He's the Orient express

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Hartson 37, Beattie 88


BEFORE yesterday, Shunsuke Nakamura had not played a match of any kind since appearing for his country against Brazil in the Confederations Cup away back in June.

He told Japanese journalists on Friday that he was nervous about life with his new club. It wasn't just the size of the Celtic support that fazed him, apparently, but also their expectation levels. He also had worries about his fitness which were well short of optimum. All in all, he was a man with significant doubt in his head.

His mood cannot have been helped when he opened the match day programme and found a photograph of Du Wie, the recent trialist from China, adorning the centre spread.

Nothing wrong with that except that it was meant to be Nakamura. All along the London Road, posters hung from telegraph poles telling of a souvenir picture of the Japanese superstar in the programme. To say that the club were mortified would have been putting it mildly.

Still, Nakamura overcame the anxiety and the humiliation and delivered a quite wonderful debut. "It was as good a debut as I've seen in a long time," said Gordon Strachan, shortly after his team had seen off Dundee United 2-0 thanks to goals from the old reliable, John Hartson, and an absolute screamer from Craig Beattie, who had replaced Nakamura six minutes from the end. Maciej Zurawski started ahead of Beattie and once again failed to live up to claims made on his behalf by Strachan. The young Scot's angled volley, which fairly screamed past Derek Stillie, was his third goal in three games this season, a strike rate that shames the expensive Pole.

It was Nakamura, though, who did most to lift Celtic out of their recent torpor with a display that delivered much and gave the promise of even more when the Japanese international manages to get himself up to the pitch of these games. Nakamura was alive with electricity. He poked and prodded at the United defence all day and could have scored and created goals along the way. In the end he did neither but that didn't stop 56,000 people getting on their feet to applaud him when he left the field.

For the quality of his passing, his ability to find space and for carrying a constant threat on the United goal, Nakamura was a deserving man-of-the-match. "There was huge pressure on him," said his manager in response to a question from one of Nakamura's countrymen. "Not just here but at home as well. All of Japan was waiting to see how he got on. You can tell them he did very, very well."

All of this came as relief to Strachan. When asked did he feel a lot happier about life now that his team had won in the league and had kept a second clean sheet in a week, he sat back in his chair, smiled, and answered: "Yes, with a capital Y."

United's losing run at Parkhead now stretches to 23 games and 13 years.

They also suffered the considerable loss of Barry Robson three minutes into the second half and he is doubtful for their UEFA Cup qualifier against MyPa 47 on Thursday. On the plus-side, coach Gordon Chisholm said that Derek McInnes might be fit to play in Finland. They had their moments yesterday, United. Hartson scored in the 37th minute and before Beattie put the win beyond doubt, Celtic wobbled for a time. Stevie Crawford had a decent chance at the back post midway through the second half and, just before, Lee Miller could have had a penalty when falling under the weight of a Bobo Balde tackle. Chisholm was sore about that one.

"I don't know for the life of me why Lee Miller would fall in the box," he said. "It was difficult to see from the dugout but he was through. He says there was definite contact."

It was Nakamura's show, though, and he lit it up as early as the second minute when getting on the end of a Zurawski cross and turning a header on goal. Stuart Duff's sound positional sense denied him a dream start but the new boy's enthusiasm was undimmed. He roamed far left, far right and came up through the middle. He went close with a free-kick and refused to be pinned down at any stage.

Having been denied a goal he was then robbed of an assist when playing Zurawski through in the 18th minute. The precision of Nakamura's pass gave the Pole two options. He could either go for goal himself and convert his one-on-one with Stillie or he could find Hartson who was running free in the penalty area. He went alone and had his weak shot charged down by the goalkeeper.

If Zurawski has yet to find his feet, then Celtic can at least rely on Hartson, who has now scored five goals in his last four games. Late in the first half, in a rare moment of accuracy, Mo Camara dinked a handy ball into the United penalty area, Hartson out-muscled David McCracken, turned and slid his shot past Stillie. McCracken went potty, appealing so thunderously for the foul that he got himself booked.

The second-half was just a minute old when United roused themselves and gave Celtic a fright, Grant Brebner's reverse pass putting Jim McIntyre through. Boruc had to be alert to deal with the danger.

United's hopes of a result lived on despite a bizarre spell just after. A Celtic corner was allowed to bounce near the visitor's six-yard box and Hartson thumped a header off the crossbar, McCracken eventually clearing. A moment later the ball was sent back into the box by Paul Telfer and again Hartson met it with a lusty header. Once more his effort slapped off the woodwork.

Enter Shaun Maloney. The little striker was like a dervish out there. He had a smart turn and a curling shot deflected wide in the 73rd minute, he fired one across the face of the goal in the 76th minute, had a point-blank header bounce up and wide in the 78th minute and a minute after that he had yet another opportunity which he sent wide of Stillie's right hand post. The first two were not easy but at least one of the others should have been converted. Strachan has praised Maloney to the hilt but the young man, for all his energy, has a lamentably low strike-rate. If he could finish, Maloney would be something to behold.

His day did end well, though. With just two minutes of normal time left to play, he floated a precise cross to the right side of the penalty area where Beattie lay in wait. His volley was a piece of technical brilliance which sent Parkhead into raptures and almost, but not quite, stole the show from Celtic's Japanese boy.