In a script which felt as if it had been preordained, Ryan Christie emerged as the match winner for Celtic against his former Aberdeen team-mates to extend the Parkhead club’s monopoly of Scottish domestic silverware under Brendan Rodgers.
A seventh consecutive trophy win for Rodgers – equalling the all-time record set by Walter Smith at Rangers from 1992 to 1994 – was secured by ex-Aberdeen loanee Christie’s strike deep into first half stoppage time.
The 23-year-old has been in revelatory form since finally breaking into the Celtic first team and his fifth goal in his last eight appearances ensured Rodgers’ side retained the League Cup and ticked the first box in their pursuit of a “treble treble”.
Christie’s breakthrough came in added-on time which was necessitated by an alarming head injury suffered by Aberdeen winger Gary Mackay-Steven in a clash of heads with Celtic defender Dedryck Boyata.
The Scottish champions saw a dubiously awarded second-half penalty from Scott Sinclair, pictured, saved by Joe Lewis as they were forced to dig deep against obdurate and diligently organised opponents. Contrary to widespread expectations of a lop-sided final in Celtic’s favour, Aberdeen went toe-to-toe with the favourites for long spells and could even have claimed to be in the ascendancy before the loss of Mackay-Steven.
They made the more positive start, pressing intensely and looking to restrict the time and space Celtic had on the ball. It wasn’t always effective and Tom Rogic, so often the man for these big occasions, almost gave the holders a seventh minute lead when his curling left foot shot from around 20 yards clipped the outside of Lewis’s right-hand post.
On-loan Derby County left-back Max Lowe had the considerable task of trying to subdue the influence of James Forrest and the in-form Scotland winger threatened for the first time with a left foot shot which drifted just wide.
Scott Bain, retaining his place as Celtic’s League Cup ’keeper, with number one Craig Gordon on the bench, made a fine close-range save to deny Andrew Considine as Aberdeen responded but the effort wouldn’t have counted as the defender had strayed just offside.
Forrest was the unlikely recipient of the first booking of the afternoon when he was judged to have left a foot in on Lowe who was fortunate not to join him in the book for angrily shoving the Celtic man in the back in retaliation.
Forrest then dragged a shot well wide after being played in by Mikael Lustig but Celtic were generally some way short of their cohesive best.
There was plenty of encouragement for the Aberdeen support in their team’s performance and Dominic Ball passed up a decent chance in the 35th minute when he blazed a shot over from 20 yards after Graeme Shinnie and Niall McGinn combined swiftly to create the opening.
Aberdeen’s semi-final match winner Lewis Ferguson then headed over from a McGinn corner as Derek McInnes’ side began to build up a head of steam. But they were stopped in their tracks by the harrowing aerial collision between Mackay-Steven and Boyata as the pair contested a cross from Shay Logan in the 39th minute.
Mackay-Steven managed to direct a header on goal, comfortably saved by Bain, but then caught the full force of Boyata’s challenge as they clashed heads. There was immediate distress and anxiety over Mackay-Steven’s condition, with Dons captain Shinnie berating medical staff and stretcher bearers to attend to him with greater haste.
After a six-minute break in play, Mackay-Steven was carried from the field and replaced by Connor McLennan. Boyata, his head heavily bandaged, was able to resume. Before Aberdeen could regain their composure, they fell behind to Christie’s superbly taken goal.
Stealing a yard on Shinnie as he pursued Boyata’s through ball, Christie’s fine first touch allowed him to drive in a right foot shot which Lewis did well to block. But Christie’s reaction was even sharper, adjusting to his left foot to drive the loose ball high beyond the keeper into the net.
Referee Andrew Dallas, taking charge of his first major final, didn’t cover himself in glory with an erratic performance. His decision to award Celtic a penalty eight minutes into the second half left Aberdeen utterly bemused – the incident clearly happened outside the box and Ball knew little about it as his attempt to head the ball clear saw it roll down his arm.
Justice was served as Scott Sinclair’s spot kick was brilliantly saved by Lewis, diving to his right to divert the ball behind for a corner. Lewis made another fine save to keep out a stinging long range effort from Filip Benkovic and ensure the match remained finely balanced.
Jozo Simunovic, on for Boyata who succumbed to a hamstring strain, almost handed Aberdeen the equaliser with his first touch when his attempted clearance saw him direct the ball against his own crossbar.
Sinclair missed another good chance to provide Celtic with the comfort of a second goal, shooting wide as he got on the end of a rapid counter-attack. But despite their admirable efforts, Aberdeen were unable to conjure up the moment which might have taken the final into extra-time.
It was yet another triumph for Rodgers in his 150th game in charge of Celtic. It wasn’t the most memorable or convincing display of his tenure, but the winning mentality he has instilled in his team continues to set the standard to which all others must aspire.