IT WAS largely expected that an unbeaten record would be so desperately in peril on Saturday. The thrilling surprise was that it should be Ross County that should come so close to ending the champions, er, four-game run undefeated this season.
After 92 minutes and 45 seconds of a 93-minute long encounter, the Dingwall club’s 37th league game without loss – 35 of these in the First Division – looked certain to bring them a first-ever top flight victory.
Then County keeper Michael Fraser failed to deal with a low drive that was well-struck but hit straight his way by substitute Tony Watt, spilling the ball in front of him from where Kris Commons was on hand to pounce. But it was the timing of the strike, rather than an untimely error from his goalie, that had the Dingwall club’s manager Derek Adams looking as if he could spill blood if provided with one more explanation from referee Craig Thomson as to why he added three minutes.
“I don’t know where they came from,” he said. “We didn’t make any substitutions, there were no injuries in the second half – the assistant ref told me it was because the ball didn’t come back quick enough. I’m sorry, but that’s just life.
“We’re not allowed ball rotation in the SPL so why they would add a minute and a half for that I have no idea. It’s only if the ball goes out of the stadium that you’re allowed ball rotation. The ball was lying at the track, so maybe they’ll be able to tell you – doubt it, like. The best thing for you to do is ask the SFA if you can speak to them – there’s no point me speaking to them.”
Two Celtic substitutions and Ross Tokely playing silly beggars by hanging on to the ball trackside were the reasons believed to be behind a generous three minutes’ overtime. The period prevented County deriving full value from their first Scottish Premier League goal, a fitting first that was a free-kick from Richard Brittain he boomed into the top left hand corner of Fraser Forster’s net four minutes into the second half.
Until that point it appeared as if the two teams were playing different sports. County, brimming with intensity, hustled and harried, and executed the simple tasks crisply. Celtic, by contrast, were languid and lax, and still looked in pre-season mode as slack passes were produced aplenty. Maybe their Champions League play-off in Helsingborg was on their minds.
Certainly, their thoughts seemed anywhere but the Global Energy Stadium, their efforts looking as if they had no desire to expend any energy before their Swedish trip. Victor Wanyama, one of the main culprits, had a header off the bar midway through the first period but it wasn’t until defeat loomed large that they set about attempting to avoid it.
Their late rally, which was of sufficient weight to merit them a point, only ensued once Brittain had battered the crossbar shortly after his goal, a passage of play that also saw the midfielder lucky to avoid giving away a penalty for a trip on Georgios Samaras.
Celtic started with a back three of the unconvincing Mikael Lustig, Kelvin Wilson and Charlie Mulgrew, a formation manager Neil Lennon maintained was forced on him by a raft of injuries that deprived him of captain Scott Brown, and attackers Gary Hooper, James Forrest, Anthony Stokes, Paddy McCourt and Daryl Murphy. Maybe Europe and absentees did blunt Celtic, but the line-up they did field appeared strong, even if it didn’t play strong.
The visitors did, though, start to make inroads when Lustig was replaced by Watt just after the hour, by which time Mulgrew had thumped the bar with a free-kick and Fraser had edgily blocked a drive from Commons. Twice in quick succession, Samaras was thwarted in the penalty area by last ditch blocks before a diving header from the Greek was bundled away by Fraser diving sharply to his right.
Commons’ equaliser came just as it seemed County had weathered the late onslaught. The goal didn’t just make it two out of two in the league for the attacker – double his tally for the entirety of last season – it almost made for the second league game that Celtic have had to depend on a dubious moment from a keeper to find the net of their opponents, though Fraser’s unfortunate contribution was not in the same ball park as Jamie Langfield’s bloomer that allowed Celtic to post a win over Aberdeen on the opening day of the season.
Celtic are hardly showing the sort of form that should accompany champion status. They have performed only on the European stage, with the Champions League qualifier wins over Helsinki. That may be mere coincidence. If the trend continues across the coming weeks, Celtic followers are not likely to be too concerned.