Aberdeen 2 - 1 Celtic: Dons close gap at the top
For the first time in 25 years, Aberdeen have completed a home double against Celtic as they mount potentially their most credible title challenge since the 1990-91 season.
That was the last campaign when the Dons collected maximum points from both league fixtures at Pittodrie against Celtic.
First-half goals from Jonny Hayes and debutant Simon Church proved enough to give Derek McInnes’ side an ultimately fully deserved victory, extending their current unbeaten league run to 11 games and cutting the gap on Celtic at the top of the Premiership table to three points.
Leigh Griffiths’ 28th goal of the season came too late to salvage another dispiriting night for beleaguered Celtic manager Ronny Deila.
On the back of Sunday’s League Cup semi-final loss to Ross County, this was another stuttering performance from his players which will only intensify scrutiny of the Norwegian’s position.
With 14 games of the Premiership season remaining, Celtic’s bid for a fifth successive title faces a genuine threat from an Aberdeen side whose confidence and momentum should gather strength after this win.
Hayes’ stunning opener for the hosts was of a quality in the sharpest possible contrast to the half hour of tense and often laboured football which had preceded it.
Both teams struggled to find much in the way of fluency or rhythm on a bumpy and unpredictable playing surface. On more than one occasion, players lost their footing at crucial moments.
Aberdeen had started the evening with a show of defiance to the champions even before kick-off, lining up around the centre circle and staring down the Celtic players when they engaged in their traditional “huddle”. But once the action was underway, there was no immediate indication of the dominant position McInnes’ men would forge for themselves by the interval.
It was Celtic who were largely in the ascendancy during that tepid opening 30 minutes in terms of possession and territorial advantage. Not that Deila’s side were able to carve out any clear-cut scoring chances in that spell.
They were restricted to efforts from distance, the first of which saw Nir Bitton’s well struck free-kick from 30 yards fumbled by Aberdeen keeper Scott Brown who had to scramble frantically to gather the ball at the second attempt.
Celtic’s own Scott Brown was back in their starting line-up for the first time in two months and the captain made his presence felt with two calculated fouls in rapid order which had the home fans screaming for action from referee Steven McLean.
The match official settled for a word in the ear of a typically unfazed Brown, whose next contribution saw him blaze a shot over in the 15th minute at the end of the first piece of sustained passing managed by either side.
Griffiths saw a shot deflected wide for one of a series of Celtic corners and it was the visitors who looked far likelier to make the breakthrough.
But they were rocked by Hayes’ sensational 31st-minute strike. Picking up a loose ball from a throw-in on the right, the Irishman – playing with a plaster on the hand bitten by a dog earlier in the week – barely broke stride as he lashed a left foot shot high beyond Craig Gordon’s left hand into the corner of the net from around 25 yards.
Celtic tried to produce an immediate response and Bitton saw his long range effort smartly saved by Brown who fisted the ball to safety. But it was Aberdeen who were now playing with greater purpose and it saw them double their lead in the 38th minute. Not for the first time this season – not even for the first time in the past week – Celtic were undone by a set piece routine. Hayes corner from the right was flicked towards goal by Kenny McLean’s header, the ball beating Gordon and his defenders as on-loan Welsh international Church got the final touch to help it over the line.
Aberdeen’s tails were well and truly up and it required a decent save from Gordon to prevent McLean inflicting further damage on Celtic just before half-time when his low shot was kept out by the keeper diving to his left.
Deila opted for a change in both personnel and formation at the start of the second half. Stuart Armstrong, booked for a petulant foul on Shay Logan just before the interval, was replaced by Colin Kazim-Richards with the big striker making his debut as a partner for Griffiths in a 4-4-2 set-up.
Aberdeen were in no mood to simply try to protect their lead as they sensed further opportunities to take advantage of the increased vulnerability and uncertainty of their opponents.
The Celtic defence were on their heels again in the 50th minute when a scramble in their penalty area ended with Church poking an effort narrowly wide from close range.
At the other end, Celtic continued to find a cutting edge elusive, although Griffiths should have done better than send a free header wide after being picked out by Brown’s cleverly flighted cross from the right.
Adam Rooney was similarly profligate for Aberdeen, heading wide from close range after Gordon had completely missed another Hayes corner from the right.
In their growing frustration, Celtic were in danger of losing their discipline and Kazim-Richards did nothing to debunk his reputation by earning a booking for appearing to aim a stamp at grounded Dons defender Ash Taylor.
Griffiths garnered some consolation for Celtic in stoppage time, cutting inside from the right to plant a left foot shot beyond Brown but the Dons were not to be denied.
Referee: S McLean
ABERDEEN: Brown; Logan, Taylor, Reynolds, Shinnie; Hayes (Smith 86), Storie, McLean, McGinn (Considine 72); Church (Pawlett 77), Rooney. Subs not used: Collin, McKenna, Robson, Ross.
CELTIC: Gordon; Lustig (Allan 78), Boyata, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Brown, Bitton; Mackay-Steven, McGregor (Forrest 68), Armstrong (Kazim-Richards 46) ; Griffiths. Subs not used: Bailly, Ambrose, Izaguirre, Cole.
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