A second-half double by substitute Moussa Dembele gave Celtic a 4-2 win over Hibernian at Hampden Park and booked the Hoops’ place in the Betfred Cup final.
Celtic had the gears, Hibernian had the gumption, and the game was gilded because the two elements were grafted together. An undulating, fascinating League Cup semi-final was made so because the Leith club refused to give up on it, despite a two-goal deficit at the interval. Ultimately, though, Brendan Rodgers’ treble-holders never really looked like they would fail to extend the club’s domestic unbeaten sequence to 60 games, and in the process reach a third straight domestic final.
The Celtic manager didn’t deny his men were physically on their uppers in having only returned to Scotland from their Champions League runaround at the hands of Bayern Munich little more than two days before taking to the Hampden turf.
Reinforcements, then, were required to take his side over the line. The arrivals from the bench of Moussa Dembele, James Forrest and, later,Tom Rogic proved instrumental in thwarting a second-half comeback from Neil Lennon’s side, who had Celtic wobbling after a controversial penalty converted by Anthony Stokes halved the advantage the Scottish champions had earned through a double from the unlikely source of Mikael Lustig.
The denouement was Dembele also delivering a double that signals his own personal comeback after only one goal in the previous six months following back-to-back hamstring injuries, to ensure, as Rodgers noted with a smile, that no-one will question his decision to go with practically the same side as were battered by Bayern – and only days before a hazardous assignment in Aberdeen.
“‘It was clear there was a bit of fatigue in our play but that was only natural,” the Celtic manager said. “All the players were tired. You have to manage it and we will be ready to go again in a couple of days’ time. When you have that it affects the technique but then you have that mentality and concentration. I tip my hat to the players because, as a lot of people would have thought, it could have been a real banana skin for us today. We dealt with that really well.
“I felt that the momentum of bringing fresh legs into the game was going to be quite important for us. They brought it, but of course you are never comfortable until you get that fourth goal in the last five or six minutes.”
Celtic looked entirely comfortable when Lustig struck after 15 minutes. John McGinn then scuffed a clearance straight to Armstrong on the left. He chipped a ball in that slid off head of Ambrose as he challenged with Dedryck Boyata, dropped to unmarked Swede at the back post. His effort was sclaffed but Ross Laidlaw could not get strong enough hand on it to keep it out.
The keeper was unfortunate then, but he was unforgivably lax to allow Lustig to double his tally just before the break, a 16-yard volley following an outswinging Leigh Griffiths cross bouncing beyond him when he seemed to have it covered at his left-hand post.
Lennon rolled the dice by turning to Martin Boyle and Steven Whittaker in the second period and as a result Hibs were able to force Celtic on to the back foot.
Boyle then removed certainty about the outcome when he drove into the box and went down as Boyata came diagonally across him to toe-poke the ball away but clashed with the forward in the process. Referee Kevin Clancy delayed a decision before being convinced by assistant Frank Connor to award the penalty that was despatched with assurance by Stokes.
“‘There are two poor decisions. One from the referee who is on his way back and then he is looking for help from the linesman who is facing it – how he gave the penalty I will never know. It gave Hibs a little bit of oxygen and made us really refocus on our game and the players pulled themselves back into it.”
They did so by making it 3-1 five minutes later through Dembele, who tucked the ball in from close range after a Scott Sinclair mis-hit fell to him. Another act was still to be played out, though.
Teenager Oli Shaw netted his first goal for Hibs, only a minute after being introduced, when he rounded off a sweeping move with a nerveless finish after a superbly-timed run to latch on to a smart Whittaker through ball. The need to push for a third by Hibs as the minutes ticked by created space for Celtic to pour forward. Following a miscued Laidlaw clearance, this allowed Rogic to produce a curling crossfield pass that Dembele shouted at the offside Sinclair to leave before striding towards goal and lashing the ball into the net.
“He has shown the quality that he has today,” said Rodgers of the 21-year-old he turned to after Griffiths had “run himself into the ground”. “Moussa is getting there game by game, day by day, and you know when he is up there he is a goal threat, his finishes were exceptional and he has that physical presence in and around the box.”