Oh Hampden in the gloom…
I suppose it was only a matter of time before we crash-landed back to reality as the manager’s tactical eccentricities – with a little help from the MIB – ensured a pitiful League Cup exit.
It couldn’t have started much better for Celtic with Mackay-Steven opening the scoring on 27 seconds. What’s more, his link-up play with Griffiths in the opening ten minutes had the Staggies defence looking more like roadkill. During that time Griffiths had a claim for a penalty and Ambrose had two good chances from corners, one of which was cleared off the line. As for the second, is it asking too much of him to get a free header from 5 yards on target?
And so, perhaps sensing his presence was not welcome any longer, Efe did the honourable thing; got caught daydreaming out of position, conceded a penalty and left the field with a bewildered expression that seemed to imply that he’d never seen Craig Thomson in action before.
The bewildered expression on the faces of the rest of us could be put down to Efe’s selection in the first place. If there was a bet to be had on it there’s not too many wouldn’t have a couple of quid on him making at least one rash error every other game, so why bother picking him? Surely a decent performance now and again doesn’t outweigh the damage he invariably causes?
(As a brief aside, doing my best Dean Strang impersonation, I can’t help comparing Thomson’s interpretation of a clear goalscoring opportunity on this occasion with his more lenient decision at Pittodrie earlier in the season when Leigh Griffiths was brought down two feet from the Aberdeen goal. Culprit that time was Andrew Considine who escaped with a yellow card and reappeared in the dying minutes of the game to clear a net-bound shot off the line and deny the Hoops an equalising goal.)
The game, all of a sudden, took on a whole different shape and with the pitch beginning to resemble a scale model of the Battle of Paschendaele Celtic were clearly going to be up against it. Having played a leading role in Celtic’s opening blitz, Callum McGregor was withdrawn in favour of new Bhoy Sviatchenko before the resultant penalty was taken with what seemed to me undue haste (not to say panic).
Yet, despite struggling at times in midfield, Celtic still had some kind of grip on the match.
That was until Craig Thomson intervened again. A poorly defended Ross County corner was headed into the net by Paul Quinn as striker Alex Schalk pinned Gordon to the other side of the goal. It was a move straight out of the WWE sneaky tricks playbook and blatant cheating from the County striker, but it was conveniently given the Nelson’s Eye by a referee that some pundits laughingly refer to as Scotland’s top official.
Schalk added a third for Ross County soon after and Celtic were facing semi-final ignominy once again. Time for a tactical master-stroke from the manager – a substitution or two to help turn this game around. Enter Scott Brown who replaced Nir Bitton.
Supposing he was even fully fit, what would he have possibly been able to contribute from the holding midfield position in an offensive sense?
James Forrest was also brought on as well, for the largely ineffective Stuart Armstrong, with 11 minutes to play. He did nothing of any note either.
Thomson’s decision to award Celtic a penalty for handball late on just looked like a sop to the “See how these things even themselves out” brigade. In keeping with the way things had gone all afternoon Leigh Griffiths missed it and that put an end to any lingering fantasies of a heroic do-or-die finish to the match.
Overall this was not a performance that will be featuring on any DVDs any time soon to say the least. However, I did feel robbed. Again. This wasn’t like Malmö – apart from the game-changing refereeing clangers – where we were gutless and tepid for 90 minutes. There were, without question, some poor individual contributions, but the team never stopped working even if we lacked on the offensive front.
We were up against it from the moment Ambrose walked, possibly for the last time. The pitch and conditions made it impossible to play football and County took advantage. But there comes a point when a team looks to its manager for leadership in a game like this and Ronny Deila’s subs and tactics did nothing to help swing the game back our way. There are inevitably going to be questions over whether he will be leading us into another European campaign next season.
One last word on our opponents. I don’t buy the idea that “they played with passion and we didn’t”. They did exactly what inferior players do when they know their best will not be good enough – kicked lumps out of Mackay-Steven, Griffiths and Johansen for 90 minutes. I’m eating my grapes sour at the moment but there are teams who don’t have the quality of Celtic who can beat us without resorting to thuggery i.e. Motherwell and Accies. That the refs indulge this is pretty much par for the course; that we don’t seem able to cope with it is worrying. That Jim McIntyre was shrewder and out-thought Deila is equally worrying.