Firepower of ‘unselfish’ Odsonne Edouard gives Celtic the edge over Rangers in title race
Aside from the match-changing sorcery of Odsonne Edouard, there were elements about Celtic on Saturday so underwhelming as to suggest potential problems in the title race. Until, that is, Rangers “blinked” – as Steven Gerrard put it – in losing at Tynecastle the following day.
That Celtic could close the weekend five points ahead of their Ibrox rivals having played a game more, could only lead to reassessment of their uneven victory over Ross County.
Neil Lennon’s men may now have three games on the road – starting with St Johnstone in Perth on Wednesday – wherein they might not be so fortunate to keep their goal intact if opened up as often as they were against the Highland side. Blair Spittal will think he should have had a double at Parkhead, with Josh Mullin and Don Cowie no doubt cursing they did not get on the scoresheet too.
Yet, Lennon made the point that on Saturday his starting line-up was bereft of seven players who could consider themselves possible first picks. Rangers couldn’t successfully dig into their reserves when without three integral performers in Gorgie.
The main player Celtic were without initially against County was, of course, Edouard, placed on the bench to nurse a sore toe. A man who underlined his preciousness through requiring only four minutes after appearing as substitute for Leigh Griffiths 65 minutes in to plunder a double and put the outcome beyond any doubt.
So, in a week, where Lennon has fielded three different formations, reassimilated Griffiths, netted eight goals in three games, and used no fewer than 21 players – while not being able to deploy notable absentees Ryan Christie, Mohamed Elyounoussi and Hatem Abd Elhamed – the win at the weekend could be taken as demonstrating the telling advantages Celtic appear to possess over Rangers.
In Edouard they have a talent not only without equal in the Scottish champions’ set-up, but in the game in this country – for all that Alfredo Morelos, sorely missed by Rangers against Hearts, is an outstanding goalscorer.
It looked as if the Frenchman might have the opportunity to bag a nine-minute hat-trick when Celtic won a free-kick in a dangerous area after he had netted his 19th and 20th goals of this season. Instead, it was Mikey Johnston who took it, the young winger afterwards telling the tale of it that said much of the unassuming nature of the 22-year-old forward.
“He’s got so much talent and his confidence is obviously brimming just now. Whenever he gets the ball he thinks something is going to happen. He’s unbelievable,” Johnston said.
“He is quiet and he’s chilled as well. He’s also unselfish – I wanted him to hit that second-half free-kick for his hat-trick but I was on free-kicks today and he said to me ‘no, on you go, take it.’ I said to him, ‘you’re on your hat-trick, take it’ but he said ‘no, you take it’.
“You’ve got to be selfish at times as well, but you’ve also got to be unselfish at times, too. I thought it was a good gesture from him. Obviously, I should have put it in the net, but it was nice of him. When I hit the ball he said to me ‘right, I’m not giving you it again”.
When Rangers convincingly beat Celtic in the December derby just before the shut-down, it was pondered whether the club was going to hit the wall in the pursuit of a ninth straight title. It maybe did a disservice to a group of serial winners that have scooped up ten straight domestic trophies.
“We’ve got guys in the team who have been there through all these recent titles we’ve won, so we’ve got the experience to get us through games. Guys like Scott Brown pull you through games, leaders. We have them and it is your mentality that is going to win you the league.”
Numbers count too, and the willingness to use them in a variety of configurations, as Lennon, pictured above, has shown he is prepared to do, when required. “We’ve got a big squad, and we’ve got players who are ready to just slip into the team when they are needed,” said Johnston. “[Against County] we played a different formation from what we played against Kilmarnock, where we used the two strikers, and I think we’ve got that flexibility. We can play either with wingers or two strikers.”
Only 15 league games remain for Celtic in their quest to set-up a tilt for the obsessed-over record 10-in-a-row. Johnston says all games must be treated on their own merits and that his team “can’t afford any slips”. After Rangers’ loss yesterday, that isn’t entirely true.
But there is no question how they negotiate their away assignments with St Johnstone, Hamilton Accies and Motherwell will have a major bearing on how the Premiership campaign will pan out. Being able to turn to Edouard to rack up decent goal returns from ordinary displays certainly puts them in the box seat.