THERE was a time not so long ago – and it might return – when some Celtic fans were calling for Ronny Deila to be removed before any more embarrassments were inflicted on their club. Bounced out of the Champions League qualifiers in abysmal fashion by Maribor, and limping along in the Premiership, Deila in the early autumn was deemed a naïve Norwegian plunged way out of his depth in Glasgow.
Celtic 2-1 Dundee
Scorers: Celtic - Stokes (45), Guidetti (54); Dundee - Clarkson (58)
Well, here we are with winter starting to bite, and Deila has established Celtic at the top of the table, with five straight league wins, and has even shown signs of innovation and imagination in the Europa League. Warmly applauded at Celtic’s AGM on Friday, it seems the 39-year-old now has a fighting chance of making a success of his time in Glasgow.
That said, this match at Celtic Park on Saturday was no stroll for the home side. On the contrary, Paul Hartley’s Dundee were strong, impressive and often attack-minded, and gave Deila and his players much food for thought. With a James McPake goal ruled out by a marginal offside decision, and other chances squandered, Dundee rued their luck but made this a very enjoyable game to take in.
Hartley has emerged as Scotland’s great new hope as a coach, with back-to-back promotions with Alloa prior to his appointment at Dens Park, and you could see again in Glasgow why. With Kevin Thomson, now over his recent calf injury, restored to the holding role in Dundee’s midfield, the rest of Hartley’s team were ordered to get at Celtic whenever possible. The Dundee manager stalked his technical area, as tight as piano-wire, urging his players to attack at every opportunity.
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Right now Hartley looks highly impressive in his work. “We were excellent, we had a gameplan, and we created chances,” he said. “I’d worked with the players since Monday on this game, and the plan was to come here and have a go. We said to them, ‘we’re not going to sit back and hope for a result, we’re going to try to get a result’. I’m really pleased with our performance, but obviously disappointed we didn’t take anything.
“I really enjoyed it. We kept the Celtic crowd quiet and played some good football. That’s twice now we’ve played Celtic and shown that we’re not a bad team to watch. I’ve got a really talented bunch of players.”
Of these players, three of them – Scott Bain, Greg Stewart and Paul McGinn – were playing part-time football before Hartley plucked them from the lower leagues last summer and convinced them they could make the step up and play in Scotland’s top league. Stewart, in particular, was excellent on Saturday, and it all only reconfirmed Hartley’s credentials as a gifted manager.
Celtic, with just about every player an internationalist, were guilty of making quite a meal of what chances came their own way. There was a tendency by Anthony Stokes, John Guidetti and Kris Commons to ponce about around the 18-yard line, forever dinking little passes here and there, or attempting tortuous one-twos, instead of simply knifing right through their opponents. Eventually it came right for Deila’s men but they were a trifle over-indulgent at times.
Stokes, now into his fifth season at Celtic and still searching for acceptance, stooped and headed his side ahead from Commons’ free kick just moments before half-time. Guidetti then seemingly put the game beyond Dundee’s reach with a second after 53 minutes, but the visitors simply ramped up their determination, first seeing McPake’s header disallowed, but then clawing one back through David Clarkson.
It was Clarkson’s seventh goal in seven games for Dundee, establishing a new record at the club. For a player unwanted by clubs in the early months of the season, it is a remarkable turn of events. “He keeps scoring goals for us,” said Hartley. “We’ve got him with us on a contract until the end of the season, and the board at the club had to stretch the finances just to do that, but we obviously hope to keep him longer than that.”
McPake spoke later about Dundee’s gallant failure. “We’ve come in from a game at Celtic Park disappointed that we’ve not beaten them, never mind drawing, so it shows how far we’ve come under the manager,” said the defender. “I’ve never played here before and had so many chances.
“I hope my [disallowed] goal was offside. You feel a bit foolish when you run away celebrating: you think you’re getting laughed at. Maybe I should have held my run an extra second and I would still have got on the end of it.”
For Deila and Celtic, next up is Thursday night in Glasgow, and Salzburg in the Europa League. A victory for the Scottish champions will guarantee European football after Christmas.
“It’s going to be a tough game – we know from the away match the threats that Salzburg pose,” said Adam Matthews. “We know we’ve got to be on our game and play better than we did today or else they will turn us over.
“We don’t want it to go down to the last match. We’d like to get the job done as soon as possible. We were a little unhappy we didn’t qualify in the last match but Thursday is another chance to show Europe what we can do. Hopefully we’ll get a good result and a good performance.”
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