Purposeful Celtic stepping up title pursuit

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IN RECENT months, Celtic’s progress towards the retention of their title has been a bit like a drunk heading home: they know they’re going in the right direction, they’ll probably get there in the end, but there are more than a few delays and diversions along the way. Saturday’s assured win over Hamilton, by contrast, showed the champions in far more purposeful mood.

Although they had to work hard for the three points, the outcome was never seriously in doubt from the moment Adam Matthews opened the scoring. The result may have been unspectacular, but it was exactly the kind of performance Ronny Deila needed from his team after their break from the domestic game in Gran Canaria. What’s more, the solidity shown by Celtic in this lunchtime kick-off took on greater significance in the light of Aberdeen’s wobble later in the day.

Emilio Izaguirre, right, looks on as team-mate Liam Henderson fires home Celtic's second goal at Hamilton. Picture: SNS

Emilio Izaguirre, right, looks on as team-mate Liam Henderson fires home Celtic's second goal at Hamilton. Picture: SNS

Four points behind with two games in hand going into the weekend, Celtic are now just two adrift thanks to Dundee’s draw at Pittodrie. As Aberdeen play next on Friday, the Glasgow club will go back to the top if they beat Motherwell at Parkhead on Wednesday in a game which looks like one of the biggest home bankers of the season.

The key to this victory was simply all-round competence. Jason Denayer’s return to centre-half alongside Virgil van Dijk meant that the back four, while not quite watertight, was more composed than when Efe Ambrose is included. The dominance of the two central defenders allowed Matthews and Emilio Izaguirre to take up advanced positions on the flanks at times, turning Celtic’s 4-2-3-1 formation into a more threatening 2-4-3-1, with Scott Brown and Nir Bitton the midfield anchors.

It took them more than half an hour to turn that threat into a lead, however, as Accies gave almost as good as they got. Indeed, with the game still goalless, Craig Gordon was forced into a double save, first scrambling to palm out a misdirected header by Denayer, and then getting down to block a close-range shot by Mickael Antoine-Curier.

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Kris Commons had come closest for Celtic by that point when he headed into the side netting from a corner, and he played a crucial part in the opening goal. Fed by Leigh Griffiths from the left, Commons did not even have to look up before playing the ball into space on the right for Matthews to run on to. The Welshman’s shot on the run was goalbound all the way, swerving out of the reach of Michael McGovern.

It was a sign of Accies’ assiduous organisation that their goalkeeper was only beaten by a shot from the edge of the box, as the home back four had thwarted Celtic’s attempts to pass their way closer to goal before creating an opening. Even so, it can often be argued that the defence can do more to close down a shot that comes in from around 20 yards out, and that seemed to be the case with Celtic’s second, scored not long after the break by Liam Henderson.

Matthews’ ball into the box was not properly cleared, allowing Izaguirre to feed Henderson. His low shot found the corner of the net, and Celtic had some breathing space.

Dougie Imrie had a couple of chances to get his team back into the game, the first being a shot which Gordon did well to clutch at his near post. The second was far more clear-cut – a header from just a few yards out – but the home midfielder appeared unsure of his positioning and was unable to get his effort on target. Celtic had their chances, too, towards the end, but a wider margin of victory would have flattered them.

For Accies, this was a second home defeat in their two games under caretaker player-manager Martin Canning, but they can be relatively satisfied with their performance. In their first season back in the Premiership they are still well on course to finish in the top six and, while their directors may be flattered by some of the big names connected with the vacancy, there is a strong argument for continuity for at least the rest of the season.

Defender Michael Devlin, for one, is confident the club are firmly on the right track. “I think it’s a case of carry on as normal, and Canzo has got the job until further notice,” he said. “We’ll work hard under him and continue to do the same things that Alex Neil implemented here.

“We’re all doing the same things and pushing in the same direction. Canzo continues that. Not a thing has changed since Alex went, and I think that’s what the club wants – to continue everything that’s been good about us.

“So far this season it’s been successful. Everyone can see that from the position we’re in in the league and how we’ve played. We just need to carry on as we are. Canzo brings stability and we’ll push on. There’s always that fear, that if a new manager comes in he’ll want to bring his own ideas and formula of what he thinks will be successful. He might not, and come in and say ‘Guys, what you’re doing is working’. Canzo knows what’s working.”

Accies have set a deadline of Wednesday for applications. They play Partick Thistle that evening, and if they return from Firhill with three points, Canning’s case for staying in the post should become compelling.

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