KRIS Commons shouldn’t really have to prove his value to Celtic anymore, but he delivered a timely reminder yesterday of why his departure would be so keenly felt by the Scottish champions.
Ross County - 0
Celtic - 1
Still to resolve the impasse over a renewal of his contract, which expires in June, Commons scored the only goal of a hard-earned victory for Celtic in Dingwall which moves them three points clear of Aberdeen at the top of the Premiership table with a game in hand.
Ronny Deila’s side were far from at their best, but were nonetheless well worthy of a fourth consecutive win which takes them into next Sunday’s League Cup semi-final against Rangers in positive mood.
This was a seventh successive home defeat for Ross County – their worst such run since joining the Scottish Football League back in 1994 – who remain bottom of the table, but manager Jim McIntyre is entitled to take some encouragement from a level of performance much improved on recent weeks.
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Chastened by the 5-0 humbling suffered on Celtic’s last visit to Dingwall in October, McIntyre had successfully adopted a more defensively-minded strategy to claim a goalless draw at Parkhead last month.
It was no surprise that he stuck to that 4-5-1 formation for this one, packing his midfield in a bid to stifle Celtic’s more attack-minded and
creative players. The signs were promising enough for County as their visitors struggled to bring any sustained rhythm or intensity to their work.
Craig Curran, tasked with the lone striker role in County’s set-up, predictably saw precious little of the ball, but the youngster did produce the game’s first attempt at goal with a dipping 30-yard shot which had Craig Gordon scrambling anxiously to his right as the ball flew just wide.
But it was Celtic who were dominant in possession and territory, while not causing County keeper Antonio Reguero and his defence many moments of genuine concern.
Commons looked the most likely source of an opening for Celtic throughout and he came close in the tenth minute with a left-foot shot just wide of Reguero’s right-hand post after good set-up play from Adam Matthews down the right.
An impudent back-heeled pass from Scott Brown allowed Emilio Izaguirre to create Celtic’s next opening but the Honduran’s cross was too powerful, giving Commons no chance of directing his close range header on target.
County’s attacking forays were rare and their claims for a penalty in the 27th minute, when Curran went down easily under Izaguirre’s challenge, were certainly made more out of hope than expectation.
Guidetti, back in the starting line-up for the first time since these teams last met at the end of December, appeared eager to get involved but was often left appearing frustrated on the fringes of the action. He commandeered responsibility when Filip Kiss’ foul on Commons gave Celtic a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, but his effort curled a couple of yards wide.
Commons, who saw a fierce shot bravely blocked by Scott Boyd, duly demanded to take his team’s next free-kick just before half-time and forced Reguero into a fine diving save to his right.
There was a considerable injection of urgency in Celtic’s play at the start of the second half and Guidetti was denied the breakthrough when his shot cannoned off the shoulder of Jamie Reckord.
If they were out of luck on that occasion, Celtic enjoyed a sizeable slice of good fortune when they finally went in front in the 52nd minute. Commons struck his shot cleanly enough from around 25 yards, but it is doubtful it would have beaten Reguero without the wild deflection off Paul Quinn which sent the ball looping over the helpless keeper into the net.
County now had to come out of their defensive shell to try and forage an equaliser, but it was Celtic who largely remained on the front foot. Marcus Fraser, making his County debut against his former club, had to make a brilliantly timed block to deny Commons a second goal.
County briefly rallied, but Celtic saw the job through efficiently.