RESOUNDING support from his board one day, a bored support resounding in their disgruntlement a day later.
In the grand scheme of things, Celtic manager Ronny Deila and his club won’t lose any sleep over the slumberfest for his team as Kilmarnock proved defiant with their defensive blanket. Yet it was hardly the perfect lead-in to the Europa League do-or-be-dumped encounter they face against Ajax on Thursday night.
It was a curious case of one door closing and another one shutting in the face of the Scottish champions yesterday. Their – rightly – much-maligned defence could reflect on a first clean sheet in a month while their attack would rue the first blank in Celtic’s “goals for” column in two months.
Often, when visitors play rope-a-dope at Celtic Park, their team configuration is described as two banks of four. Yesterday, Gary Locke’s men regularly sought to repel their hosts with one line of seven. And for all that Celtic struggled to produce any real guile or ingenuity – with Kris Commons out with a combination of a dodgy hamstring and tummy – the Rugby Park side did what they set out to do with admirable resolve.
With captain and centre-back Mark Connolly a study in concentration marshalling his defence, Celtic rarely worked Jamie MacDonald. He saved well from a Leigh Griffiths free-kick just after the break and, at the close, tipped over a header from Dedryck Boyata – who readily admitted his team hardly created a decent opportunity.
Late on, Kilmarnock began to see possibilities as Celtic’s huff and puff threatened to see them blow themselves out. Scott Brown, in his first appearance after missing the previous four, in particular seemed to be running on empty. And it was Greg Kiltie snapping into a challenge with him to win possession that set up the substitute for a 25-yard blooter that forced Craig Gordon to scramble across his goal to beat it away.
Only a superb saving tackle from the impressive Jozo Simunovic prevented Kiltie haring through on goal, and for all that Deila could hardly have been enthralled by his team, the Croatian’s rock-solid display was further indication that the £4.5 million summer buy can bring an otherwise rare assurance to the Celtic defence. Which they will require on Thursday. The Norwegian, though, wasn’t for seeing any European portents in yesterday’s events.
“You can’t compare this game to the Ajax game. They’re a team who’ll want to attack us and have control of the game, so it’ll be a different approach,” he said, the result, coupled with Hearts drawing, allowing Celtic to retain their six-point lead at the top of the table. “The boys had good attitude [against Kilmarnock], they did everything they could but the timing just wasn’t good. That’s maybe been the first time this year, when we talk about the league. We’ve scored a lot of goals but today wasn’t our day. It was disappointing from that point of view but the positive is we had a clean sheet. I felt safe that we would do it, the defending was good.
“I was very pleased [with Jozo] – I think he had a very good match. That was another positive. There are always some positives among the negatives but the end result was not good enough. We had 70 per cent possession but there was a lack of tempo, creativity and timing in the last third of the pitch.”
Commons may not be in place on Thursday to provide such qualities, with James Forrest trying manfully without either support or success. “It’s a possibility,” was as far as Deila would go on the 32-year-old facing Frank de Boer’s side.
“He had an illness but also a feeling in his hamstring so we’ll see come Tuesday.” Equal concern surrounded Brown’s fitness, with the Celtic captain appearing to grimace as he clasped on to his knees in the closing minutes. “I asked him and he said it was just a knock, so I think he’ll be OK,” said the Celtic manager.
Brown was welcomed back into the hurly-burly with some ferocious tackles, Josh Magennis earning a booking for flattening the Scotland captain – and now author – midway through the first period, with Kallum Higginbotham escaping the same punishment for a similarly crunching challenge minutes later... only to earn his caution soon afterwards. Locke denied that Brown had been targeted.
“Obviously he is a very influential player for them and it might look as if we were out to kick him,” he said. “That certainly wasn’t the case. We wanted the boys to compete. If you come in and sit off them they can hurt you. We reiterated to the players go out there and believe in yourselves and they certainly done that.”
Locke was entitled to be chuffed that his tactics paid off – and he was. “We had worked on a game plan all week and it worked a treat. We probably could have nicked it at the end. We had a couple of chances on the counter attack. Could not be happier with the performance.
“Some people might come here and play differently I just felt that, with the players Celtic have got, if you open up against them too much they have players that will hurt you. As a group of players today we were well organised and worked hard. We never switched off for a minute and thoroughly deserved the point. Jamie had one save from the header but that was about it.”