On the day the championship flag was unfurled by the legendary Sean Fallon, the SPL’s bright new dawn promised so much. Indeed it promised so much that Neil Doncaster attended, no doubt taking time out from his ‘unofficial’ duties over at Ibrox.
The flag raising ceremony over the North Stand celebrated 125 years of Celtic Football Club, the championship flag celebrated year one of Celtic’s stranglehold on the title, many more will surely follow.
The game itself started in competitive fashion and Aberdeen worked tirelessly to keep an organised shape and to match up with Celtic players all over the pitch, which as an aside looked as good a surface as I’ve ever witnessed.
The opening ten minutes had little of note in the way of action, Kayal had been a tidy presence in the midfield and Gavin Rae had attempted to ‘welcome’ Kayal’s return to the SPL in a rather physical fashion, a trend that continued throughout Gavin Rae’s match.
In the eleventh minute it was Samaras, Celtic’s captain for the day in the absence of Charlie Mulgrew who was suspended by virtue of his red card in the recent friendly against Ajax, was given a close up view of young Ryan Jacks right boot. The offending high foot caused Samaras a decent sized cut seemingly to his already petted lip.
He did however recover and despite his frustration at a game which would continue to pass him by, to his eternal credit Samaras looked to stamp his influence on the match, his opportunities to do so were extremely limited however.
In the nineteenth minute Aberdeen embarked on their first real attack of the match, it was no shock to see the pacey and willing running of Niall McGinn as the target of young Ryan Jack’s direct forward pass. Rogne and Wanyama coped well but the ever lively Irish winger was certainly keeping them on their toes and he ran them hard all afternoon, this was to be the first of many occasions when he’d provide Aberdeen with their most promising forward play.
Commons who after a disappointing last season looks fit and sharp, was eager to impress, indeed he and Kayal linked up well on several occasions and showed a good understanding down the Celtic right.
It was this combination which in the twenty-first minute carved out Celtic first real attempt on target, from a neat and tidy exchange in which Kayal first dummied the ball for Commons, he then on took the return pass immediately driving into space between the Aberdeen midfield and defence. From that position Kayal turned and fed the ball back to Commons who got a shot away from around 25 to 30 yards on an angle from the right side of the park. The shot forced Langfield to dive desperately to his left hand post and at full stretch he turned the ball away, a fine save and a welcome one indeed for a keeper who has suffered considerably at Celtic Park in the past.
Samaras was next to threaten and in the twenty-third minute he played keepy-uppy with a bemused Ryan Jack dazzled by the Greek’s touches, he then found a yard of space and flashed a shot across the Aberdeen goal from the Celtic left, the ball went wide but at last it appeared that the game was coming to life.
The opportunities however all seemed to fall outwith the reach of a frustrated front pairing of Hooper and Stokes, again to his credit Stokes dropped deeper and often wider in pursuit of more involvement, Gary Hooper however was keen to chase down every pass back and to run the Aberdeen defenders every yard of the way. Their endeavour however came to precious little.
Aberdeen are clearly a far improved team and their match-day squad had much experience of SPL level football and the two central midfielders Stephen Hughes and Gavin Rae, both ex-Rangers, were an industrious and combative pairing, by and largely they were keeping Kayal and Ledley quiet.
A few corners and a nice burst past two Aberdeen defenders by Hooper aside, the game was rarely threatening in the final fifteen minutes of the first half. The exceptions to that however were Niall McGinn and Kris Commons who both got close to having strikes at target whilst in good positions, a combination of Wanyama and of Russell Anderson being well placed in their respective penalty boxes however ensured no goal was to come of either opportunity.
At half time I felt the game needed a change, either in tempo or indeed in personnel and I commented in my notes that McCourt and his guile would tease and stretch a very disciplined and competitive Aberdeen team, certainly by then Samaras couldn’t have done much more to try to get involved but it was clearly not going to be his day and he was the player I thought Lennon may first sacrifice.
The second half got underway with Aberdeen playing towards the visiting support and the Lisbon Lions stand.
It was Aberdeen who started the second half most effectively and in the forty-ninth minute after a deep free kick taken on the Aberdeen right, Fraser Forster palmed desperately at the cross and was a mere spectator as the ball dropped to Scott Vernon. Fortunately for Forster and for Celtic, as the keeper lay grounded, Vernon snatched and took the ball on the volley rather than try to take a touch, the result was the ball driven high and wide. Celtic had been given yet another reminder of the rest of the SPL’s desire to provide stiff competition and to test their resolve.
As expected and evidenced in my half-time notes, Samaras was first to be sacrificed only it was Kelvin Wilson who came on in his place in the fifty-fourth minute, Celtic now playing in a changed formation of 3-4-3.
The three at the back approach may have worked to Victor Wanyama’s benefit as immediately he felt the freedom to burst forward and to join attacks. Indeed through Wanyama’s intelligent and composed possession Celtic begun to threaten.
Wanyama had a shot at goal himself in the sixty-third minute however his strike from all of thirty yards owed more to its ambition than to its application, as it threatened to wipe out the corner flag more than it did Jamie Langfields goal.
Again Commons who remained lively throughout the match was popping up in dangerous positions and in the sixty-third minute he collected the ball on the right-wing and unleashed another dangerous strike which forced Jamie Langfield into making another fine stop down at his left hand post. That’s two and counting remember.
Paddy McCourt was indeed given the opportunity to influence the game after coming on in the sixty-eighth minute, it seemed Lennon had taken my advice, McCourt replacing Kayal.
Paddy McCourt has long been known as an enigmatic individual, often ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous but much like in pre-season it was a fitter more disciplined McCourt who came on and initially bolstered the midfield in a central position before taking up a position out on the Celtic left.
What McCourt may lack in pace he made up for in guile and in the speed of his ball releasing passes, where Samaras had the physical attributes McCourt brought the composure and Celtic almost instantly began to look far sharper and more threatening.
Commons was all over the park, working with an industrious attitude and a level of fitness so notably missing last season at this stage and indeed for most of the campaign.
He and McCourt linked up well in the seventy-first minute and the home fans sensed the game was swinging their way, the crowd noise suddenly was less of frustrated howls and more of hopeful oh’s and ah’s.
Aberdeen replaced the classy Gary Naysmith with Chris Clark in an attempt to plug the midfield where gaps were now becoming more obvious, Aberdeen to their credit had worked their socks off and played very well indeed, the players were evidently tiring though.
In the seventy-seventh minute Celtic made their final change, the ever industrious and classy Joe Ledley being replaced by Darryl Murphy.
Murphy was clearly their to provide physicality and an aerial presence but he often found himself rather getting in the way of Paddy McCourt in the wider areas down the Celtic left.
He was however an aerial threat, or so it would appear, that Aberdeen paid too much attention to.
In the seventy-eighth minute Celtic, who had won a corner after a terrific cross field ball by McCourt allowed Adam Matthews to push for the by-line and Jack had made a last-ditch intervening challenge, looked set to utilise Murphy’s aerial capability, the ball however when it appeared at Kris Commons feet on the Celtic right was lashed in low and towards the near post. The shot may have lacked the power and the venom of Commons previous efforts on Langfield’s goal but like I said, this was his third.
Third time lucky, Commons shot caught both the Aberdeen defenders and more importantly Jamie Langfield dreaming, presumably of the point they expected by then to be taking home to Aberdeen that evening, Langfield was badly at fault as he inexplicably went down to his left and tried to stop the shot which although not ferocious was more than tame with just a single hand. The ball evaded the large left palm of the keeper and squirmed over the goal-line, 1-0 Celtic and deservedly so.
The rest of the game followed a similar pattern as in the lead up to the goal, the pressure was more constant by Celtic and they attacked with renewed vigour however this was aided by Aberdeen’s necessity to commit men forward.
The game ended without much further incident, only a Russell Anderson block on Hooper being seen by the referee Callum Murray as a yellow card offence, though where he must have been looking as Gavin Rae committed foul after foul I’ll never know.
Celtic couldn’t add to the solitary goal but the three points was perhaps stereotypically clichéd in being more important than the performance.
A decent enough game played in good spirits and which was far more competitive than most pundits had speculated Celtic would face, perhaps now after a really decent Aberdeen showing those pundits will desist in their doom and gloom type predictions of leagues over by Christmas and Armageddon mark II thereafter.
A good three points and a welcome return to domestic football, congratulations to Lennon and his bhoys.