Celtic show grit in title charge ahead of Old Firm crunch

Leigh Griffiths celebrates his second goal with Kieran Tierney. Picture: Getty
Leigh Griffiths celebrates his second goal with Kieran Tierney. Picture: Getty
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A YEAR ago Kieran Tierney was doing what he had been doing all his life, watching Celtic from the sidelines and dreaming that one day he would be out there living the fantasy.

Motherwell - 1

It’s important for me not to get too carried away with the atmosphere on Sunday and end up doing something silly

McDonald 60

Celtic - 2

Griffiths 44, 75

On Saturday he helped Celtic edge another step closer to their fifth successive Premiership title and this Sunday he is hoping to aid their progress to the Scottish Cup final, beating Championship winners Rangers in the process.

In the stands as Celtic bettered Rangers in the League Cup last year, just another fan from the Wishaw Emerald Supporters bus, Tierney has come a long way in the 14 months since.

“Definitely! At that semi-final I never thought I would be in contention to play in the semi-final this year!” he said. But for all his youthfulness and relative inexperience, he will be one of the most seasoned Old Firm campaigners when the teams take to the Hampden turf on Sunday. “In terms of the atmosphere side of it anyway, and it would be a great game to be involved in so hopefully I can play.”

A ballboy at countless of the head-to-heads, he says he has only missed one or two of the derbies since he first started going to Celtic Park as a seven or eight-year-old. “I can’t remember the last one I missed.” But, pitchside as a ballboy, revelling in the joy of a last-gasp Jan Venegoor of Hesselink winner, in 2008, and celebrating a 3-0 win the last time the pair met on league duty – “when Charlie Mulgrew scored with a diving header” – he knows the value of keeping a cooler head this weekend.

“It’s important for me not to get too carried away with the atmosphere and end up doing something silly. I just need to treat it like every other game. It means everything, any semi-final would and all the boys know what it takes.

“Every player knows what it means, everyone in the world knows what these games are like. But it is down to us.”

Saturday’s performance and result will have done Celtic no harm, allowing them to head into the game with their tails up. On a day when a line was drawn between top and bottom six, many believe this was also the cut-off point in the chase for the league title.

With two goals, Leigh Griffiths secured Celtic the three points and ensured they made the most of Aberdeen’s slip-up. Eight points clear with just five games remaining, not only does it leave Ronny Deila’s men well-positioned to romp home, it also sets them up perfectly for the semi-final.

One of the most clichéd of football cliches is the one-game-at-a-time mantra. With the win over form team Motherwell done and dusted, the Parkhead side are able to switch their thoughts to a match that has been occupying the minds of so many others since the Scottish Cup semi-final draw was made, while Griffiths, a frontrunner for the Player of the Year accolade, felt he had answered critics who had been shining a light on his recent form.

Four games without a goal – including Scotland’s challenge match with Denmark – is as close as it comes to a lean spell for a player as clinical as he has been all season. But just when it mattered, he stepped up, showing remarkable character to bounce back from a missed first-half penalty, which he pulled wide of target and which prompted him to insist that he is 1 million per cent off spot-kick duties for the rest of the campaign.

He also had to weather the disappointment of an impressive display by Motherwell keeper Connor Ripley, who denied several Celtic scoring hopefuls in the first half, including the impressive Patrick Roberts, Nir Bitton, Colin Kazim-Richards and, on more than one occasion, Griffiths.

The Celtic forward had the last word, though, netting his first just before the interval. It was Tierney who delivered the ball in from the left, for him to sweep home and, while that was a cause for celebration, the full-back was kicking himself when he allowed Chris Cadden to get by him and cut the ball back for Scott McDonald, who was nursing a sense of injustice after an earlier effort had been chalked off for offside, to slam home.

But Tierney, getting what he later described as his third assist of the afternoon, weighed in with another quality ball that picked out Griffiths, whose winner slipped through Ripley’s legs to take the striker to 37 goals for the season and give the team the perfect platform for what lies ahead.