However, nobody was prepared for the breathless, error-strewn but undoubtedly compelling contest that erupted following some amateurish refereeing from Craig Thomson early in yesterday’s Scottish Cup quarter-final tie.
Nine-man United will gladly take the replay, which means the teams will now face each other four times in the space of a fortnight. Neither can Celtic be too unhappy with the outcome considering they were trailing at half-time.
Celtic’s treble hopes remain intact for now but they found their hosts to be an obstinate lot. United were reduced to nine men just after half-time, when Paul Dixon was red-carded for hand-balling a shot that was heading towards the net.
Leigh Griffiths saw his penalty brilliantly saved by Rado Cierzniak. However, the Celtic striker then made amends when heading in the equaliser after 71 minutes. But then all this was only the half of it.
Although the Sky cameraman followed Cierzniak off the park at the end to in order to record the man of the match’s exit, he should really have lingered on referee Thomson, who will not enjoy watching the match highlights.
He was at the centre of things as he tried and generally failed to keep control in a boisterous cup game played on a threadbare pitch that contributed to a bumpy afternoon of cup football.
Quite what happens in the coming days depends on how the Scottish Football Association’s compliance office views several incidents. He will study one flash-point in particular.
A fracas sparked by Scott Brown’s heavy challenge on Nadir Ciftci – the pair warred throughout – escalated when Calum Butcher and Virgil van Dijk came together in the fight for the loose ball. Just eight minutes had elapsed.
A stamp on Butcher’s thigh saw the Celtic defender sent off after a long hold-up as Thomson and his helpers attempted to get to the bottom of things. They didn’t. Indeed, worse than this, they contrived to issue a red card to someone who was an innocent bystander.
Presumably it was a case of mistaken identity that saw Paul Paton issued with a red card. To the midfielder’s astonishment, Thomson signalled that he too must come and learn his fate along with Van Dijk after the row, in which he had appeared to play no part.
The put-upon Paton, who has already been banned for a spitting incident this season even though the supposed victim, Aberdeen’s Jonny Hayes, exonerated him, could not believe it when he was red-carded.
He attempted to seek some redress from the nearside referee’s assistant, Graham Chambers, who had been the one to pull away Butcher from the original incident. But he was not called back and he was not exonerated for a crime he clearly did not commit. Not yet, at least.
Paton will hold on to the hope that an appeal will free him for Sunday’s League Cup final clash versus the same opponents, and when it seems inevitable that feelings will again be running high. Butcher, meanwhile, might be the one who suffers, since there is every chance Thomson will accept he got it wrong.
But there was still a game to be won on the pitch, despite the chaos. It was tit-for-tat for much of the first half, and not just in terms of red cards. In an incredible spell just before half-time a Butcher shot was deflected on to the post by Ryan Dow. Of course, it would have been typical if Butcher, who escaped the red card handed to Paton, had been the one to open the scoring.
After this near miss, Celtic sprinted up the park and hit the post as well, with Anthony Stokes seeing his effort bash off the upright after clever work from Stefan Johansen. If anyone had threatened most, it was United. So possibly they deserved to edge ahead on the stroke of half-time. However, their opponents will bitterly contend the penalty from which they scored was not deserved.
The award, in keeping with the theme of the contest, was again highly contentious as Aidan Connolly sought to take advantage of a poor clearance by Emile Izaguirre. The little attacker wriggled into the box and fell under a challenge from Stokes that seemed to barely brush against Connolly. However, down he went. Duped or otherwise, Thomson pointed to the spot and Ciftci slotted his effort into the corner before celebrating wildly with those on the United bench.
The second-half exploded into life almost immediately after the re-start after Stokes’ cut-back was thrashed towards goal by Griffiths. Instinctively, Dixon seemed to shield his face and the ball duly struck his arm. Thomson again pointed to the spot and doled out a red card to Dixon, who at least could not complain about mistaken identity.
Griffiths was not as decisive as Ciftci had been. Although his effort was at a good height for the goalkeeper, Cierzniak’s save was still commendable. United’s nine men prepared to dig in for a long second-half as centre-half John Souttar came on to replace Connolly, with Sean Dillon shifted out to full-back.
At times it seemed as though Cierzniak might ruin Celtic’s treble dreams on his own as he made a fine block from Stokes and several other impressive interventions. Butcher, meanwhile, scorned another chance to really rub Celtic’s noses in it after a breakaway. But Griffiths is making a habit of scoring well-directed headers.
After a fine strike against Dundee in the last round, he used his re-thatched crown to head home Johansen’s cross after 70 minutes. The goal ensured that Scottish football has one more clash between these teams to savour this month, and hopefully a referee equal to the task of controlling it.
Dundee United: Cierzniak, McGowan, Dillon, Fojut, Dixon, Paton, Butcher, Rankin, Dow (Erskine 64), Ciftci, Connolly (Souttar 51). Subs not used: Bilate, Telfer, Spittal, Szromnik, Anier.
Celtic: Gordon, Ambrose, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Biton (Fisher 90), Forrest, Johansen, Stokes (Guidetti 64), Griffiths (Scepovic 87). Subs not used: Zaluska, Wakaso, McGregor, Henderson.
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