-time the visitors had a half-hearted claim for a penalty after John Guidetti went down after a challenge with Dillon, but the two had been shoulder to shoulder and referee Steven McLean rightly waved the appeal away.
The closest Celtic got to equalising before the break came when Cierzniak, who had looked sound up to that point, flapped at a corner and knocked it back off the crossbar.
It was not the first time that United had failed to clear their lines at the first attempt, and although in the ensuing scramble Dillon cleared a Virgil van Dijk header, the home team knew they would have to improve considerably if they were going to maintain their clean sheet in the second half.
Ciftci began that second period as eagerly as he had the first, again getting the better of the slow-witted Ambrose after the latter had had ample time to deal with a chip down the wing by John Rankin. The striker’s shot was not fierce enough to trouble Gordon, but that passage of play was a foretaste of a more assertive approach by the home team.
A header over the bar by Stokes was the Irishman’s last significant involvement of the afternoon, as with an hour played he made way for Kris Commons and Guidetti was replaced by
Scepovic. But before either substitute was able to make an impact, United were two up.
Ciftci seemed to be well policed by defenders when he gathered a Dillon throw close to the right corner flag, but he deftly turned Emilio Izaguirre before chipping to Armstrong at the back post. Unmarked, Armstrong had the time to pick his spot, and nodded in from a few yards out, with Gordon able to do no more than get a touch on the ball as it passed him.
At 1-0 down Celtic had been patient and persistent in their attempt to get back on terms. At 2-0 down and with time running out, they became more anxious and less inventive.
A Commons shot from a central position, too soft to worry Cierzniak, was just one sign that they were losing faith in their ability to play the ball into deeper and more dangerous positions.
Leigh Griffiths became Deila’s final substitute with just over quarter of an hour to play, and the striker soon emulated Ciftci’s first-half feat by being yellow-carded and then scoring.
Between those two incidents,
Scepovic had the ball in the net after sidefooting home from an Izaguirre chest down at the end of a sweeping move upfield, but he was wrongly ruled offside.
Chris Erskine came close to putting the outcome beyond doubt when his head flick from an Armstrong corner was chested off the line by Izaguirre, and that escape set up a frantic finale. Griffiths pulled a goal back when he ran on to a Scepovic ball and stabbed it past Cierzniak, then minutes later the substitute saw a low 20-yard shot come back off the post.
A late comeback momentarily seemed to be on the cards, but United steadied their nerve and were able to play out time deep in the Celtic half.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Dillon, Morris, Fojut, Townsend, Butcher, Rankin, Spittal, Armstrong, Erskine, Ciftci (Dow 82). Subs Not Used: Wilson, Telfer,Szromnik, Spark, Coote, Adeyemo.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Ambrose, van Dijk, Izaguirre, Forrest, Biton (Griffiths 78), Brown, Johansen, Guidetti (Scepovic 60), Stokes (Commons 60). Subs Not Used: Zaluska, Wakaso, Fisher, Henderson.
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