IT WAS supposed to be a microcosm of the entire match-up at Celtic Park last night. The pitbull versus the Rottweiler; Internazionale’s Gary Medel against home captain Scott Brown. No-quarter-given-commitment, for which these two combative – the football euphemism for charging into tackles recklessly – midfielders are renowned, requires a contest, though.
And after the opening dozen minutes it seemed we wouldn’t have one that would in any way cause the blood to boil within either of the temperamental talismen. There was no disguising the psychological trauma, mind you, inflicted on the Celtic captain in the instant his side found themselves 2-0 down, and out of contention for salvaging anything from the game, it seemed, never mind anything else where the Europa League was concerned.
His face as he trudged towards the centre circle after shambolic defending had appeared to put Ronny Deila’s side on course for a hiding was a picture. What was notable though was that it wasn’t contorted by snarling anger, as might have been his default reaction in days of old. The 29-year-old’s expression suggested hurt, despair and cavern-deep disappointment.
The propensity for petulance that has often besmirched his game gave rise to a fear that he might take out his frustrations by way of a stupid kick or lunge on his blue-clad opponents.
Especially when he had claimed pre-match that he was a reformed character from the man who set his team’s Champions League campaign on a downward spiral last season, a trajectory he set in motion with his brainless swing of the boot at an already dropping-to-the-deck Neymar which brought a red card and probably cost Celtic a draw against Barcelona. In the context of this dismissal, and the fact that he could trust himself to make tackles against Inter even when only a booking away from being suspended for the second leg, Brown claimed to be reformed. So often when a player does that, they immediately go and show themselves to be recidivists. Not Brown, not last night.
He was every inch the experienced, composed and sensible deep-lying midfielder as Celtic mounted their remarkable fightback. He picked his passes, he closed down space and he tried to guide his team out of their mire with measured and mature interventions. What there seemed never any danger of him doing was getting into a scrap with fellow renowned hothead Medal. For starters, with the Chilean essentially sitting in front of his back four, the growlers didn’t share sufficient airspace to have much of a growl at one another.
Not that the man who joined from Cardiff City in a £10m deal last summer did not find occasion to bear his gnashers and stretch his vocal chords. And it was his transformation from sanguine to narked presence that demonstrated how quickly football can change.
The 27-year-old, who was the industrious inspiration for his country’s valiant World Cup showing last summer, seemed entirely unfussed and unfazed as his side took charge. Two home goals later and the squat, barrel-chested battler was giving the fourth official dog’s abuse over Stefan Johansen nipping at his heels.
As it turned out, any canine capers were to be found between the Norwegian and Medel. In part, there was a simple explanation for their battling. Both operated in the same area of the field, with Johansen Celtic’s central player in the three attackers offering support to solitary striker Leigh Griffiths.
Yet, there was someone of the youthful Brown in the manner in which Johansen chased down Inter players and seemed to relish throwing himself himself into tackles with the increasingly narked Medel, in particular. Much as we thought it would be Brown, it turned out to be the Chilean who ended the night with a booking, collected ten minutes from time.
However, before that, on the stroke of half time, he proved the canine competitor who had his day. It was his hoof forward that Craig Gordon made the howler from that allowed Roberto Mancini’s side to net their third goal, after he had helped them bag a first to prevent Celtic taking a win to Milan.
Of all the players to be chewed over who might be in the doghouse at the end of last night’s Europa League last-32 first-leg tie, Gordon was about the last with whom it would have been considered Deila might have had a bone to pick.