IT TOOK Stuart Armstrong 24 games to finally break his duck for Dundee United and score his first senior goal. On Wednesday night, he required barely half an hour to make his mark for new club Celtic.
“The only way is down,” Armstrong smiled yesterday as he contemplated this afternoon’s trip to McDiarmid Park to face St Johnstone.
Of course, the 3-0 victory over Partick Thistle in which he made such an impact was extra special because his friend and team-mate Gary Mackay-Steven had taken even less time to open his account for Celtic. For a spell, particularly after Armstrong watched one good effort of his saved by Thistle goalkeeper Scott Fox, it looked as if, finally, there might be a way of separating them; Mackay- Steven was the one who scored on his debut, Armstrong didn’t.
But then came another chance, laid on for him by John Guidetti. The new boy stuck the ball away with admirable precision to put Celtic two goals in front. While obviously welcome since it granted Celtic some breathing space, the goal was also leapt upon as further evidence that Mackay-Steven and Armstrong are brothers-in-arms, who do everything together.
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Predictably they have already been given nicknames mocking this perceived quirk – “by the usual suspects”, smiled Armstrong. Since the inspiration is a children’s television programme from the early 1990s, they might not be aware of the reference. “The staff have started calling us Zig and Zag,” revealed the 22-year-old Armstrong. Which is which he did not say, if he even knows. “It’s good to have him here, to have a familiar face and a good friend around,” the midfielder added, with reference to Mackay-Steven, who moved to Celtic from Dundee United on the same day as Armstrong – naturally. They were even paraded jointly at a press conference the following day.
“We get some abuse,” added Armstrong. “The boys here give us stick for doing everything together, so to have scored together on our debuts was great.”
Now Celtic fans are keenly awaiting their next trick, which could come today, if selected. Manager Ronny Deila yesterday warned anyone against reading too much into his personnel options this afternoon as the league leaders seek to go six points clear of Aberdeen, who play Hamilton Accies tomorrow.
Deila stressed that extending their lead at the top is the task in hand. Inter Milan, who Celtic face at Parkhead on Thursday in their Europa League last 16 first leg encounter, cannot register in their thoughts until after the final whistle today. “They won’t be on my mind,” said Deila with reference to Roberto Mancini’s side. “I have learned in this job that you have to take it one game at a time. You have to keep the momentum going, you have to win. We know about that [the clash with Inter] but the biggest game is on Saturday. If we have a good performance against St Johnstone then we will take a lot of confidence into the game against Inter Milan.”
Deila confirmed James Forrest, who missed the game against Thistle, will feature today, while striker Leigh Griffiths is also likely to play after missing out in midweek with an injured ankle. Whoever comes in and whoever is left out should not be interpreted as clues to how he wants to line-up against the Italians next week.
“I don’t think the team on Saturday will be the same as the team that will play Inter Milan,” he said. “I don’t think so. You never know, but I don’t think so. We need competition, but healthy competition. I pick the player I think best suits the game. I have to love every player and I do that. I really want them to do well and they get chances when they work over-time.”
John Guidetti is someone who Deila believes is working hard to get into the goal groove again. His failure to find the back of the net on Wednesday, when he had several opportunities to do so, means he has now gone ten games without a goal after a spell when he couldn’t stop scoring. Deila confirmed that he still “loved” Guidetti, although negotiations to bring him to Celtic on a permanent basis from Manchester City appear to have stalled for the moment. Griffiths’ injury saw Guidetti return to the starting line-up in midweek.
“John got his chance against Partick Thistle. Why? Because he has been working hard for two or three weeks,” said Deila. “He has worked hard for the team and was influential in the win for us.”
Deila refused to say whether Mackay-Steven and Armstrong will both maintain their place in the side – there is no truth in the rumour that it is written into their contracts that they both must play together.
Having both come from Dundee United, neither has a particularly good record against St Johnstone, the Tannadice club’s conquerors in the Scottish Cup final. They both played in United’s 2-1 defeat to St Johnstone in December and Armstrong noted that it was time for him and Mackay-Steven to fare better against the Perth side. He believes they are now in better conditions to do so after a series of high-tempo Celtic training sessions under Deila and assistant John Collins.
“It has been a bit of an eye-opener,” said Armstrong. “A few days in, the sports scientist said to us to watch what we were doing and ease our way in. It was a shock to the system.”