ALEX’S ANGLE: DEAD MEN WALKING

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ON JUNE 3 last year, celebrating Celtic players cavorted in Hampden’s summer glow following their phenomenal achievement of sealing a world record eighth domestic silverware clean sweep.

Strikes from Kyogo Furuhashi, Liel Abada and Filipe Jota had just seen off the stubborn and gallant Highlanders of Inverness Caley Thistle to add the Scottish Cup to the previously won Premiership and League Cup.

Ange Postecoglou and his joyous green-and-white-clad performers richly deserved their day in the sunshine after an ultimately successful crusade on the home front.

Contrast that with events at the same arena yesterday. The Celtic players did acknowledge the applause of the support, but, let’s face it, the reaction of their fans was more that of relief than acclamation.

READY FOR THE BIG SHOW…skipper Callum McGregor and keeper Joe Hart, later to be the Celtic hero, greet the Aberdeen players before kick-off.

The concerned followers had just witnessed their heroes press furiously on the self-destruct button since the second minute of their Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen, a team that last enjoyed success against their opponents 25 games ago on May 13 2018 when they won 1-0 at Parkhead in a game that didn’t matter.

Celtic had already annexed that season’s crown long before the Dons fulfilled a largely meaningless fixture.

This time around, though, at the national stadium, Brendan Rodgers’ men appeared to be hell bent on failure. They invited disaster right from the off.

Cameron Carter-Vickers demonstrated all the nimbleness of a giant redwood tree when he was eliminated with a simple pass inside him, Bojan Miovski sped into the space between the central defender and Alistair Johnston to thump the underdogs into the lead.

Remarkably, there was an almost identical move later in the half that once again saw the Macedonian frontman running clear, but, on this occasion, Joe Hart, wary and alert after the earlier defence-splitting movement, was quickly off his line to smother the ball.

Nicolas Kuhn levelled before his team-mate had to react once again with reflexes that belied his 37 years and impending retirement to block a close-range drive from Stefan Gartenmann after some woeful defending at a routine right-wing free-kick.

TWO-MINUTE WARNING…Bojan Miovski races away after giving the Dons an early lead with Joe Hart, Alistair Johnston, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Callum McGregor wondering what hit them.

I was astounded Yang Hyun-jun trotted out for the second-half after an opening period where his impact upon the contest had been the square root of zilch. Unless it was some sort of tactical masterclass that was lost on your humble scribe, I can’t recall the South Korean once driving at Nicky Devlin in an attempt to hit the bye-line.

After the turnaround, there was a glimpse of the wide player dragging the ball to his left foot to throw a ball into the box, but it carried the same threat as a passback and his cross floated unerringly and harmlessly into the grateful arms of Kelle Roos.

Unsurprisingly, Brendan Rodgers produced the hook for Yang in the 62nd minute and, at the same time, took off captain Callum McGregor. James Forrest was an immediate upgrade on his predecessor on the flank while the unfussy Tomoki Iwata settled in beside Reo Hatate and Matt O’Riley in the team’s engine room.

Evergreen Forrest immediately injected some urgency and menace into the frontline as he motored in the general direction of Roos who, up to this stage, had been largely untroubled.

The Scotland international, who will turn 33 in three months’ time, had a quickfire shot blocked by the Dons defence, seemingly alarmed by his introduction.

Only moments later, Forrest picked up a pass from Hatate, got his head down once more and skipped towards the danger zone. As defenders backed off, he whipped in a low drive that escaped the diving Roos at his left-hand post.

FORREST ON FIRE…the Celtic substitute is congratulated by Nicolas Kuhn and Alistair Johnston after rifling in the second goal.

That looked like being the goal that propelled the holders into the Scottish Cup Final on May 25, the 57th anniversary of the unforgettable European Cup success, but this current lot weren’t done as they continued to flirt with catastrophe.

As the clock showed 90 minutes had been played, there was a communication breakdown at the back post as a cross was floated in from the left.

Liam Scales got under the ball, Greg Taylor was awol and Ester Sokler was allowed unhindered to head past the stranded Hart.

In extra-time, Carter-Vickers, Forrest and Johnston combined in one of the team’s rare cohesive moves of the day and the Canadian’s cross reached O’Riley who assumed praiseworthy composure before almost nonchalantly lifting the ball high into the net.

Like Forrest before him, it appeared O’Riley had claimed the matchwinner. All that was required was for the team to see out the remaining minute or so of the added-on period and they would be home and hosed.

HEADS I WIN…Dons striker Ester Sokler is unmarked as he nods his team’s second goal behind the stranded Joe Hart.

The repeat offenders among the back lot were still persistent in making life difficult for themselves while maintaining a high level of anxiety among their supporters.

Defender Angus MacDonald had obviously been encouraged at how undetected team-mate Sokler had been allowed to set up camp at the back post without the merest hint of an intrusion from a player from the opposition.

He wondered if he could stage an action replay with an identical goal. Lo and behold, yes, he could roam unhindered into the exact same position when a cross was delivered into the box.

Once again, Scales was stranded under the ball and Taylor, too, adopted the same pose as before and the thankful Pittodrie captain rose unchallenged to leave a flummoxed Hart standing.

At this stage, I thought I had tuned into a Mack Sennett Productions, the once-prolific Hollywood studios made famous for slapstick comedy with the Keystone Kops a particular favourite. All that was missing from Hampden was the canned laughter.

SPOT ON…Joe Hart remains calm and controlled after his match-defining penalty save.

Aberdeen’s Ryan Duncan appeared to be afflicted when he smacked his penalty-kick off Hart’s left-hand post. That offered the last line of defence the responsibility of sinking Celtic’s fifth spot-kick and it was job done, disaster averted.

Good old Joe is obviously another who likes to leave the paying cutomer rolling in the aisles. Chest out, head held high, he marched with an air of confidence towards the dormant ball and, from 12 yards, battered the sphere off Roos’ right-hand upright.

I was beginning to wonder if anyone was taking this event seriously.

In the end, Hart brought the procession of implosions to a thankful conclusion by saving from Killian Phillips and made sure he would take his final curtain call in a setting that befits the occasion.

Let’s be honest, theĀ gods of sporting fortune smiled on Celtic at Hampden. No matter what the players did in their relentless pursuit of calamity, a greater power usurped their unfathomable desire for ruination.

Ten months ago, the Celtic players danced jigs of joy and triumph to the backdrop of wondrous acknowledgement of their supporters.

END OF THE MISHAPS AND MAYHEM…Joe Hart leads the relieved Celtic players as they acknowledge the fans after their nerve-shredding semi-final success.

The gleeful players pranced and pirouetted on the vibrant green turf under a cloudless blue sky as they waltzed into the history books.

However, make no mistake, dear reader, a repeat of yesterday’s dire performance could see Celtic complete this campaign without a trophy for only the second time in 14 years.

After the wretched exhibition against the Dons, the current team give you the impression of dead men walking.

Let’s hope they heed this warning. If they don’t, meltdown won’t be far away.

ALEX GORDON

 

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