Celtic’s mean defence held the key to title glory
But while, as their song says, playing the “Glasgow Celtic way” is regarded as an important facet of their identity, there are times when pragmatism has to take precedence over idealism.
So it is perhaps only appropriate that while Celtic mourn the passing of their greatest ever centre-half in Billy McNeill, their latest title triumph has been secured on the back of one of their most impressive defensive campaigns.
With just two games remaining, they have conceded only 17 goals in the league and are on course to improve upon the 22 and 25 goals they let in during the previous two dominant Premiership campaigns under Brendan Rodgers.
It has been widely observed that Celtic have not been as free-flowing or attractive as their fans would have liked in recent months but that is of secondary importance to getting the job done and ensuring another tilt at Champions League football next season.
That was Neil Lennon’s primary task when he replaced Rodgers in February and the interim manager ultimately saw it through with something to spare. He remains unbeaten in his 11 games in charge so far, most tellingly overseeing nine clean sheets in that run.
Scott Bain, who hasn’t looked back since replacing Craig Gordon as first-choice goalkeeper in January, has played a pivotal role in seeing Celtic safely through the disruption and uncertainty caused by Rodgers’ sharp exit to Leicester City.
In the 16 Premiership games since the winter break, Bain has recorded 13 shut-outs to top up his already impressive clean-sheet record at the club. The 27-year-old former Alloa and Dundee man has adapted brilliantly to the very different demands of playing for a team who usually dominate possession and whose keeper can go for lengthy spells without any involvement.
Bain, pictured inset, has shown himself capable of making big saves at often crucial moments when he is called upon. There was another case in point on Saturday when, with the match still goalless and Celtic looking tense, he made a fine stop to keep out a Sam Cosgrove shot before James Wilson cracked his follow-up effort off a post.
A few minutes later, Mikael Lustig headed Celtic into the lead and any doubts about them taking at least the point they needed to wrap up the title effectively evaporated.
“It is just a case of concentration for me,” said Bain. “The team limits the number of chances other sides get. I feel like when they have them, I have to be up and ready for that. It is great to make big saves for a big club and feel appreciated.
“But I have played a minimal role compared to the other boys. They need to get more credit than they have been getting. Across Europe, you don’t play for a team with more pressure on them than Celtic. Time and time again, this team just comes up trumps and shows how strong mentally they are. They are miles ahead of everyone in terms of their mental strength. When the going gets tough and everything is getting thrown at them, they always come through. They come through the adversity every time.
“So far, the number of clean sheets is a great stat to have. We have still got another couple of games to go in the league and it would be nice to get another couple of clean sheets. But the whole team needs credit for those kind of stats. We defend from the front and we do that very well. The back four stop teams getting chances and they deserve a lot of credit. If I am called upon to help, I am glad to do so.”
Celtic were not only grateful to Bain’s alertness in avoiding falling behind during a scrappy first half at Pittodrie. On-loan Manchester United striker Wilson’s profligacy had earlier seen him clip the top of the crossbar when he should have burst the net from around 12 yards.
They were the kind of chances Aberdeen simply couldn’t afford to miss on a day which saw them slip behind Kilmarnock in the race for third spot in the Premiership and a guaranteed place in the Europa League qualifiers next season. Celtic took firm control eight minutes into the second half when, for the second successive week, Jozo Simunovic rose in McNeill-esque style to plant a superb header from Callum McGregor’s corner beyond the left hand of Joe Lewis.
The title party celebrations could now begin in earnest for the travelling Celtic support, although depressingly a section found it necessary to intersperse them with chants of “sad Orange bastard” at Aberdeen manager Derek McInnes. The incident will be reported to the SPFL but McInnes won’t be holding his breath waiting for action to be taken.
It was a sour note on another sweet afternoon for this dominant Celtic side who completed the job with a touch of genuine style two minutes from time as the elegant Tom Rogic set up Odsonne Edouard to grab his 21st goal of the season with a sublime left-foot finish.