Celtic headed to Dingwall to face the SPL newcomers Ross County in the afternoons ‘pre’ lunchtime kick-off. I am never a fan of the early kick-off times for so many reasons but none more so than the effect it has on my team. Indeed history has shown Celtic to have quite evidently displayed a constant lethargy in such fixtures.
Having started off as though the exertions of the Philadelphia trip and the current injury list had robbed them of all urgency, energy and drive, the Hoops initially toiled.
In truth though Celtic were rarely troubled and though County were both game and competitive throughout a sluggish first half, it was indeed Celtic who looked the likelier to break the deadlock.
That being said Ross County did have a certain level of success in their tactic of early and deep delivery of crosses into the Celtic box, first Marc Fitzpatrick, ex Motherwell and Inverness Caledonian Thistle and then Richard Brittain, ex St Mirren, showed their SPL experience in constantly testing the resolve of the Celtic defence. From the aforementioned Fitzpatrick cross, Kettlewell at full stretch nearly gave County a fifth minute lead.
Colin McMenamin, another player with Scottish Premier League experience, did indeed find the net in the fourteenth minute but his strike was quite rightly ruled offside as Rocco Quinn, ex Celtic, had clearly competed with Charlie Mulgrew for a header having been in a offside position.
The rest of the first half was sluggish and the few chances that were created in the game were courtesy of Celtic.
County’s five man midfield stagnated the flow of the game. The midfield and defence of Derek Adams team often joined together seamlessly to prevent any room for our creative players to drift or to pass into. That though is not a criticism of the County tactics, such tactics whilst not wholly expansive and entertaining, are likely to be deployed by most clubs we play in Scottish football again this season. Breaking teams down is not something to which we are indeed unaccustomed.
In the thirty-fifth minute Wanyama rose for a Commons corner and his subsequent header cannoned off the bar, so close but yet so far.
In truth the game badly needed a goal to open play up and to add new-found purpose to proceedings, it seemed a forlorn hope however.
I wrote in my first half notes that such was th numbers competing in the central area of this glorious surface, that Celtic had began to resort to long direct balls on which Samaras was our only target, such service rarely ever compliments the striker and he toiled. I indeed wrote that the width and pace we required was evident in the youthful bench taken north by Neil Lennon. Slane and Watt, my notes suggested, had all the attributes to test and tease the fullbacks and in doing so permit Commons and Samaras to drift more menacingly into the openings it would create.
Maybe a future in management beckons.
We certainly started the second half with what appeared as a renewed determination to attack County down the flanks and within two minutes of the restart, Beram Kayal had an effort on goal, having cut in from the left of the County box. His shot however drifted wide and did not trouble Michael Fraser in the Ross County goal.
I thought we had more urgency and that we would score first, oops.
That was until the 49th minute when Richard Brittain expertly dispatched a direct freekick into the postage stamp of Forsters goal.
A cheap foul given away by Lustig on the County left-wing, presented Richard Brittain with a dead-ball opportunity, his placement negated any such queries as to the positioning of the wall or of the keeper. Forster couldn’t get anywhere close to the rocketed right footed effort as it swung its way into the net. 1-0 County and game on!
Celtic fought tooth and nail to find space in behind the resolute County defence, though all their efforts appeared likely to be in vain until the arrival of first Tony Watt then another youngster, the enigmatic Paul Slane.
Such youthful enthusiasm may have saved Celtic’s blushes but in truth only a minute after County took the lead through Brittains free kick, he appeared to have conceded a stonewall penalty, how Craig Thomson from only a few yards away adjudged the challenge to be legal is quite beyond me.
Samaras had brilliantly cut in from the left-wing and escaped three County defenders, Brittain threw out a desperately tired and misjudged right boot that even Colin Jackson would have struggled to have hurdled. Samaras fell under the attentions of Richard Brittain and to everyone’s, including Brittain himself, amazement, Craig Thomson failed to award the penalty and waved play on.
A staggering decision which done more to test Neil Lennons more matured manner than to unduly influence the game, fortunately.
Samaras worked his socks off and dropped ever deeper to find room to collect the ball and to run at the County defence, in the sixty-fourth minute Lennon aided Samaras and Commons by the introduction of 18-year-old wonderkid, Tony Watt who replaced the unfortunately lethargic Lustig.
The Coatbridge lad, certainly isn’t short on confidence and enthusiasm, he played a key role in turning Celtic’s massive possessional advantage into a meaningful and decisive cutting edge in the remainder of the game.
In the seventieth minute, further youthful enthusiasm and energy was added to the Celtic attack, this time young Paul Slane, an ex Motherwell youth product and a player of significant ability was introduced for Kelvin Wilson. The shape then altered to a 4-3-1-2 which allowed Commons to sit deeper behind the now stretched midfield and defence of Ross County.
In the eightieth minute, Richard Brittain struck a wonderous shot off of Fraser Forsters crossbar, that then provided the Hoops with an omnipotent sense of their impending escape, ironically enough Brittains shot had been at the ‘Jail-end’ of the Dingwall stadium.
County began to tire due to the outstanding work ethic they had employed up-to that stage, Celtic however grew ever-more dominant as they upped their way through the gears.
Celtic finished strongly and with the energy and enthusiasm of both Watt and Slane proving an infectious combination, the rest of the team stepped up to the challenge of restoring parity.
Mulgrew teased Tokely in the box, his cross saw a Samaras header superbly saved low to Michael Frasers right hand post.
Next to threaten was Kayal, he responded to a loose ball and his sweetly struck volley rose agonizingly to clear the bar by only inches….getting closer though we were.
Late in added on time, and with only seconds remaining, young Tony Watt forced a save from Michael Fraser. Despairingly for the keeper, who had until then preserved his sides clean sheet record in the SPL, the rebound was reacted upon in a flash by the dynamic Kris Commons, who looks like the key player who first arrived at Celtic to such great effect two seasons ago.
Celtic thoroughly deserved their equalizer, in truth 3 points should have been their reward and only a combination of tenacious defending, inspired keeping and dodgy refereeing prevented Celtic adding to the lonely Commons strike.
A decent point though it was, we will have better days on our travels, hopefully including those which await us on our European adventures, first of many which is scheduled for Helsingborg, Sweden.
Lennon, I’m sure, will just be happy to have avoided further injuries ahead of the Champions League qualifier next week.