WHEN the smoke of battle clears on this season, Celtic will not be able to look back with any fondness at their two trips to the Highland capital.
Despite getting off to a flying start with a goal in three minutes, Ronny Deila’s stuttering side had to settle for a draw in a disappointing stalemate which means they have dropped five out of six points on a fiery, bumpy, dry pitch that is clearly not conducive to passing football.
Deila criticised St Mirren’s ground recently, so goodness only knows how he views this virtually unplayable surface that looks as though it might last have been watered about three months ago.
The Hoops, though, shouldn’t be looking for excuses from an admittedly sub-standard performance. Too many players failed to contribute. Skipper Scott Brown tried to drive the team forward with powerful sorties from his own half, but Stefan Johansen was having a rare off-day and failed to spark.
Emilio Izaguirre did little as far as an attacking threat on the left was concerned, Stuart Armstrong, hardly helped by the underfoot conditions, never got into his stride and it was a frustrating afternoon for Gary Mackay-Steven, who failed to last the distance and was hauled off in the 62nd minute to be replaced by Kris Commons.
So, it wasn’t a memorable encounter for the SPFL champions and, inevitably, referee Craig Thomson managed to upset both sets of fans with some dubious decisions. He booked seven players and awarded 24 free-kicks inside the first hour. This was not a great advert for the beautiful game. It should have carried an x-certificate for the soccer purists.
And yet it could have been so different. Celtic failed to score in Inverness earlier in the campaign when they toppled to a 1-0 defeat, but Leigh Griffiths managed to achieve the feat in only three minutes this time around.
Brown caught out the home rearguard with a ball over the top and into the tracks of Griffiths. His control was immaculate as he ambled towards the penalty area. Gary Warren was slow to see the danger and the striker took everyone by surprise – including keeper Dean Brill – with a whiplash left-foot drive from outside the box that zipped low into the net off the left-hand post.
Remarkably, the lead lasted a mere 1 minute and 48 seconds. The defence was sloppy as it tried to deal with a left-wing cross. After a quick piece of ping-pong, the ball broke to Ryan Christie who whipped the ball past the stranded Craig Gordon.
Celtic breathed a sigh of relief as Jason Denayer scooped the ball off the line, but, unfortunately, it fell straight to Edward Ofere, an old-fashioned battering-ram of a centre-forward, and he turned it into the inviting net.
Captain Brown wasn’t slow to show what he thought of his dozy defenders and no-one could blame him. It was an awful goal to concede.
There was drama in the 15th minute when keeper Brill went down as Mackay-Steven chased down a passback. There was no contact, but the shotstopper suffered a dislocated knee cap as his studs stuck in the turf. The game was held up for about five minutes before he was stretchered off. Veteran Ryan Esson came on in his place.
The stand-in had to look sharp five minutes from the interval when Johansen knocked over free-kick from the right and Efe Ambrose directed a header goalwards. Esson stretched high to push the effort over the bar.
Sadly, there was little to get excited about in the second-half. Caley Thistle were content to get bodies behind the ball, leave Ofere to forage up front on his own and then flood forward when they had the opportunity to counter attack.
Just before the hour mark, Armstrong launched a deep free-kick into the danger zone and Denayer climbed spectacularly to sizzle in a header, but Esson clawed the effort to safety.
And that was just about that. The keeper was rarely extended throughout the second 45 minutes and Deila will be hoping for much more from his side when they meet the same opponents in the Scottish Cup semi-final a week tomorrow.
At least the Hampden surface – even with another tie being played on it 24 hours earlier – can’t be as bad as the one in Inverness.
The result will be different, too, if Celtic are allowed to play.
TEAM: Gordon; Ambrose (sub: Matthews 62), Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre; Bitton, Brown; Mackay-Steven (sub: Commons 62), Johansen, Armstrong; Griffiths (sub: Guidetti 78).
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