CELTIC 4 – 0 ABERDEEN
A PHENOMENAL second-half display from Celtic emphatically and almost contemptuously swept aside the challenge of Aberdeen at a packed and atmospheric Celtic Park.
The Hoops can now move nine points ahead of the Dons if they beat St Johnstone in Glasgow on Wednesday.
But, for lengthy spells in an uncomfortable opening half, the Pittodrie side proved to be extremely dangerous and worthy opponents. Tactically McInnes had things spot on with the Aberdeen forward players denying the Celtic central defenders and sitting midfielders any time to build the play.
Clearly, the Dons were well up for the fight, but, in the end, they lost their composure, their discipline and, ultimately, the points as their season fizzled out.
Yet the warning signals were flashing as early as the ninth minute when they took the home rearguard by surprise with a swift free-kick after a needless push by Scott Brown on Kenny McLean 30 yards out. The ball was fed through to ex-Celt Niall McGinn cutting in from the left and his cunning lofted effort was heading for the roof of the net until Craig Gordon athletically threw himself backwards to get a hand to the ball to knock it over the bar.
Even then, the threat wasn’t over. From the right wing corner-kick, Andy Considine got in front of Virgil Van Dijk to send in a header that flew only a foot or so past Gordon’s right-hand upright.
Celtic’s rhythm wasn’t helped, either, when Kris Commons limped off after only 10 minutes with another injury to his left hamstring to be replaced by the impressive Stuart Armstrong who, in turn, was taken off in the 73rd minute in obvious distress with Anthony Stokes coming on.
There was a bit of a shock for the home fans even before the kick-off when it was announced Efe Ambrose was in at left-back for Emilio Izaguirre, who broke a hand against Inter Milan on Thursday.
Jonny Hayes, a livewire on the right wing, must have relished the thought of taking on the Nigerian who is as comfortable with his left foot as a giraffe is on ice. He skipped past Ambrose on a couple of occasions before he, too, had to go off with an injury just after the half-hour mark. Ambrose, for the third time in a week put in an excellent shift for Celtic.
When we has on the park Hayes demonstrated his willingness to run at the makeshift left-sided defender in the 19th minute when he raced past him with worrying ease before delivering a good cross, but Adam Rooney’s header was well held by the diving Craig Gordon to his left.
The Dons have gone 10 years without a league win at Parkhead and it was obvious they wanted to wipe that statistic off the record books.
However, as the half wore on, the champions began to claw their way back into the contest and in the 37th minute they got the breakthrough goal – and it was all down to the perseverance of Gary Mackay-Steven, who had a thoroughly excellent afternoon displaying bundles of energy and expertise from first minute to last.
Leigh Griffiths fired a ball downfield that was way off target as it headed into the Dons penalty area. Keeper Scott Brown, with Mackay-Steven in his eyeline, fluffed his kick and it went straight to the alert Stefan Johansen. He slid it in front of Griffiths who thumped in an angled drive which was pushed round the post by the keeper.
However, the goal was delayed by only a matter of seconds. Armstrong swung in the left-wing corner and Jason Denayer rose at the back post to nod an unstoppable header into the net. Brown claimed he had been fouled by Griffiths, but referee John Beaton was having none of it and TV pictures – for those watching the match on TV – showed he got his decision absolutely spot on.
Four minutes from half-time, Brown and Willo Flood were both booked after a tangle of legs in the middle of the park. Neither player could have had a complaint.
Celtic thought they had doubled their advantage 11 minutes after the turnaround when Griffiths stroked a low shot beyond Brown, but the assistant match official flagged for offside – and got it just right although there wasn’t much in it. At this stage, the Dons were struggling. Johansen wasn’t on the same radar as Griffiths when he should have set him up and then the striker shot tamely into the arms of the keeper when he was in a good position on his favoured left foot.
The nearest to the Dons creating a stir was a good run and cross from Peter Pawlett, who had replaced Hayes, but Considine’s back-post header was off target.
In the 62nd minute, the sensational Mackay-Steven slipped in Johansen who was felled by a clumsy challenge from Mark Reynolds. It was a stick-on penalty-kick and Griffiths sent the keeper ther wrong way – Brown taking off for his left as the ball arrowed in low to his right.
It was the striker’s last action before he was replaced by John Guidetti. The Swede came close to making a sensational introduction when he was set up smack in front of goal with an inviting right wing cross from Mackay-Steven. Guidetti got his angles wrong and the ball flew to safety.
In the 67th minute, the tireless Mackay-Steven picked out Johansen with a wonderfully-judged through ball, but the Norwegian’s ferocious right-foot drive was beaten away by Brown.
Another goal had to come and it duly arrived two minutes later. And it was a fitting reward for Mackay-Steven, who, at £250,000 from Dundee United in January, is looking to be one of the biggest bargains in Hoops’ history. If we didn’t have to keep paying UEFA fines for flares we could maybe buy another one!
He picked up a pass from Adam Matthews and danced his way towards the Dons goal as the defenders backed off. He took their invitation to shoot and from outside the box he struck a low shot past the scrambling Brown at his left hand post.
That was game over, but Celtic, showing they had no hangover after their brave Europa League exit on Thursday, went for another.
Alas, Guidetti just couldn’t pick up the pace of a scorching game and squandered a couple of reasonable opportunities. Either that, or he had just washed his boots and couldn’t do a thing with them!
Ten minutes from time, the curtain came down on a spectacular 45 minutes when Mackay-Steven – who else? – released the rampaging Matthews on the right and the Welshman, on St David’s Day, celebrated with a peach of a pass in front of Johansen who rammed a left-foot effort wide of Brown.
The Dons certainly posed questions in the first-half, but Celtic’s spirited response after the turnaround proved to be irresistible. Aberdeen replaced a forward with a centre half to try to avoid a landslide as they brought the curtain down on their ambition to win anything this season.
All their increasingly vile support had for their 300 mile round trip to Glasgow was the chance to sing their song about Jimmy Saville. Celtic captain Scott Brown acknowledged their behaviour as he danced in front of them to Just Can’t Get Enough as the lap of honour neared it’s end. If any pundits want to talk about offensive chanting in Scotland’s premier league then this vile song should be top of the pops.
Incidentally John Guidetti, no doubt frustrated at his missed chances, didn’t join in the on-field celebrations at the end and instead headed straight up0 the tunnel.
TEAM: Gordon; Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Ambrose; Brown, Bitton; Commons (sub: Armstrong 10; sub: Stokes 73), Johansen, Mackay-Steven; Griffiths (sub: Guidetti 63).