All would seem well in the Premiership world for Celtic. Top of the table after yesterday’s victory brought a fifth league win on the spin, the Scottish champions are unbeaten domestically across the entire span of 2020 as they continue their quest for an unprecedented tenth consecutive title. And yet, something isn’t quite right, something isn’t quite clicking for Neil Lennon’s men.
The fact there was a palpable relief that swept through the Celtic ranks when the final whistle sounded – despite the home side at one point holding a 3-1 advantage – said it all.
Lennon conceded to “a little bit of trepidation” in the final ten minutes as a consequence of Julien Serrano smearing a drive from fully 30 yards into the top corner to make it 3-2.
Yet, it was in the final second of four minutes added time that knees would have been knocking on the Celtic bench. A cross arced in from the left found 20-year-old debutant Carlos Pignatiello completely unmarked in the box. The midifleder, only subbed on in the 88th minute, fluffed his big moment, though, by trying to apply three headers at once with the result that he knocked the ball wide of a gaping goal.
It proved a let-off that Celtic shouldn’t have required. But once again Lennon’s men blew more hot and cold than a dodgy thermostat. There was fine play and exquisite goals. There were also unconvincing moments, with Lennon conceding that the concession of another penalty, to go one-behind after 16 minutes, spoke of a need to “tidy-up” their defending.
There was little question that Kristoffer Ajer had his hand up and blocked a Scott Tiffoney cross when he slid in on the Livingston player. Celtic’s gripe was that seconds earlier referee Gavin Ducan had waved away appeals for the ball striking Ciaron Brown’s arm when Ryan Christie had bobbed his way through the area to fashion a shooting opportunity. Jason Holt’s successful conversion – despite Vasilis Barkas getting a hand to the spot-kick – sparked a devastating response from Celtic in which the excellent Callum McGregor was central. Stepping off the left he produced a thunderous angled drive that beat Robby McCrorie via a deflection off Nicky Devlin, the midfielder’s 50th goal for the club.
Within 90 seconds, Celtic had doubled their tally. Greg Taylor combined with McGregor, who released the wing-back down the left for him to slide the ball along the six-yard line where Christie was on hand to tuck it away.
The pick of Celtic’s strikes was undoubtedly their 52nd minute third, which appeared to have put the outcome beyond doubt.
Olivier Ntcham burst through the middle before moving the ball on to Christie. He in turn fed Albian Ajeti who, without breaking stride, arrowed an effort into a space at the near post that didn’t seem to exist. With the strange absence of a too-tired Odsonne Eduoard yesterday, Celtic are fortunate that the £4.5m signing from West Ham appears to be a forward they can rely on to find the net. Four goals have been the product of only five league appearances. With inevitable question marks over the future of Eduoard, Celtic could need to depend on Ajeti going on as he has started his career in Scotland.
“Every striker in this squad can score goals. Sometimes it’s me, or it’s Odsonne or Klimala – we can all score,” said the Swiss international.
“For Odsonne and myself, it’s just important that the team is first. We just want to win, it doesn’t matter who scores the goals. I expect to score goals. But my first aim in every game is to try and help the team win. If I can score to help them, even better. I’ve never had a problem with my own confidence. The season is still in the beginning, there’s still a long way to go. But of course, for us it’s good to be top of the table with Rangers. We’ll take it game by game, we took a great step today and I’m happy that we’re top.”
That contentment was shared by his manager Lennon, despite some obvious downsides. “I thought the performance was better,” he said of the follow-up to the recent wins over St Mirren and Ross County.
“I would have liked a few more goals but the three we scored were brilliant. The reaction to going a goal down was really good and I was pleased. We are in a good position now at the top of the league and it is a big week for us.
“We still have a bit of work to do and we are missing the fans. We scored three cracking goals and there was nothing. It is a little bit different. Overall I am pleased to be top of the league.”
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