Mental strain too much for United against Celtic

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Asked to reflect on a trying fortnight, Jackie McNamara suggested that, by the third game of this unique four-game series, the physical strain on Dundee United had started to show. By the time the concluding part of the drama came around on Saturday, he sensed his players were toiling mentally.

They were not the only ones. With apologies to Brian Hanrahan, those of us who counted them out at Tannadice on Sunday 15 March and then counted them back in again at Celtic Park at the weekend are also glad to see the back of this seemingly interminable series.

Former team-mates John Souttar and Gary Mackay-Steven battle for the ball. Picture: SNS

Former team-mates John Souttar and Gary Mackay-Steven battle for the ball. Picture: SNS

There will be reporters muttering in their sleep in years to come about rescinded red cards, mistaken identities and the horror of turning up to see the same teams play each other over and over again.

Such a sequence is rarer than an eclipse. An informative article in Saturday’s match day programme reported that it was the first time Celtic had played the same team four times in a row.

Of course, a third win on Saturday for Celtic after the first game was drawn prompted plenty of wags to wonder whether this means they can now keep their opponents.

Don’t they already, it was tempting to respond, as former United winger Gary Mackay-Steven fired in Celtic’s opener after 15 minutes, to the surprise of no-one.

Failure to hold out until the half-hour mark in each of their three games last week doesn’t aid the chances of securing a win.

Neither does selling two of your best players to one of your rivals.

In the first three games this mattered only because it meant United were weakened. On Saturday, for the first time, it mattered because it meant that not only were the visitors still trying to figure out how to cope in the absence of Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong, Celtic were also significantly improved. Unfettered from the chains of being cup-tied, Mackay-Steven and Armstrong were pitched straight into action.

How did it feel to see Mackay Steven score the opener. “Not great,” responded McNamara.

However hard they try, United just cannot get the better of a Celtic team they have not beaten in Glasgow since the early 1990s.

The record is only slightly better in Dundee, where they drew the first game of this four-part marathon with nine men and may well have earned a victory had it remained ten players versus ten players.

Four games then; 10-1 on aggregate to Celtic. We managed to get by without any more red cards on Saturday. In fact, the lack of any evident edge was regrettable.

This rivalry intensified and then blew itself out over the course of the two weeks.

It was like a title fight in which the two protagonists have been trading blows remorselessly before simply clinging to each other at the end, grateful for the support of each other.

Except how United wish it had ever got so good as to trade blows with their clearly superior opponents. They were battered into submission here.

It was possible to sense that even Celtic supporters were beginning to bore of a contest in which they scored ten times without reply after Dundee United’s Nadir Ciftci scored the opening goal in this tetralogy just over a fortnight ago.

As McNamara mentioned, it had become a test of mental resolve as much as anything. Some witnesses even reported United slouching out of the team bus on its arrival outside Celtic Park. The sun might have been shining but there was little joy in the hearts of those players who perhaps sensed what lay in store.

“Having been beaten in the last few games there was only so much belief that we could go and do it,” admitted Blair Spittal, one of three teenagers McNamara brought into the side in an attempt to freshen things up.

Players such as Spittal will be asked to fill the Mackay-Steven and Armstrong-shaped gaps in the side.

McNamara was spotted speaking to both these former United players long after the final whistle – it’s clear he has no truck with them.

Those away fans who made yet another fruitless trip through to Glasgow would have at least appreciated Mackay-Steven’s very low-key celebration after scoring.

“It is what it is,” McNamara said, with regards to the sale of the two players.

“I have players who now have the opportunity to show if they are good enough. And they will get the opportunity.”

Mackay-Steven’s early strike was supplemented by a good finish by John Guidetti. A third goal, a back-heel by Jason Denayer, had its source in the one real piece of devilment in the game. Paul Paton’s senseless scything challenge on old pal Mackay-Steven just seconds before half-time received the punishment it deserved when Celtic scored from the free kick.

These teams probably now need a break from each other. Strictly speaking, they were both in the hunt for the treble at the start of this mini-series. Now they move on to very different ambitions.

Celtic continue in their pursuit of a domestic clean sweep, something defender Efe Ambrose believes will be helped by their current momentum.

“We’re almost there,” he said. “But we’re not there yet so we have to keep pushing in training.”

United, meanwhile, must try to put themselves together again and keep on gunning for a European place.

Bring it on was McNamara’s message, though he cannot be unhappy at the prospect of an international break as his players retreat to lick their wounds over the course of a few days’ holiday.

They play a revived Ross County a week on Saturday, the first time they have faced a team that isn’t Celtic since a 2-0 defeat by Partick Thistle at the end of February.

Somewhere up in the Highlands, a wily Jim McIntrye is presumably already plotting to gain the psychological edge by getting his players to run out in green and white-hooped jerseys.

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