THERE was an unavoidable sense at Tannadice on Saturday that both the players and supporters of Dundee United were finding it difficult to concentrate on the job in hand.
Dundee United 0 - 2 Celtic
SCORERS: Celtic: Samaras (5), Stokes (24)
Referee: C Thomson
A banner displayed by the home fans in the Eddie Thompson Stand carried the blunt message, ‘Bring That Trophy Back’, alongside an image of the Scottish Cup. On the pitch, the distracted nature of United’s first-half performance, as they were swatted aside by Celtic, suggested the thoughts of Jackie McNamara’s players were also drifting towards next Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers at Ibrox.
There is no doubt the country’s showpiece knockout tournament offers United their greatest opportunity to claim a tangible reward for a season in which they have received regular plaudits for their often vibrant style of football.
This defeat at the hands of champions Celtic was only the second United have suffered in their last 12 games. But it leaves them six points behind both Aberdeen and Motherwell in the pursuit of Europa League qualification through positioning in the Scottish Premiership table, sharpening attention on how significant their bid to win the Scottish Cup has become.
While insisting he and his team-mates had applied complete focus to the 90 minutes against Neil Lennon’s men, United captain Sean Dillon conceded that the Scottish Cup is perhaps dominating the agenda around the club.
“If someone said to you that you have to win two games to get into Europe, as is the case in the Scottish Cup at this stage, then it would obviously seem easier than trying to catch up in the league,” said Dillon. “What happens in the cup is in your own hands. I suppose what happens in the league is also in your own hands a little bit, but you are relying on teams above you to drop points. Going into the split now, everybody will be taking points off everyone else. But maybe the cup is the better bet.
“Maybe others on the outside will look at our performance against Celtic, especially in the first half, and believe the cup semi-final next week was a factor. Personally, and looking at it from the team’s point of view, I don’t think it was an issue at all.
“You saw the way the lads were in terms of making tackles. If we had been thinking about next week, then a couple of the tackles probably wouldn’t have been made. We like to press teams, we like to pass the ball and keep it well.
“We didn’t do that in the first half and Celtic did. That’s why we were 2-0 down at half-time. But we did it in the second half and I thought we were far better. It was a disappointing result but at the same time at least we got a reaction in the second half.”
Dillon and his central defensive partner Gavin Gunning struggled to cope with Celtic’s pace and movement during the opening half-hour, which effectively settled the contest in favour of the visitors.
Georgios Samaras, making his 250th appearance for Celtic and his first in the starting line-up since the Scottish Cup exit against Aberdeen in February, opened the scoring in the fifth minute when he met Kris Commons’ free-kick from the right and smashed home a fine right-foot volley from around eight yards.
Celtic doubled their lead in the 24th minute, Anthony Stokes netting his 15th goal of the season with a good close-range finish after his smart exchange of passes with Commons had carved open the United defence.
The home side did respond to manager McNamara’s demand for greater tempo and belief in their passing after the break, helped by the introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven, but they lacked the incisiveness required to make the most of several well-engineered situations. Celtic, while not as dominant as they had been before the break, could have increased their lead, with substitute Leigh Griffiths passing up a couple of clear chances.
United now face a very different challenge in Glasgow on Saturday, with Dillon admitting to uncertainty over the standard of opposition League One champions Rangers will provide in what is the Ibrox club’s first test against a top-flight team this season.
“It’s going to be a bit of a step into the unknown for us,” he said. “Rangers are still such a big club and have big players playing for them, even though they are not in the Premiership. I don’t want to sound clichéd, but they are at home in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup so it’s going to be tough for us. Who knows what the public are going to see from Rangers? As long as we win and get to the final, I don’t care how it looks.”
If United are to prevail, Dillon’s battle with his fellow Dubliner and predecessor as United captain, Jon Daly, could be crucial, with the big striker now leading the line for Rangers.
“Jon is still my neighbour, we live close to each other in Inchture just south of Dundee,” added Dillon. “Willo Flood lives there too and I played against him last week at Aberdeen. The three of us also lived close to each other back in Dublin and get on well.
“There’s nothing negative I could say about big Jon. He’s a really good player and a really good lad. I’m delighted he’s doing well at Rangers and hope he continues to do so – apart from against us next Saturday.”