Celtic showed appetite and desire to go in where it hurts, even at the expense of their own men, to ward off a potential mini-crisis.
Kristoffer Ajer finished the game sporting a head bandage after a collision with centre-half partner Jozo Simunovic. The 19-year-old earned admiration for more than just bravery; a goalline clearance helped preserve Celtic’s lead at a crucial stage.
Ajer and his team-mates ground out a victory that maintains the nine-point gap between Celtic and Rangers but crucially extends the champions’ lead over Aberdeen to 12 points. That’s tough for the Pittodrie supporters to have to digest. As is their team’s record of ten successive defeats by Celtic, whom Aberdeen have designs on challenging for major honours.
Whatever hope Aberdeen glimpsed after 76 minutes when Celtic were reduced to ten men after Mikael Lustig was sent off for a second bookable offence on Gary Mackay-Steven was extinguished in a 60-second spell soon afterwards. The hosts lost a second goal and then were themselves reduced to ten men.
Sam Cosgrove was sent off after an eight-minute cameo and with the blood still up following Kieran Tierney’s decisive second for the visitors.
Moussa Dembele had headed Celtic into a first-half lead eight minutes before half-time.
But Aberdeen were beginning to knock on Celtic’s door. Just a few minutes before Lustig departed Ajer was in the right place at the right time to help clear Niall McGinn’s effort off the line after Dorus de Vries saved Kenny McLean’s effort from point-blank range.
When top scorer Adam Rooney was finally called upon with eight minutes to go, the home fans cheered him on. “Rooney, Rooney!” came the chant in a manner which suggested they felt they had waited too long to
As feared, it proved too late for Rooney to make the necessary impact.
Instead it was Cosgrove, surprisingly sent on in preference to Rooney seven minutes earlier, who left a tread. Unhelpfully for Aberdeen’s cause it was down Scott Brown’s shin after the Celtic skipper had already ridden one poor tackle by Anthony O’Connor.
Referee Bobby Madden flashed the red card to bring Cosgrove’s debut to a premature end after just eight minutes. Brown’s response was telling. He had been hit with the ball as well after Shay Logan seemed to aim for him after he fell. But the skipper quickly got to his feet and roared to the Celtic fans as if celebrating a goal.
Some Aberdeen supporters were already snaking off up the grassy knoll behind the old Beach End. They have seen this film before. It’s two years ago this month since Aberdeen last defeated Celtic, who were then under the charge of Ronnie Deila. Brendan Rodgers continues to boast a 100 per cent record against Derek McInnes.
Tierney’s goal, just a minute before Cosgrove saw red, was the decisive blow of the match and possibly of the 2017-18 title race.
Celtic’s celebrations at the end were long and sustained. It was as if they too felt they had clinched another title. They certainly appear to have eliminated Aberdeen from the
McInnes hoped to ask questions of Celtic by handing Stevie May a first start since the middle of December. But the striker suffered for a lack of match sharpness and fought a losing battle against Ajer and Simunovic.
Aberdeen sought to contain
Celtic in the opening half and seemed surprised when chances did fall
Kari Arnason was slow to react when McLean’s inswinging free-kick deceived everyone, including the defender who was in a good position at the far post. May also came up just short when trying to get a toe to another good McLean cross in from the right.
Celtic began to impose themselves. While this was clearly frustrating for the Aberdeen fans to have to endure it is not a completely unfamiliar
Aberdeen’s struggles against both Rangers and Celtic are beginning to tarnish McInnes’ reign. The fans complain of lack of ambition when playing these sides and while the manager offers a stout rebuttal there was little for the home supporters to get excited about here.
Celtic hit the woodwork twice in the opening half – Scott Sinclair’s corner caused some anxiety when landing on top of the bar while Olivier Ntcham saw a shot hit the post. Brown also shot just over when through on goal.
James Forrest brought some composure to the proceedings to create Celtic’s opener eight minutes before half-time. His ball skills offered him an advantage on a tricky surface and he out-foxed Andrew Considine to make some space for himself on the right.
Forrest complemented this good play with a cross that Dembele only had to meet with his forehead to direct into the goal.
The second 45 minutes were better from Aberdeen’s point of view but again they suffered for failing to make the most of their few clear opportunities, including when May was unable to make contact with Mackay-Steven’s cross from the left.
Celtic made them pay on the break with six minutes left, Tierney getting his reward for a lung-busting run to support Dembele, who played the left-back in. Tierney took a touch, rifled into the net and still had enough breath to run back the length of the pitch to celebrate with the Celtic fans, whose worries of last week now seem a world away.