RONNY DEILA’S hopes of a debut domestic Treble came to a shuddering, unexpected halt in a brutal, disappointing Scottish Cup semi-final against John Hughes’ Highlanders after extra-time at Hampden this afternoon.
Diabolical. Disgusting. Disgraceful. Choose your own word to describe the refereeing display of Steven McLean and his hopeless five-man assistant team. Their ineptitude had to be seen to be believed. Most Celtic supporters know it’s more than ineptitude. Much more.
With Celtic leading 1-0 through an exquisite free-kick goal from the elegant Virgil Van Dijk, it looked as though they would get the opportunity to double their advantage just before the interval when Josh Meekings clearly handled a netbound header from Leigh Griffiths. This was clear as day from my seat away behind the goalposts at the other end of the stadium.
Penalty-kick? Red card for the defender? McLean had a good view of the incident and his goalside assistant Alan Muir was only six yards away with an uninterrupted vision. Ridiculously, and to everyone’s utter astonishment, both agreed in a moment that no action was required. McLean waved play on and the Highlanders realised in an instant that this just might be their day.
Meekings could have held the ball, rolled it a few yards, picked it up and booted it downfield and it couldn’t have been any more of an obvious spot-kick.
Questions must be asked of the match official and his assistant. If neither can witness and take proper action upon such an obvious breach of the laws of the game then it is clear they are grossly incompetent and, as such, should be compelled to resign from their SFA positions. If they decide otherwise, the decision should be made for them.
Celtic will not win the fourth Treble in their history after this result. That’s the hard fact. The lamentable lack of ability by the officials was there for all to see, but, to be honest, this was not a Hoops side firing on all cylinders even before McLean and his inadequate cohorts took centre stage.
Kris Commons struggled right from the off and, unfortunately, played a massive part in Caley Thistle’s equaliser and the sending-off of Craig Gordon – the decision, along with that of the ‘unseen’ penalty-kick – that played a major part in the outcome of the tie.
Emilio Izaguirre is a willing worker on the left wing, but his distribution can be erratic and his defensive qualities on occasion are questionable. Alas, he blundered twice to allow Thistle to score the winning goal. Good athlete that he is, his reading of play behind him is extremely poor. Have another look at Caley’s third goal if you want to debate the point.
Griffiths was out of sorts, Adam Matthews doesn’t look fit enough to last 90 minutes never mind two hours and Scott Brown, always a willing trier, was too often harried by opponents who were only too comfortable clattering into bodies from exposed angles. Along with Brown, perhaps only Nir Bitton could claim to have had a good 120 minutes for Celtic.
Scoring a hat-trick midweek may have clouded the Celtic manager’s memory but playing with Leigh Griffiths as a loan striker against this strong Inverness defence did not work last weekend. John Hughes proved to be the tactical victor in the way he set his limited sources out today against a more of the same Celtic.
Frontmen Marley Watkins and Edward Efore were fairly comfortable throwing themselves at hopeful, high balls as they battered into Van Dijk, Jason Denayer and Co. On many occasions they had absolutely no chance of getting near the clearances, but they charged ahead with a lot of fury and no finesse.
There will be more than a few Celtic players on the treatment table tomorrow. Nir Bitton was almost a passenger by the end of extra-time after a midfield buffeting from rugged opponents who were happy to hunt in packs with obvious zeal.
And yet it could have been such a different story until the emergence of the match officials.
Van Dijk put the Hoops ahead in the 18th minute with a free-kick after Gary Warren had hauled James Forrest to the ground as he sped into the danger zone following a break on the left. Warren was booked and worse was to follow for him and his team-mates as the Dutchman sized up the situation and then swept a glorious free-kick high into the net from 25 yards, the ball hitting the net via the upright and bar.
Esson had breathed a sigh of relief only five minutes earlier when a first-time right-foot drive from Bitton exploded against the woodwork after nice work from Brown.
Then came the turning point just before half-time when Esson deflected a close-in shot from Johansen into the air towards the exposed back post. Griffiths was smack on the spot to send a header spiralling towards the net until Meekings’ right hand made contact. As a save it was almost world class.
Only eight minutes of the second-half had gone when the roof fell in on Celtic. Commons made a complete hash of a left-wing corner-kick, sending a misdirected low effort into the box. It was cleared to Ryan Christie who pushed it in front of Watkins. Inverness seemed to have noticed a weakness in the way Celtic set up defensively at their own corners and Commons’ mistake gave them an opportunity to test the theory.
Deila’s men were badly exposed, but it looked as though Matthews had cleared up the danger as he stretched to prod the ball back to Craig Gordon. Unfortunately, it lacked the zip to carry it to the keeper who was forced to try to block Watkins as he chased the ball. Down went the Thistle striker, out came the red card and off trotted the dejected Gordon.
Greg Tansey netted after sending substitute shotstopper Lukasz Zaluska the wrong way. James Forrest had been hauled off to make way for the Pole. Many supporters inside the ground reckoned that Commons was the obviously choice for the substitution as James Forrest was having an uncommonly successful afternoon out on the left.
Commons clearly couldn’t last the pace and he hobbled off to be replaced by Aleksandar Tonev in the 90th minute. The forgotten man, who is heading back to Aston Villa in the summer after an instantly forgettable loan period, came on, but produced little which came as no surprise to anyone. He had a chance to get a shot on target in extra-time, but his wildly-struck effort came closer to hitting a passing pigeon than it did Esson’s goal. Hopefully this will be the last time this player wears the hoops.
The occasion and the circumstances at this stage would have been perfect for young Liam Henderson but he has been recently loaned out to get some match play in the Norwegian league. He could have been useful at Hampden this afternoon.
Celtic’s luck was out yet again when Thistle claimed a second goal in the sixth minute of additional time. A hopeful high ball struck Tansey and fell into the path of Ofere, just inside the box, who swept a low effort past Zaluska at his left hand post.
It was another sickener, but the Hoops fought back and John Guidetti, on for the ineffectual Griffiths, equalised in the 13th minute.
Brown was clobbered in a pincer movement by Nicky Ross and Ross Draper and a free-kick was awarded about 30 yards out. The Swede elected to take it ahead of the tiring Johansen and sent the ball through the defensive wall.
It took a wicked bounce in front of the flummoxed Esson and flew over his shoulder into the net. The Celtic players and fans had hope again.
That was extinguished four minutes from time. Izaguirre presented possession to the marauding Thistle players who were trying desperately to settle the outcome before the advent of penalty-kicks. The left-back scooped a clearance up into the air when he had the time to deliver a measured pass out of defence.
Thistle pounced on the gift, the ball was worked to Graeme Shinnie on the left and he fired an effort across the face of goal. Izaguirre, alarmingly, hadn’t got into position at the back post and right-back David Raven, with acres of space, couldn’t believe his luck as he knocked in the winner for only the third goal in his career.
In an instant, a Treble dream was left in tatters, destined for oblivion.
John Hughes had the good grace to accept that his team had had their fair share of good fortune. How could he say otherwise?
The most influential individual on the pitch wasn’t even wearing a Caley Thistle jersey.
TEAM: Gordon (sub: Zaluska 56); Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Brown, Bitton; Commons (sub: Tonev 90), Johansen, Forrest; Griffiths (sub: Guidetti 98).
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