With more subplots than a Netflix season finale, the production values of the knotty drama served up at Celtic Park yesterday were just as rich and rewarding.
The emotional reunion of Neil Lennon returning to his old club, gave way to his Hibernian team’s endeavours as the visitors strained almost to breaking point the mental fortitude of a Celtic team attempting to preserve a year-and-a-half long domestic unbeaten run.
Afterwards Brendan Rodgers maintained that the sequence had only being extended to 58 games following the toughest test that his team had faced on the home front across his 15-month tenure. As if all this wasn’t enough – and by Jiminy, it was – two sumptuous long-range strikes from John McGinn allowed Hibs to recover from a goal down to take a 2-1 lead into the closing minutes, only for Callum McGregor to restore parity with his second of the afternoon. It was like the heavyweight contest in microcosm: Hibs’ McGinn, the Scotland squad member who could be in the frame to replace the injured Scott Brown for the World Cup qualifying denouement versus Celtic’s McGregor, the would be internationalist who can’t force his way into the squad.
And, heavens, there was even more than all that played out yesterday afternoon. Craig Gordon produced one of those physiology-defying stops to deny Steven Whittaker as the visitors took charge around the hour mark with the scores tied at 1-1. Then, two minutes from the end of normal time, Celtic were outraged after an arm up from Paul Hanlon in the box that seemed to block a hitch kick from Leigh Griffiths but did not move referee Willie Collum to see a penalty offence. An incident that came only seconds after Efe Ambrose appeared to pull back Scott Sinclair in the box.
By that time, the opening exchanges of this contest seemed to belong to another encounter entirely. When Moussa Dembele held the ball up and cut it back for McGregor to jink into space and plant an angled drive low into the right-hand corner of the net in the 15th minute, a regulation Celtic win looked like it could be on the cards. Even with the Scottish champions much rejigged after their Champions League win away to Anderlecht that left Brown and Stuart Armstrong sidelined with injury, and the attendant physical and mental exertions of that trip.
However, Hibs’ drive, their willingness to get on the front foot, started to expose a legginess and certain disjointedness in the Celtic ranks. That said, Odsonne Edouard – partnering Dembele upfront with Griffiths initially rested – missed a glorious chance to make it 2-0 just before half-time when he hit a tame effort straight at Ross Laidlaw when one-on-one with the Hibs keeper.
The second period witnessed McGinn and Dylan McGeouch taking a grip in midfield before the former produced a lethal low left-foot drive from the edge of the box to get his team back on terms.
The forcing presence on the pitch now, McGinn then topped his first goal with a second that he hammered high into the net from a few yards further out with 77 minutes played.
Rodgers’ side dredged deep and, winning a corner almost instantly, this found its way back to taker Griffiths. He flighted a ball over from the left that the head of Dedryck Boyata sent back into the path of McGregor. As with his first goal, the midfielder’s finish was pristine and precise, his side-footed effort sliding underneath the helpless Laidlaw.
A breathless afternoon kept a packed Celtic Park gulping for air till its very end with the two penalty claims that ensured Collum left the field to resounding boos. That was not the soundtrack this epic deserved, for here was the sort of ebb and flow, high octane, high quality contest that ought to have earned standing ovations all round.
Lennon summed it up best. “It was great; emotional and different,” said the Hibs manager, who was cheered rapturously by the home support before kick-off.
“Once the game was underway it was fine. The atmosphere was fantastic and I think we served up a great game of football.”