IT MIGHT seem perverse to see a one-sided, much needed, win as potentially problematic. Yet it escaped the notice of no-one that Celtic’s 5-0 flogging of bottom club Ross County was achieved without Kris Commons, and that his absence seemed to liberate Stefan Johansen.
Ross County 0-5 Celtic
Scorers: Celtic - Guidetti (11), McGregor (14), Stokes (30, 56), Denayer (35)
Celtic manager Ronny Deila took a pounding for leaving out Commons, last season’s player of the year, scorer of 32 goals in that campaign, and so often his team’s creative fulcrum, from Champions League qualifiers. Yet it is perhaps worth recalling the one accomplished performance Deila’s side produced in that sorry period. It came with the 1-1 draw away to Maribor in the Champions League play-off first leg.
Then, as at Dingwall, Deila’s favoured 4-2-3-1 essentially could be read as a 4-3-3. That was the case because Johansen played in front of two midfielders. The configuration could never be read as a 4-3-3 when Commons plays off a striker to be the middleman of the three. In Slovenia that night, just as in the Highlands on Saturday, Johansen produced the sort of outstanding display that has eluded him when he has been berthed as one of the two sitting midfielders.
The return of Charlie Mulgrew to partner Scott Brown gave Johansen the licence to be the attacking funnel. Even allowing for the impoverished nature of County, the results were devastating. Johansen had an input into all four goals that were netted in an 18-minute first-half spell.
The muscle injury that affects his “butt” – as Deila calls it – won’t prevent Commons being available for Celtic’s encounter at home to Astra Guirgiu in the Europa League on Thursday night. The question, though, is whether the 31-year-old ought be accommodated, and how? On-loan Manchester City forward John Guidettii – who started Saturday’s rout by volleying in from four yards after 11 minutes – is unavailable. Clearly then there is an available slot up-front. No evidence provided by £2.4 million signing Stefan Scepovic suggests that he is ready to fill that role.
Commons, then, could be an option, but it may be that his limited mobility raises legitimate issues as to whether he does fit the Deila template long-term. It is believed Celtic are unwilling to meet the salary demands he is requesting to stay beyond the end of his current deal next summer – for all that Deila has said there is “good dialogue”.
And though links to his old Celtic manager Neil Lennon, now in charge at Bolton, may have no real material basis apart from the Irishman’s comments that he would be “interested” at the “right price”, how Deila deals with the Commons question isn’t straightforward. What he needs are performances and results in line with that achieved at the weekend, where the post-match chatter revolved around eulogies to the man in the Commons role, effectively.
Callum McGregor, who netted with a crisp shot to make it 2-0 after only 14 minutes on his return following illness, was only too willing to offer up such. “Excellent,” he said of Johansen. “In the first half especially, with real driving runs from midfield, and going and pressing people. He sets the tone. Him and Broonie [Scott Brown] do that every week, set the tone to go and press and get in teams’ faces, then when we’ve got the ball show we can play. I think that was the perfect example. He gives you that intelligence on the ball as well, whether that be good passes through the lines or moving the ball up the pitch. Or even in a defensive role, because he gets about. It was good to see him today. I thought all three of the midfielders were excellent.”
Brown possibly set the tone for a performance of real zeal – one in which Anthony Stokes bagged a double with terrific long-range drives – by giving it tight to his team-mates following the 1-0 defeat by Hamilton Accies that made for a head-in-the-stocks fortnight for Deila and his team.
McGregor admitted team meetings, and rank and full exchanges had followed on from Brown claiming that some Celtic players were guilty of hiding in a first home league reverse in almost two years.
“[His criticism was] fair enough,” said McGregor, who was exempt from it since he didn’t play. “It’s his opinion and he’s very much entitled to it. It was a poor game against Hamilton, but I think the boys put it right today and I hope we can go from strength to strength and go on a really good run.
“We had two meetings just to look over the game and see where we could have done better. Everybody knew exactly what was expected of us today and going forward in the weeks to come. Everybody could give an opinion [in the meetings]. It’s not just one man talking, or two or three men talking, everybody’s got to have their say. We have to get better as a team and I hope we’ve shown we’ve taken a step in the right direction.”
After two steps forward in recent games for County under new manager Jim McIntyre, Saturday was one major step in the wrong direction. Yet, considering that he had two new signings in his set-up – former Motherwell player Paul Quinn coming off the bench after signing that morning – it shouldn’t be surprising McIntyre is seeking the right blend. In all, the Highland club have brought in 17 new players since the end of last season, only four of these in the one-month-old present management regime. County’s fate will not be settled by games against Celtic, and with four points in their previous two Premiership outings, it was fair enough for McIntyre to maintain there was “no doubt” his team would “bounce back”. Bouncing up the table might be altogether more difficult, though.