DIFFERENT coloured shirt, same old story. Dundee fans were glad to see the back of Gary Mackay-Steven following his move from Dundee United to Celtic earlier this year.
Scorers: Dundee - McAlister (87); Celtic - Mackay-Steven (32), Van Dijk (63)
As many might have feared, however, he returned to haunt them last night, setting his new side on the way to a victory at Dens Park.
Although their was a brief glimpse of a comeback at the end by the hosts, Celtic’s win served as the perfect antidote to Sunday’s controversial Scottish Cup exit by Inverness Caledonian Thistle
Virgil van Dijk put Celtic further in command with another stunning free-kick goal just after the hour mark. The centre-half simply relishes these opportunities and he scored with yet another nonchalant swing of his right boot after 63 minutes.
Jim McAlister briefly raised Dundee’s hopes with a goal three minutes from time. This late strike meant Celtic were happy to see out the remaining minutes to secure a win that restores their eight point-lead over Aberdeen.
Ronny Deila’s side now stand three wins from the title and the decisive victory could still potentially arrive at Pittodrie next month.
The Aberdeen fans had their hopes of a surprise win for Dundee dented early on when Mackay-Steven slipped into gear once more against the Dens Park side. He is their tormentor-in-chief. Wounds are still raw from his two-goal contribution to Dundee United’s 6-2 win over Dundee on New Year’s day. He seems to thrive on the opprobrium that rains down on him whenever he comes up against the dark blue side of the street. So it was again last night.
Although the Dens Park crowd was restricted by a partial closure of the south enclosure after scenes provoked by the most recent derby clash, Mackay-Steven was still the target for the home fans. Their passion was, however, dulled by a cagey start to the game from both sides.
After the drama of Sunday’s semi-final, there was always the prospect of this being a slow-burner. While Celtic might have welcomed the opportunity to take out their frustrations on Dundee, it was bound to take time to re-focus following the end of their treble dream.
Little of note had occurred before Mackay-Steven opened the scoring. As could be predicted following the events on Sunday, when Inverness’ Josh Meekings’ handball was missed by the officials, Celtic’s goal was scored against the backdrop of outrage from Dundee fans. They argued that the visitors had benefited from a decision that had gone their way in the run-up to the goal.
These supporters were, however, better advised to look at their part their own team had played in allowing Mackay-Steven such freedom in the box to score his third goal against the Dens Park side this season. But it fitted with the narrative many had anticipated.
Because Celtic had been the victims of a poor decision in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Inverness, they would, many surmised, be granted some compensation from officials last night. Dundee fans had already held their breath when James Forrest tumbled in the box under Willie Dyer’s challenge.
Dundee manager Paul Hartlety’s pre-match intention had been to put Celtic on the back foot but the visitors were fairly untroubled in the opening half. A Van Dijk-marshalled Celtic defence coped with most of which Dundee were able to muster in an attacking sense.
Although Griffiths was a peripheral figure in the first-half, it was a foul on him that set in motion a chain of events that led to Celtic taking the lead after 32 minutes. McPake’s challenge from behind on the former Dundee striker was spotted by referee Calum Murray, who, noting how an attack was still on-going, allowed the game to continue. However, he brought play back to the original foul when Griffiths himself failed to control a pass a few seconds later, to howls of protest from the home fans.
But the advantage rule was played to good effect – Celtic had not benefited, and so the foul was belatedly awarded. With Dundee rattled, Mackay-Steven was then felled by McPake, and another foul awarded. Armstrong flighted the free-kick into the box, where Van Dijk nodded down to Mackay-Steven.
Despite being in such a dangerous position, the former Dundee United player was granted all the time he needed to place a shot into the top corner of the net. This was surprising since Dundee have surely been well-warned about the winger’s qualities.
It might have been worse for the home team before half-time when Forrest should have done better than place a shot too near Bain after a deflected Bitton effort fell into his path. While Dundee themselves had a penalty appeal when Stewart went down under a challenge from Denayer, it was of the half-hearted variety.
Griffiths should have made it 2-0 early in the second half, but he was denied by a good save low to the left from Bain. Dundee briefly came into things after that. Hartley’s decision to bring on Luka Tankulic for Harris might have been based on the hope his side could take advantage of this upswing in fortunes. But it proved a false dawn.
McPake’s wild challenge on Armstrong on the edge of the box was injudicious in the extreme, particularly when the opposition have someone like Van Dijk to call on. Few could claim they were surprised when his 20-yard free-kick flew over the wall and past Bain.
The visitors were not yet home and dry. The excellent McAlister’s fine finish from 12 yards after a good move down the right from Dundee provided Celtic with a fright in the dying minutes. But they held on, allowing Deila the opportunity to resume his victory fist-pumping ritual in front of the away supporters after the final whistle.
Dundee: Bain, P McGinn, McPake, Konrad, Dyer; Ferry [Davidson, 69], McAlister, S McGinn, Harris [Tankulic, 58]; Stewart, Heffernan. Not used: Letheren, Clarkson, Black, Wighton, Colquhoun.
Celtic: Gordon, Ambrose, Van Dijk, Denayer, Izaguirre [Tierney 81]; Bitton, Brown, Armstrong, Forrest [Commons, 76], Mackay-Steven; Griffiths [Guidetti, 76]. Not used: Zaluska, Stokes, Scepovic, Fisher.