County display the bite that ‘pedestrian’ champions lack
SAVING themselves for a more important assignment left Celtic only just able to save face at Dingwall on Saturday.
Scorers: Ross County - Brittain (49); Celtic - Commons (90+3)
Evidence that his players were “going through the motions”, as their manager Neil Lennon called it, with minds on the Champions League play-off in Helsingborg tomorrow, was inescapable for 60 minutes. Lennon called his men’s play pedestrian. It was more perfunctory, County infused with a desire and determination singularly lacking in their visitors’ efforts.
Maybe that is understandable. While every point is precious for the Scottish Premier League newcomers, and a first league visit of the champions in front of the cameras a day to deliver, Celtic were never going to have their title hopes dented on the basis of any outcome. Or on any other basis, for that matter. What happens in Helsingborg, in contrast, is pivotal for their entire season, the future financial well-being of the club and the very reputation of the Scottish game. Moreover, with Lennon’s squad – if not starting XI – thinned to the point that five of his substitutes have never started a competitive game for the club, those in good health maybe could be forgiven for prioritising their own preservation ahead of preserving league points.
Having lost strikers Gary Hooper, Anthony Stokes, Mo Bangura and Daryl Murphy to various ailments, and further being denied Scott Brown, James Forrest and Paddy McCourt to fitness issues, Lennon declared himself accepting of the scoreline achieved when Kris Commons scored from close range with 15 seconds of the third minute of added time remaining. His forgiving tone, that wasn’t always matched by his terms – he said his players had to be “more professional” – maybe reflected that his preoccupation was more Champions League than County.
He should have Hooper, Brown and Forrest back for the Swedish sojourn and the influence each of these players has on the team was sorely missed at the weekend. The bite Derek Adams’ men had, matched by that shown by their manager afterwards over three minutes added by referee Craig Thomson, would have come from Brown. Georgios Samaras in a frontline role lacked the clinical touch Hooper has provided when Celtic did begin to regularly raid the Ross County goal, the appearance of youngsters Tony Watt and Paul Slane central to them doing so. And Forrest offers a creative dimension that was missing with the 3-5-2 formation Lennon started off with.
All of which should not downplay the adeptness with which Adams’ side imposed themselves on their illustrious opponents. In Richard Brittain, who it seemed would give the club a first top-flight win with an exocet of a free-kick from 22 yards to the left of goal just after the interval, Ian Vigurs and Marc Fitzpatrick, they had industry and influence in a manner that highlighted how lacklustre were opposite numbers such as Victor Wanyama and Joe Ledley.
County’s astonishing unbeaten run, now standing at 37 league games – 34 racked up romping the First Division – never looked in threat, though Samaras should have been awarded a penalty, and Celtic hit the goal frame twice – their opponents doing so once – even before a late onslaught that brought a first goal concession of their inaugural Scottish Premier League season.
For the Celtic equaliser, which followed a decent hit by Watt, goalkeeper Michael Fraser did no more than pop the ball out in front of him, when the shot didn’t seem so powerful or placed to cause him a real headache. Fraser wasn’t for accepting any culpability, however. “I did all I could for the goal,” he said. “The boy struck it well and I have made enough mistakes and always hold my hands up. If I have made a mistake I will say it, but it was a good strike and it hit me on the forearm. On a good day it spins away or one of the defenders cleared it. Unluckily for me, Commons was on hand to score. It was good follow-up play from him, so I did all I could.”
Adams may land himself in bother with the SFA – again – over the anger he expressed at Thomson’s time-keeping at the close of a second half in which there were only two substitutes, both Celtic, and no notable injury stoppages. Yet, the County manager may not have helped his cause by delaying, alongside defender Ross Tokely, in returning the ball from trackside.
“I don’t know where they [the three minutes] came from,” he said. “We didn’t make any substitutions, there were no injuries in the second half – the assistant ref told me it was because the ball didn’t come back quick enough. I’m sorry, but that’s just life. We’re not allowed ball rotation in the SPL so why they would add a minute and a half for that I have no idea. It’s only if the ball goes out of the stadium that you’re allowed ball rotation. The ball was lying at the track, so maybe they’ll be able to tell you – doubt it, like.”
When it was put to Adams whether he asked Thomson about it, he said. “The best thing for you to do is ask the SFA if you can speak to them. There’s no point me speaking to them.”
Adams should at least derive some satisfaction from the fact that his team is speaking volumes for his coaching nous. Celtic, meanwhile, must hope they can make a noise when they really require to shout out about what they are made of.
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