FOR all that the focus has fallen on the battery of new faces Ronny Deila threw into his Celtic line-up to protect his Champions League team, the Scottish champions could have won in Inverness by the odd goal just as easily as they ended up on the wrong side of such a scoreline.
Inverness CT 1-0 Celtic
Scorer: Inverness CT - O’Connell (65 og)
Celtic, understandably, lacked cohesion. It could hardly be otherwise when Charlie Mulgrew was the only player retained from the team that secured a 1-1 draw in the Slovenian leg of their Champions League Play-Off in midweek; and even then he was moved from the midfield berth he occupied against Maribor into a central defensive role. Yet, they still created more chances than their encouragingly competitive hosts – as the Highland club’s manager John Hughes was quick to point out – and were undone by an own goal by teenager Eoghan O’Connell.
Indeed, the decisive strike, and another defensive shambles late on, both would have encouraged Deila he was right to wrap integral performers in cotton wool, particularly his first-choice goalkeeper, Craig Gordon. Poor Lukasz Zaluska is the ’keeper that Celtic keep in reserve and, not for the first time, he showed why with another shaky display. With Celtic hosting Maribor tomorrow in a match that could make, or mess up, not only Celtic’s season but Deila’s managerial makeover, Gordon, whose long-term fitness cannot be guaranteed in these fledgling days of a comeback two years in the making, was never going to be risked in a match which was never going to have a bearing on the title race.
Zaluska, who in the past has fared poorly for the club in defining losses against St Mirren, Ross County and Braga, looked wanting when he clumsily slapped away a cross and this resulted in the ball striking O’Connell and squirting back past him. Even more cringeworthy was Zaluska racing to the edge of his goal to cut out a through ball, missing it, and clamping hands to head as it remained in play. He patently thought his error was about to be fatal, but somehow Inverness failed to put the ball into an open goal. It can’t be easy to be the perennial back-up in the goalkeeping position, as has been the lot of Zaluska following the departures of Artur Boruc and then Fraser Forster. But the poor judgement calls that scar his game suggest he may struggle even to hold on to secondary status.
The notion that current Premiership leaders Inverness are genuine contenders for second in the table, meanwhile, was baulked at by the club’s defender Ross Draper in the wake of a win that takes their points tally to a remarkable ten from four games. Yet Hughes is certainly doing something right in his Highland outpost after an awkward first eight months as Terry Butcher’s successor.
“It’s a bit early to be talking about second but we will be looking to progress as the season goes on and get better,” Draper said. “It’s helped us not having new guys. We’ve got a good bond and we gel well. We all know how we play and work off each other and everyone is enjoying training coming into work and it’s showing on the pitch. It was difficult at the end of last season for the manager to come in and get his ideas across. He didn’t get the time he wanted but we had the pre-season and he brought his ideas and we’ve seen clearly what he wants to do and we have taken to that. I think the old manager was a bit more direct whereas we have a slower approach now and try and keep the ball and play passes and tire people out rather than go in gung-ho. It’s just a different way of playing but both are effective.”
Both ways of Celtic preparing for Champions League qualifiers can prove effective. Last season Neil Lennon pretty much stuck by the same first-picks throughout after employing the Deila “all-change” approach the previous campaign. That brought the fabled Barcelona win, from which Callum McGregor – who appeared as a second-half sub on Saturday – considers Celtic can drawn inspiration for a Maribor tie he says no-one at the club is under the impression is finished. “I was there when Celtic beat Barcelona and the atmosphere that night was unbelievable. It just shows you that any team can come to Celtic Park and struggle,” he said, citing the Manchester United victory earned by a Shunsuke Nakamura free kick, and the Shakhtar Donetsk win from an added-time Massimo Donati strike as his Champions League highlights as a watching Celtic youth player.
McGregor has emerged as a talisman for Celtic this season with a goal in each of the club’s three away-leg qualifiers and a fourth strike bagged away to St Johnstone. A first goal at Celtic Park obviously appeals, but the mere thought of playing a European game in the east end of Glasgow has huge appeal after the two trips to Murrayfield.
“The games at Murrayfield had a lot of people there, but it’s still not the same as playing at Celtic Park. The crowd gets going on a European night and that puts a wee bit pressure on the away team,” the 21-year-old said. The pressure might be more intense on a team that typically plays in front of between 3,000 and 7,000 supporters at home. “I hope we can get the crowd going and spook them a little bit – and get at them right from the start.”