No-one summed up the afternoon’s events at Celtic Park better than Brendan Rodgers. His team would have to be better at the back to win the Scottish Cup, he said. They would have to play better to match the challenge to be faced on Thursday when Zenit St Petersburg come to Glasgow for the the club’s Europa League last 32 tie. And James Forrest, with trio of peachy strikes to deliver him a first career hat-trick was the “class” player on the pitch.
Only a superb sliding block that allowed Kieran Tierney to nick the ball off the toe of Thistle’s Ryan Edwards in the second minute of added time denied the Australian a glorious chance to make it 3-3. He looked odds on then to knock in a Chris Erskine cross from point-blank range tie and so earn a replay for the Maryhill men.
That finish said everyone about what a curious encounter unfolded after a blistering start from Forrest put Celtic two-nil up inside 10 minutes. Their place in the quarter-final then seemed banked. But the fragility that seems to beset them increasingly often - and must give Rodgers the heebie-jeebies when he ponders the potential firepower Roberto Mancini’s side possess - coupled with a refusal of Alan Archibald’s men to give up made for a “real cup tie” that was “alive right to the end”, as the Firhill club’s manager reflected with mixed emotions.
Ambivalence would have shared across both dressing rooms. Forrest produced three superb finishes to take his tally for the season to 16. In only one minute 16, he struck by slotting in with precision after Danny Devine had blocked from Moussa Dembele. The 26-year-old Scotland winger then doubled his tally when he picked up halfway line, slalomed his way past two defenders and then curled imperious effort beyond Tomas Cerny. The Czech required to make a sharp fingertip save down to his right to prevent Forrest racking up a rapid hat-trick.
The confrontation revolved around the calamities that befell Jozo Simunovic. The Celtic defender was woefully short with a pass-back to allow Kris Doolan in to produce an exquisite lob over Dorus de Vries 20 minutes in. And, after Forrest’s brought up his special tally in the 54th minute with a delightful piece of close control to allow him to drill in a sweet square ball from Scott Sinclair, the strapping Simunovic proved feathlight as he chased down a through ball with Conor Sammon after 84 minutes. The result was the Irishman having the room to cutely flick it out of reach of de Vries and ensure a nervy final few minutes for the back-to-back treble-chasing home side.
“We want to win the cup again but we need to defend better and play better from behind. We started the game very well, our positioning was good and we got ourselves in to a great lead. We pressed the game well and at 2-0 up we had a real foothold.
“But we made a poor mistake and that gave them a little bit of oxygen. When you make a mistake like that it gives a bit of impetuous to the other team and we saw that for the rest of the half. We got together at half-time, started well and got the goal for 3-1. Going forward some of our combination play was good, but our build up play was too loose from behind. They get the goal again from a poor pass then a good finish but it was brilliant defending by Kieran Tierney at the end at the back post. It could have been 3-3, which would have been a really poor scoreline for us.”
There was nothing poor about the contribution of Celtic’s performer of the season Forrest. “He was absolutely brilliant,” said Rodgers “You see how his game has really come on again this year. He has become a really effective player. He’s technically very good, he’s one of the best receivers of the ball I’ve ever seen. Whether it wide or central, he’s got a wonderful touch and moving away. Now he’s added goals - he’s got a real hunger to score. All three of his goals were outstanding today.”
Forrest’s team-mates frankly will have to raise themselves to his level if Celtic aren’t to avoid another excruciating home defeat in Europe come four days’ time. “We will clearly need to play better than we did today but hope the occasion brings that performance up,” said Rodgers. “We have a lot of players missing with injuries but it’s two really exciting games for us and the first leg here on Thursday should be a fantastic game. We’ll get ready for that over the next few days and look forward to it.”