For 10 or so minutes in the Betfred Cup final it looked like the patient could live and even thrive, even if many thought it was not possible. Then Celtic’s Tom Rogic cut on to that left-foot. A left-foot that acts as a scythe to opponents. For Aberdeen the Aussie was once again the spectre of death, with this being his third goal against the Dons this season.
This was the two best teams in the country. But, unfortunately, such is the situation in the country’s football the best team isn’t streets ahead of the opposition, but New York City.
Only the most optimistic, and perhaps intoxicated, Dons fans would have been confident of turning it around. Even if there were still 74 minutes left to play. When Celtic get ahead, the only sensible reaction is fatalism.
Aberdeen came out with a brave strategy. Adam Rooney played. So did James Maddison. There was Jonny Hayes as well and Graeme Shinnie in midfield. The plan was clear, man-for-man in midfield. Ryan Jack, Kenny McLean and Shinnie v Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong and Rogic. For such a plan to work the midfield has to have plenty of stamina, discipline and complete focus.
Aberdeen don’t lack the former, but the two latter qualities, come the end of the game, were found wanting. Especially in the middle of midfield.
It started so well for the Dons. They held a disciplined shape, team mates looking out for each other; communicating, covering, conveying. They didn’t press high, nor did they defend their own box. It was more of a medium block. But when the ball was moved forward there was certainly a sense of intrepidness as the midfield pushed to support.
In the season of panto, Maddison was floating about sprinkling drops of fairy dust, Tinkerbell-like. There was a drop of the shoulder here, a balletic swivel of the hips there, to evade and bamboozle opponents. Aberdeen’s first real opening came through his ingenuity. Rooney off to the left, McLean making up ground, Maddison opted to go at it from distance. Blocked.
Aberdeen were now exposed as the ball spun away with players beyond the play. Just as they appeared to get back into shape Shinnie amateurishly allowed Rogic on to that left foot. Twenty two seconds later Celtic were one ahead and the cup final was effectively over.
Celtic were on course for their 100th major trophy. Celtic are on course for their fifth successive league win. Can this team be stopped? Short-term, no. Medium-term, unlikely. Long-term . . .?
He’s not the second coming, although Celtic fans would certainly argue the case, but Brendan Rodgers is a very good manager. Each passing week he makes Ronny Deila look more and more like a fraud. Remember the Ronny Roar? An embarrassing fad. The team which started yesterday included only one summer signing. The rest were part of the Deila tenure. The best thing that may have happened to Celtic was defeat against Rangers in last season’s Scottish Cup semi-final. Not only did it relieve the club of a manager out his depth but it breathed life into flailing talents. The transformation has been stark and quick.
Three players stagnating under the Norwegian thrived in Hampden’s open expanses. The cerebral talent of Tom Rogic, the boundless Armstrong and the scampering James Forrest. Three players that may find their place under threat with regards to Celtic going to the next level on the European stage. But domestically all three have been excellent.
Rogic, a graduate of the Nike academy, is the most elegant player on the Scottish scene, coming up with big moments, special moments. He gives the Celtic attack, made up mostly of sprightly, energetic, forwards, a semblance of control.
Armstrong, without doing too much with the ball, was once again inspirational at Hampden, following on from his influence after coming off the bench in the semi-final. His intelligence off the ball was for all to see in the second goal. Forrest had moved infield, Armstrong made the opposite run to confuse the Aberdeen midfield create space. While McLean did his best impression of a police officer directing traffic at a busy junction, Forrest foraged diagonally before firing in an accurate shot across Joe Lewis.
Similar movement led to Forrest being felled in the box for the penalty and Celtic’s third.
Forrest displayed that there is more to his game than simply running up and down the right wing. He was more involved in the left, darting in and out, like Sonic trying to catch gold rings.
The likes of Dembele and Patrick Roberts weren’t required to shine, while Scott Sinclair and Kieran Tierney weren’t missed. This must worry the rest of Scottish football. Celtic weren’t required to accelerate through the gears, for the majority they were rolling along in neutral, conserving petrol, in complete control.
Derek McInnes spoke of not wanting to be remembered for one League Cup success. He wasn’t helped by his big players not stepping up. Rooney was marshalled easily by Jozo Simunovic and Erik Sviatchenko, just two players who have big money moves in their future. There is no question he is a fine goalscorer but in afternoons like yesterday his limitations are discernible.
Hayes, so often the fulcrum for Aberdeen’s attack, was one-dimensional, failing to get the better of Mikael Lustig. Such was his effect, with Aberdeen chasing redundantly to get back into the game, he was replaced.
Celtic were professional, controlled and at ease in their surroundings, not often the case when they’ve stepped onto the Hampden pitch in recent seasons. The A-list could afford to have the day off, while the B-list stepped up and brushed aside their closest competitors.
It is a century of trophies for Celtic, the first for Rodgers at Celtic Park. Come May 27 there is every chance it will be 102, and with Rodgers in charge that tally is only going to rise and rise.