The wind howled and the rain swirled but the floodgates were shut after a run of three games involving Celtic that have produced 19 goals.
Celtic 1-0 Hibernian
Scorer: Celtic - Pukki (29)
Perhaps, then, we should have expected this dour struggle, especially given the conditions and Hibs’ defensive improvement under Terry Butcher.
Hibs have become a far harder side to score against under Butcher and Celtic seemed content with the narrow victory after the bracing experience in the Nou Camp. Back on the domestic duty, they know it can’t be about multi-goal victories every week although manager Neil Lennon would prefer a little more daylight between Celtic and their opponents. A late shot by Liam Craig bashed back off the post and if Paul Cairney had been a little more alert, Hibs, whose scope of ambition became a little wider after half-time, might have taken something from the game.
But the main aim was to return to winning ways following the 6-1 defeat in Barcelona, though Virgil van Dijk later stressed, in a rather typically Dutch way, that this was an experience he had very quickly put behind him. “I put Barcelona out of my mind immediately once the game was over,” he said.
“When you lose 6-1, it is clear the other team performed better and we didn’t perform. You have to move on and that is what I did, personally.”
Van Dijk seems a little different in character to Teemu Pukki, who emerged as the match winner here and comes across as a diffident sort of fellow. While Hibs have become a lot more robust in defence in recent weeks, the feeling before the game was that if Pukki didn’t score here, then he never would add to his Celtic tally of two.
The striker, who hadn’t struck since scoring against St Johnstone way back in September, was handed such a show of faith by Lennon, who played him from for the start for a third successive game and despite his half-time substitution in the Nou Camp in midweek. Pukki was playing at home for the league leaders against a bottom six side and players around him like Kris Commons and Joe Ledley seemingly going out of their way to help him score.
While he did score the winner just before the half hour mark, he still looks unconvincing. The Finn clearly has something about him and Lennon is keen to squeeze it out – just as the manager later said he hopes to “eke” out the player’s personality.
A shy character, he seems almost too nice to want to elbow an opponent out of the way to get on the end of a cross. On too many occasions here he failed to attack the ball when it was flashed across the six-yard box, although his movement was good when he scored his goal. Scott Brown released Ledley down the left and after the Welshman rifled in a low cross to the front post Pukki cut inside Paul Hanlon and diverted the ball into the net. It was a decent striker’s goal but he should have had more like it.
Ledley’s gesture when celebrating with Pukki – he pointed his finger at him, as if to say to the fans, this is your man – seemed to underline that his team-mates are fond of the player, and Lennon, too, is prepared to go out of his way to hand Pukki every chance to seize his opportunity at Celtic.
The Finn later mentioned he had been injured while scoring, though to be fair he did not make a lot of this, and Georgios Samaras, his second-half replacement, did not do a lot more. Pukki might yet become the striker Lennon is desperate for him to become, and Van Dijk, too, expressed the wish that this might help the Finn embark on the type of scoring run that he hasn’t yet managed at Celtic. After scoring twice in three games in September, he failed to strike again in his next 14 appearances.
“I hope that will be a good turning point for Teemu,” said Van Dijk. “It’s always good to see when a player is a little bit down that he scores a goal.
“To make it better, it was a winning goal. That was good to see because he is a good boy and we’re happy for him.”
How Hibs would love to spend over £2 million on a striker – their £200,000 one, James Collins, could not follow up his much needed goal v Partick Thistle in his last appearance with one here, with Hibs’ first-half performance producing almost zero in the way of openings. Only an opportunist effort from Scott Robertson, when he made room for himself on the edge of the box to shoot, caused Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster any problems.
Forster was slightly more troubled in the second half, which meant that the Celtic fans could never feel completely comfortable. The knowledge that Celtic might need a second goal to be absolutely sure of the three points was perhaps partly behind Emilio Izaguirre’s utterly desperate dive in the box. He wasn’t fooling referee Bobby Madden and while Lennon did throw a mini-strop on the touchline having originally thought that the player had been felled, the manager, to his credit, later admitted he had got it wrong.
The crowd figure given was 46,065 but if there were as many as 30,000 inside the stadium it would be surprising. The relocation of Green Brigade members hardly helped the atmosphere, although both Lennon and Van Dijk applauded the supporters simply for turning up on such a foul day.
The thought did strike that following their European exit, what else is left for Celtic this season apart from the expected stroll to the title and the prospect of a Scottish Cup win? Forster looked on through the driving rain from his penalty box and may be one of those viewing an exit door in January, with Ledley and Samaras are also reported to be reaching the end of their Parkhead careers. With Celtic continuing to win while playing below their capabilities, Lennon’s major task may come away from the park.