Craig Fowler gives his take as Youssouf Mulumbu stole the show and netted the winner in Kilmarnock’s 1-0 victory over Celtic at Rugby Park.
Mulumbu was sensational
Two days before Christmas, Mulumbu stood in the stands at Rugby Park as he talked through Kilmarnock’s 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Rangers with the journalists in attendance. The midfielder had been the best player on the park, dominating the midfield battle as two late goals secured Killie victory in front of the BT Sport cameras. As he spoke, Mulumbu reflected on the frustrating year he’d had prior to signing for Killie, and how great it was to be back playing football. Asked whether there was more to come, given his lack of game time, Mulumbu was unequivocal in his response: “of course!” he insisted with a smile. It was hard to imagine a more complete midfield performance - until today.
The Congolese international was absolutely superb against the Ladbrokes Premiership leaders. He battled, he supported the attackers, he moved terrifically off the ball, his positioning was flawless, his passing was great, and he somehow managed to both create and score the only goal of the game.
Unless injury strikes - touch wood, let’s hope it doesn’t - it’s hard to imagine the 31-year-old not being considered a signing of the season contender. He’s been superb.
Celtic are suffering from a lack of urgency
If it were any other team, you would accuse them of lacking self-belief. But to use such an excuse for a squad that, prior to this match, had only lost once domestically since May 2016, would be ridiculous.
Kilmarnock were set up in their organised, defensively sound system. They allowed Celtic to come into their third of the pitch, then swarmed round the players in possession. The champions didn’t have anywhere to go with the football in terms of passing. There was always a man there to cover.
In order to break through such resistance, someone has to take a chance. There needs to be a run made, a through ball attempted, or someone willing to take on the opposition. If you have a player who can beat a man then it’s the best weapon against a defensively structured opponent. Danger naturally draws defenders away from their position and it opens up space elsewhere. In Charly Musonda, James Forrest, Moussa Dembele, Kieran Tierney and substitute Scott Sinclair, Celtic had plenty of players capable of inflicting such damage, but they didn’t gamble often enough.
Hendry’s going to have a steep learning curve
It wasn’t just the attackers guilty of failing to take chances on the ball, the centre-backs also played within themselves.
That may seem like a strange thing to say. At most clubs, the last thing you want to see is the central defenders running forward with the ball, as conceding possession could be disastrous. But Celtic are not most clubs.
Typically in Scottish football they face an opponent who likes to drop deep and allow the centre-backs to have possession. If the defenders spend the game making square balls to each other, then the opposition’s gameplan has a better chance of working. If they commit opponents or play defence-splitting passes, Celtic cannot be beaten.
Jack Hendry was signed because he fits this mould. Not only can he defend, he’s composed in possession and capable of dribbling the ball out. Against Killie, we didn’t see much evidence of either. This may seem rather harsh. After all, there were mitigating circumstances with injuries robbing him of his two defensive partners, but there’s very little grace period when it comes to a club like Celtic. You’re expected to perform right away and show your worth. At least for Hendry, with Kristoffer Ajer and Dedryck Boyata both facing time on the sidelines, he’ll have further opportunities to do just that.
Dembele’s continues to be inconsistent
Tuesday’s comfortable victory over Hearts saw an inspired performance from Moussa Dembele. He made two, scored another, and had a part to play in several other opportunities created. Brendan Rodgers heralded the display and credited his striker with going back to basics: focusing on his strengths and allowing his talent to shine.
Seeing as the transfer window came and went without any incident around the highly-rated Frenchman, the viewing public expected more of the same against Kilmarnock. Instead, the forward was almost invisible.
Killie fans will hope Clarke is true to his word
The former West Brom boss is not only improving a team, he’s changing the culture of a club.
It always looked like it was going to take something special to haul the Ayrshire outfit out of their malaise, one which stretched back to the decision to sack Kenny Shiels. In Steve Clarke, that’s exactly what they’ve got.
Winning five games in a row, including consecutive victories in matches against both halves of the Old Firm, is something the Rugby Park faithful wouldn’t have dared dream about earlier this season. It’s been a remarkable transformation.
Unfortunately, achieving further success, especially in high profile matches such as this one, will only lead to Clarke being linked with other clubs - or organisations. The Scotland national team job is still available and looks to remain that way for some time yet. Even though Clarke has stated his desire to stay and finish what he’s started at Kilmarnock, he’ll still be talked about in relation to the role as long as it’s open.