INVERNESS Caledonian Thistle’s remarkable capacity for derailing Celtic in their pursuit of silverware resurfaced in the most dramatic fashion possible as the irrepressible Highland club reached their first Scottish Cup final.
Inverness CT - 3
Tansey (58pen), Ofere (96), Raven (117)
Celtic - 2
Van Dijk (18), Guidetti (103)
(after extra time)
Referee: S McLean
With an admirable combination of composure and resilience, John Hughes’ progressive team emerged as exultant extra-time winners of a pulsating semi-final.
In ending Ronny Deila’s bid for the domestic treble in his first season as Celtic manager, Inverness were also the beneficiaries of an astonishing blunder by referee Steven McLean.
The official and his assistants contrived to miss a blatant handball by defender Josh Meekings which blocked a Leigh Griffiths header in first-half stoppage time. Celtic were already leading 1-0 through Virgil van Dijk’s stunning 18th-minute free-kick and had a penalty been awarded, with Meekings’ dismissal as a consequence, then the Scottish champions would have had the chance to take a stranglehold on the tie.
Instead, it was an aggrieved Celtic who found themselves reduced to ten men early in the second half when goalkeeper Craig Gordon was shown a straight red card for taking out Marley Watkins as the Inverness striker raced clear on goal.
Greg Tansey coolly converted the resultant penalty kick beyond substitute keeper Lukasz Zaluska to hand Inverness the initiative. It took them until six minutes into extra-time to make their numerical advantage count, Nigerian striker Edward Ofere putting them in front.
But the implausible script was not completed there. John Guidetti equalised for the short-handed Celtic side in the 103rd minute, leaving the tie on course for a penalty shoot-out. But that scenario was avoided by David Raven’s 117th-minute winner as Celtic’s gutsy resistance finally wilted.
Their supporters trudged out of Hampden reflecting on another painful upset at the hands of Inverness, who knocked Celtic out of the Scottish Cup in 2000 and 2003, as well as inflicting the crucial defeat which cost them the league title in 2011.
While those Celtic fans will long rage against the failings of the match officials yesterday, it would also be harsh to allow that to diminish the level of credit due to Hughes and Inverness for an outstanding team performance.
Van Dijk’s breakthrough strike did not exactly come against the run of play, Celtic having shaken themselves from a sluggish start to the contest to finally get on to the front foot.
But it was nonetheless a painful setback for an Inverness side who had started the match far sharper and with greater purpose than the favourites.
With the lively and inventive Ryan Christie at the heart of some eye-catching work, Hughes’ side were bright and ambitious in the opening exchanges as they looked to take the game to Celtic at every opportunity.
Their first sight of goal was presented by Adam Matthews’ calculated foul on Graeme Shinnie in the third minute but Tansey’s free-kick attempt failed to call Gordon into action as the ball sailed over the top.
As Inverness maintained their initial momentum, they claimed a penalty for handball against Emilio Izaguirre but the Honduran full-back’s blocking of a Watkins header was made with a combination of knee and face.
Celtic sparked themselves into life when James Forrest burst free on the left for the first time, carving out an opening for Stefan Johansen whose shot was smartly blocked by Gary Warren.
There was a pleasing tempo to the action and the intensity of Celtic’s work continued to increase as Nir Bitton was unfortunate to see a sweetly struck shot from around 22 yards crash back off the junction of crossbar and Ryan Esson’s right-hand post.
Celtic were next to have a penalty claim waved aside, correctly once again as Forrest went down cheaply under a challenge from Christie.
Esson made the first of several fine saves in the 15th minute, diving to his left to keep out a stinging left-foot shot from Griffiths who had been handed a starting place up front after his midweek hat-trick as a substitute against Kilmarnock.
But Esson was powerless to prevent Van Dijk putting Celtic in front three minutes later with his picture book set piece. Warren conceded the free-kick with a foul on Forrest just outside the penalty area, earning a booking which rules the big defender out of the final. Displaying exceptional technique, Van Dijk stepped up to curl a right-foot shot around the defensive wall and in off Esson’s right-hand post.
To their credit, Inverness responded with great resilience and continued to dominate possession with a patient and precise passing game. Ofere missed a good chance to equalise in the 25th minute, scuffing a close-range shot off target after Celtic had failed to clear a Tansey corner.
As the action ebbed and flowed, Esson saved well from Johansen before Ofere passed up another opportunity when he miscued in front of goal.
Warren should have headed Inverness level in the 44th minute, only to send his close-range effort from Tansey’s corner wastefully wide.
But it was Celtic who ended the first half feeling deeply aggrieved when they were denied the chance to double their lead from the penalty spot by the officials’ collective failure to spot Meekings’ handball.
The tide turned firmly in favour of Inverness when Gordon was dismissed and Tansey sent Zaluska, on for the sacrificed Forrest, the wrong way from the spot.
As Celtic dug in with ten men, there were few clear chances for either side in the remainder of regulation time.
Ofere struck what looked like the winning blow for Inverness in the 96th minute, driving a left-foot shot low beyond Zaluska after Watkins had laid off a cross from Shinnie.
Celtic’s spirit was not broken, however, as substitute Guidetti curled home a right foot free-kick which was badly misjudged by Esson and into the net.
Spot-kicks beckoned but Inverness had other ideas. With three minutes left, Shinnie did brilliantly to work his way into the penalty area and square the ball for Raven to produce a firm right-foot finish from a tight angle.
Inverness Caledonian Thistle: Esson, Raven, Warren, Meekings, Shinnie; Draper, Tansey; Watkins, Christie, Williams (Ross 74); Ofere. Subs not used: Mackay, Vincent, Doran, Tremarco, Polworth, Kink.
Celtic: Gordon, Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons (Tonev 90), Johansen, Forrest (Zaluska 56); Griffiths (Guidetti 98). Subs not used: Ambrose, Scepovic, McGregor, Tierney.
MAN OF THE MATCH:
Graeme Shinnie (Inverness)
Inverness had no failures on the day, with Ryan Christie and Marley Watkins among their most eye-catching performers, but skipper Shinnie set the tone with an intelligent and enterprising display.