Why Celtic's win at Livingston was so commendable: key trio, the enigma, one bit of madcappery

Daizen Maeda scores Celtic's third goal in the win over Livingston. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)Daizen Maeda scores Celtic's third goal in the win over Livingston. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
Daizen Maeda scores Celtic's third goal in the win over Livingston. (Photo by Ross MacDonald / SNS Group)
By dint of losing a third player to a red card inside a week you could say that Celtic appear intent on eschewing an easy life.

Yet, so utterly in control were they at Livngston subsequent to keeper Joe Hart being dismissed only half an hour in for blootering Mo Sangare at the edge of the area, such a suggestion would be misleading. Frankly, it is doubtful Celtic have ever enjoyed as cushy a confrontation on the artificial grass of Almondvale. A surface that once seemed to drain them of conviction. Instead, in the 3-0 success Brendan Rodgers’ men have that in spades.

They could not cope with the dismissals of Gustaf Lagerbielke and Odin Thiago Holm in their Champions League opening game 2-0 loss away to Feyenoord in midweek but vanquished Livingston manager David Martindale was left to despair that the visitors were on point in how they coped with being left a man short thanks to madcappery from Hart. In more than 20 years as a senior pro, the former England keeper has been there, seen it done it, thanks to an impressive international career and major honour-bagging either side of the border. The 36-year-old, though, had never had a red card waved in his direction as referee John Beaton was left with no choice but to do after he wiped out Sangare on the edge of his box.

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He wasn’t there, didn’t see the ball, and done the striker well and good in coming out to attempt to clear a through ball from James Penrice the striker was chasing down. Instead, with foot high and swinging, the only contact was with his opponents’ thigh. Reckless would be putting it mildly. The luckless James Forrest – making his first start since January 2 – then forced to be sacrificed to see Scott Bain brought on to assume goalkeeping duties.

Reo Hatate celebrates after putting Celtic ahead from the penalty spot. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)Reo Hatate celebrates after putting Celtic ahead from the penalty spot. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)
Reo Hatate celebrates after putting Celtic ahead from the penalty spot. (Photo by Paul Devlin / SNS Group)

It felt like the sending off could be a turning point, even as Celtic then led 1-0 through a streaky Reo Hatate penalty – tamely hit but which Shamal George still allowed to go through his body. A 13th-minute award earned by the Japanese playmaker when he was picked out by a sumptuous through ball from the excellent Greg Taylor had allowed him to turn Luiyi de Lucas, before he was impeded by the defender’s outstretched leg. And even with Rodgers’ men having exhibited slickness and strong will on a surface, and against an opponent, that has made such facets elusive in past West Lothian sorties. Instead, the visitors made light work of any perceived obstacles with Martindale moved to state that their “shape, and their application within their shape, was fantastic”.

Inside three minutes of the second period, the contest was administered the last rites courtesy of an increasingly familiar source. This goal, and the cherry on top, 93rd minute third, demonstrating the enigma that is Daizen Maeda. A Kyogo Furuhashi cross set him up for a tap-in… only for the attacker to see it come off his backside and George push at it before it dropped for Matt O’Riley to sweetly tuck in for a fourth goal in eight games. Yet, the perpetual motion Maeda, whose touch can vary from elephantine to exquisite, more than made up for the miss when he deliciously shifted the ball from his right to left and curled into the top corner for a finish out of the top of the top drawer. Rodgers was left agog by the player’s tireless work rate – which led him to quip it didn’t feel like his team were a man down when he effectively puts in a double-shift - and claimed he was at his best when not restricting himself to piling up and down the flank.

“When we were down to ten, he was playing up front and that is his best position,” said the 50-year-old. “I have said that before. He is pressing and running in behind. He was there for Matty’s goal and I think he was unfortunate because the ball comes in and pops up and the keeper then has to make the save.”

Celtic gave every indication that they are starting to purr with so many sound displays. Led by Callum McGregor dictating, and Taylor and O’Riley helping move Livingston around and out of shape, there was so much to commend about them in circumstances that Martindale bemoaned should have offered his team a glaring opportunity to hurt them.

And Rodgers wasn’t for reading too much into losing three players inside an hour’s play, essentially. Agreeing that the injudicious moments that brought banishment for Hart, and Lagerbielke and Holm, in Rotterdam, spoke of poor decision-making rather than any indiscipline. “On this occasion you can’t put it down to inexperience…”, he said with a smile over his most senior player being dismissed, on the back of two youngsters suffering that fate in the De Kuip. “It was the first sending-off in Joe’s career. The ball pops up and on a grass pitch it runs through. I’ve never had problems with indiscipline with teams. But we certainly don’t want to make a habit of playing with nine or ten men. Joe apologised to his team-mates. I might get him to get sent off every week….

“You have to do your job. You don’t get points here for style. You have to dig in and be resilient. I thought we played well on a difficult surface and stylistically I thought we played better on the surface with ten men. Every win is important. There is always a notion that when you play against a team in a Champions League week, you get after them and set about them.” When Celtic set themselves in such measured fashion even without their full complement, it is difficult for any Scottish rival to get after them.



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