What a game!
First thing is first, that was a great 90-plus minutes of football. It had a bit of everything. Tactical battle? Check. Goalmouth action? Check. Controversy? Check. Needle? Check. Late drama? You better believe it, check!
In a week where we have been served a dud of a Euorpa League final - it has to be said it was the perfect performance for Manchester United - we’ve had two great offerings from Scottish football with one more still to come. Okay, the quality is lacking at times, but what people need to realise is that is the same anywhere in the world. Yet, what makes Scottish great is the entertainment.
But there was little worry about the quality on display at Hampden Park, this was a tense, engrossing, at times end-to-end encounter between the country’s two best sides. After 70 minutes the score stood at 70 minutes but it could easily have been 4-4.
Aberdeen went toe-to-toe with Celtic for so long. It was like watching two boxers in their prime going at each other. But it was no slug-fest; it was intelligent, physical and technical. Aberdeen, however, were the first to drop against the ropes and for so long they were saved by Joe Lewis, who was excellent throughout.
He has been one of the signings of the season in Scotland and could count himself unlucky not to be recognised with the club’s player of the year award. He was imperious throughout, even slowing the game down with a moments of gamesmanship.
However, he was to be beaten. The culmination of a wonderfully tiring football match. Why does the season half to end?
McInnes’ tactical success
The conundrum facing Derek McInnes going into the match was whether to attack Celtic from the off, or sit back and try to hit on the counter. His decision to start Jayden Stockley over Adam Rooney - a target man instead of a goalscorer - hinted at the latter. In actual fact, it was anything but.
Aberdeen pretty much played a 4-2-4. Kenny McLean was pushed high alongside Stockley, with Niall McGinn and Jonny Hayes advanced high up the wings. This allowed the Dons to effectively press the Celtic back-line and squeeze the game. It also led to the opening goal. With Stockley ably supported by Hayes, the two interchanged passes before Hayes won a corner. McGinn swung it in, and found Hayes streaking away from Leigh Griffiths at the back post to score.
Celtic were thrown off their stride in the opening period. The back-line, in particular, were often guilty of surrendering possession deep in their own half. During one ten-minute spell, Aberdeen enjoyed a 48 per cent spell of possession in the Celtic third of the pitch.
... But there was a flaw
In order to avoid being too gung ho, Aberdeen would drop everyone back on Celtic attacks. Most teams would go zonal in an attempt to mark Celtic’s startling array of talent. Instead, Aberdeen went man-to-man. For the most part, it worked perfectly. But the trouble with playing man-to-man, especially against the better sides, is that when someone makes a mistake and allows an opponent to get free, the whole thing is in danger of falling apart.
Celtic exploited the defensive structure at the equaliser. Shay Logan, having tracked Sinclair from the left wing to the centre, seemed caught in two minds as he dropped alongside Ash Taylor at centre-back. It left a pocket of space in front of the defence, and when Ryan Jack’s attempt to cut out the pass failed, Stuart Armstrong was given time to find the far corner.
The turning point
Aberdeen’s failure to score from the two-on-one attack, where Hayes’ pass went behind McLean, was clearly the game’s turning point. Again, it came from Aberdeen forcing the issue high up the park, but with the underdogs tiring, it would be the last time they’d do so effectively.
The substitution which saw Adam Rooney replace Stockley didn’t help. Rooney contributed virtually nothing to the attack. Without Stockey’s ability to hold up play, the ball just kept on coming back.
In fairness to Brendan Rodgers, he made a subtle change to help his side dominate. Scott Brown would drop alongside the centre-backs to start moves. This enabled the full-backs to push up, with Mikael Lustig taking Patrick Roberts’ place on the right. This freed up the in-form playmaker to float about as he pleased, and it gave the favourites a plethora of attacking menace in the central areas.
The move also had the added contribution of improving Brown’s play. Dropping deeper, the captain was able to dictate play in the manner he failed during the opening half.
Tom Rogic: the X-factor
Who knows what would have happened if Kieran Tierney didn’t get a forearm in the face from Stockley, forcing him from the action. Celtic may have won regardless. However, there can be no doubt that the man who replaced him made a massive impact, even before his goal.
When Roberts began moving inside, Rogic found greater space in which to attack, and the two dominated a 20-minute period following Aberdeen’s big miss. In response, McInnes brought on Anthony O’Connor for McGinn. His reasoning was thus: he needed a bigger body to cover Rogic. But instead of Rogic man-handling his marker, he just sprinted past O’Connor and fired in a low front post finish with his weaker right foot, winning the cup and completing the treble.