Eddie Howe given food for thought by Celtic's performance against Falkirk

If Eddie Howe was tuning in on Premier Sports last night, for all Celtic’s struggles for 50 minutes to make the breakthrough in a Scottish Cup tie they eventually closed out 3-0 against Falkirk, he wouldn’t exactly have been left reconsidering whether to take up the Parkhead club’s contract offer he appears ready to ink.

James Forrest, centre, was on target for Celtic against Falkirk.
James Forrest, centre, was on target for Celtic against Falkirk.

The 43-year-old Englishman would, though, have realised the reconditioning of the squad he will require to undertake on pitching up in Glasgow. As much in mind as make-up.

Jock Stein once said 11 dustbins, if set up in a certain fashion, could prove problematic to breakdown. Across the four-game period in charge for Celtic interim manager John Kennedy, his players seem to have gone out of their way to prove the wisdom of that adage for long passages.

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That is not to demean the endeavours of Falkirk, who were disciplined and determined until they caved by conceding two goals inside three minutes just before the hour. The returning James Forrest, in his first start for six months, demonstrated his incalculable value to his team by providing the first. The winger also illustrated how much he has been missed in the club’s bedevilled season since he sustained an ankle fracture in late September beyond his strike.

Falkirk's Euan Thomas Deveney and James Forrest in action versus Celtic tonight. (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group)

Energised and inventive throughout his 74 minutes on the pitch, when he dropped his shoulder and cut inside from the right in the familiar fashion of so many campaigns after 56 minutes, he was rewarded for letting fly with the ball grazing Kyle McLelland to elude the outstretched hand of keeper Robbie Mutch.

It was a goal that Celtic desperately needed to prevent the encounter settling into the pattern of so many that have cost them enormously in a season … wherein they have developed the footballing equivalent of golf’s yips or even dartitis suffered by those svelte athletes on the oche. Even with three goals in the tie that was still a problem considering they had 43 goal attempts, and 11 shots on target.

These statistics were hardly surprising when Celtic were up against a third tier club that essentially seemed willing to sacrifice progress in the competition. This impression came by dint of the fact that joint managers Lee Miller and Scottish Cup tie rested half of their senior side because of the punishing schedule in their League One promotion push the pandemic has condensed into a month of games practically every three days.

It should have made Celtic’s first game in defence of a trophy they have captured for a record four straight seasons a breeze; a comfortable way with which to resume following the international break. That was true even if the rigours of that period led to Kennedy starting with Odsonne Edouard, Callum McGregor and Mohamed Elyounoussi on the bench.

Falkirk co-manager Lee Miller at tonight's game. (Photo by Craig Williamson/SNS Group)

Those calls meant a first start for Leigh Griffiths under Kennedy, although the once-lethal striker never really did start in an excruciating 62 minutes from him. Questions about what sort of future he will have in the high-tempo, aggressive approach that are Howe patents after he proved so out of sorts.

His timing was as reliable as chocolate watch as Celtic attacked in wave upon wave, only to squander glaring openings again and again. So often that proved the result of a ball being played across the box to Griffiths and him swiping to scuff efforts in mortifying fashion.

Ryan Christie also had his moments of miss, as did Celtic right across the personnel middle to third, but he made amends when he sealing the club’s place in the last 16 of the competition with an inch-perfct low drive from the right-hand edge of the box that squeezed in at the far post in the 58th minute.

In Scott Brown being inexplicably retained despite being on his farewell tour through having agreed to join Aberdeen next season, Celtic’s line-up against Falkirk might have had no great relevance of how it will look if Howe is in place come the start of next season. Aside from doubts about Griffiths’ future, it is unlikely that Kristoffer Ajer and Christie – approaching the final 12 months of their deals – will remain, while Diego Laxalt, Jonjoe Kenny and late substitute Mohamed Elyounoussi’s loan deals from AC Milan, Everton and Southampton, respectively, are up in the summer. Elyounoussi would be a permanent signing worth making by Howe if the opportunity exists for a deal in the region of £5million to be struck, as he showed by bagging goal number 16 of the season in the 79th minute. A smart loft over the advancing Falkirk keeper after being sent through by Kenny, it was a goal crafted with the sort of ease that had proved beyond his team-mates all-too-often.

Ultimately, Celtic did what they had to do without ever looking like they might gift a goal on the very rare occasions Falkirk were in their half. A result of them affording their visitors under 20 per cent of possession. And, in fairness to Kennedy, it has gone overlooked that his Celtic have yet to be breached from open play in the four games he has led them. There may be some elements on which Howe can build.

Celtic: Bain, Kenny, Ajer, Welsh, Laxalt, Brown, Turnbull, Christie, Rogic (Soro 72), Forrest (Elyounoussi 74), Griffiths (Ajeti 62). Subs: Barkas, Taylor, Duffy, Soro, Edouard, McGregor, Ralston.

Falkirk: Mutch, Mercer, Neilson, Deveney, McClelland, G Miller Leitch (Alston 64), Fotheringham (Telfer 64), Dowds (Keena 51), Francis, Sammon. Subs: Cantley, Dixon, Hall, Gomis, Laverty, L Miller.