Celtic lacked dash in Dingwall as Postecoglou points out 'conditions' that made steel and character so important
The latest victory secured by Ange Postecoglou’s men in the form of a 2-0 success over Ross County at Dingwall could be filed under “largely unremarkable”, even if his Highland counterpart Malky Mackay would demur as a consequence of Celtic’s first goal – in added time of the first period – arriving via a penalty conversion by Jota following VAR spotting a Alex Iacovitti handball.
In truth, though, debate over the award seemed on the confected side in view of the rules that are applied to handball incidents in the box. A ripper of a 95th-minute strike from Alexandro Bernabei could be claimed to have rendered the award academic and, ultimately, the context on the afternoon’s events was provided by where it leaves Celtic with potentially 10 games still to play. That is upshot of them effectively requiring only to win five of these to annex the club a fifth treble in seven years, a total predicated on three victories being achieved in the derbies to come against Rangers, the first of these rolling round next Saturday in the east end of Glasgow.
This confrontation between the ancient adversaries provides Postecoglou’s men with the opportunity to extend their lead in the cinch Premiership to 12 points with 18 then remaining. If the post-split fixture between the bitter rivals at Ibrox were also to go their way, then only one more win would put them arithmetically out of reach. In between these titanic tussles, the pair will slug it out in the Scottish Cup semi-final of the Scottish Cup. Game four of the only five that Celtic require to prevail in order to take their clean sweep ambitions all the way to the showpiece of the competition at Hampden on June 3.
Postecoglou presented himself as quietly content with events in the Highlands, an afternoon wherein Tomoki Iwata gave an accomplished display as he was handed his first start at the base of Celtic’s midfield. It was a move that resulted in Callum McGregor operating in a more advanced role, with Aaron Mooy and Reo Hatate sidelined by injury. Yet, there was little in the way of the expected fluency from the champions-elect in their first action following a 15-day hiatus necessitated by the international break.
Against an obdurate home team – a side that belied their lowly status of only two points to the good of basement club Dundee United – Celtic struggled to produce their usual pizazz. Postecoglou appeared to be pushing it in attributing a curiously passive approach for much of the first period to pitfalls to be found in the “conditions”. Well, that and Greg Taylor – forced off with a dead leg around the hour mark – clipping the outside of the post with a vicious drive after 43 minutes, and Jota scooping an effort on to the bar in the final minute of the 90. In between times, Kyogo Furuhashi missed an absolute pinch when he steered wide with the goal at his mercy.
“It was a good challenge,” said Postecoglou. “The conditions and the way Ross County play, we knew it wouldn’t be an easy afternoon. There wasn’t a lot of space to play for the most part but we still had discipline and focus within the structure. We were wasteful in front of goal and that keeps them in the game. It’s then edgier than it should be but overall the lads handled it OK. With the conditions the way they were it isn’t going to be a free flowing game of football. But aside from the football, there was steel and character in the group to get the job done.”
The home side had that in spades too, not least in 16-year-old centre-back Dylan Smith. The Scotland under-17 international suggested he could be one mighty prospect with how he marshalled the country’s most devastating attack on his full debut.
Mackay’s despair over VAR’s input was perhaps related to a sense of injustice over how it played a hefty role in ensuring his players’ commendable efforts ended up counting for nowt. But when Matt O’Riley sent over a corner and it scraped Iacovitti’s fully extended arm as the County captain jumped with Cameron Carter-Vickers, it was the sort of incident that the technology is in place to pick up. The official in front of the television screens, Steven Kirkland, duly did so in communicating to Willie Collum to take a look himself. In turn, the referee had not qualms about pointing to the spot following a quick review, Jota meting out full punishment in thumping the resultant penalty down the middle.
An uninvolving spectacle, for the most part, didn’t produce a moment genuinely to savour until the fifth minute of eight that were added had almost elapsed. Then, the ball broke to Bernabei, a replacement for Taylor, on the edge of the area and he absolutely creamed it into the top corner. The 22-year-old could be forgiven for milking the moment of his first goal, his joy unbridled as he really lapped up the acclaim of the travelling support stationed behind the net that he almost yanked from its mooring with his almighty biff. Frankly, the Argentine hasn’t had that many to treasure since his £3.75million move from Lanus last summer. Pacey and direct but headstrong both positionally and with his passing, he has struggled to appear at one in Postecoglou’s possession-based system. The Celtic manager didn’t sidestep the suggestion the goal – which made certain of a 15th straight win, and a 28th victory of a 29-game domestic unbeaten run – could provide the player with a much needed fillip.
“It was good from Berno,” he said. “We know he has it in his locker because we see it in training. Hopefully it gives him confidence and belief. He’s still learning and getting up to speed with the way we play which isn’t easy. He works hard every day and has got his reward. We had guys getting on making an impact [with all the substitutions], which is what we ask for.”
In truth, though, Postecoglou will be asking for more from his Celtic team when Rangers come calling next weekend than they offered against County.