CELTIC 2 ABERDEEN 1
HE came, he saw, he conquered. Brendan Rodgers saw the curtain brought down on Celtic’s most remarkable season with a dramatic Scottish Cup triumph at Hampden this afternoon.
Two minutes into stoppage time, the game was deadlocked at 1-1 and extra-time loomed.
The Hoops, after a nervy first-half, had taken control of the second period, but had been frustrated by keeper Joe Lewis, the woodwork, courageous blocks by frantic defenders and some extraordinary misses, mainly from Scott Sinclair, Dedryck Boyata and Mikel Lustig.
Another 30 minutes looked inevitable until Stuart Armstrong, scorer of the early equaliser, knocked the ball wide to Tom Rogic, ironically on the pitch as a substitute for Keiran Tierney, an early victim of a reckless swinging elbow from the ponderous Jayden Stockley.
The Wizard of Oz moved effortlessly onto the pass and ambled forward as the Aberdeen defence regrouped, expecting the midfielder to switch the ball to his favoured left foot.
They now know he possesses a deadly right foot, too.
Rogic eased into the box as the Dons rearguard pushed him onto the right, he jinked one way, saw a shaft of light and almost casually slotted the ball between Lewis and his near post.
And that’s how the Scottish Cup was won and joined the Premiership title and the League Cup in the Parkhead trophy room.
It was an incredible conclusion to an amazing encounter that, admittedly, saw the champions struggle in the opening 45 minutes against a Pittodrie outfit they had already beaten five times during the season.
And, of course, it was Aussie playmaker Rogic who paved the way for the League Cup success against the same opponents when he got the opener in the 3-0 victory in November.
He also got the winner at Pittodrie earlier in the league so Derek McInnes’ men couldn’t say they hadn’t been warned about the qualities of the man from Down Under.
Celtic are now the only team in Scottish football history to go through the season without a single defeat in every competition.
An incredible first season for Rodgers who took charge of his boyhood heroes after replacing Ronny Deila last summer.
And yet they were on the back foot as early as the ninth minute when the Dons took the lead with a dreadfully sloppy goal.
Patrick Roberts gave the ball away, it was worked forward to the lumbering Stockley who touched it to Jonny Hayes, running free on the right.
Tierney got back to block his cross at the expense of a corner-kick.
Niall McGinn swung in a routine cross that eluded everyone and, with Leigh Griffiths switching off, Hayes was allowed to run free into the box to get on the end of deadball effort.
He walloped it first time, it swept wide of Craig Gordon and the luckless Tierney, attempting a last-ditch attempt to clear on the line, couldn’t prevent the ball from ricocheting into the roof of the net.
That certainly wasn’t in the script, but Celtic’s response was instantaneous and within two minutes they were level.
Callum McGregor was fouled as he brought the ball inside, but referee Bobby Madden allowed the advantage and Armstrong was quick to seize upon the opportunity.
He controlled the ball, took a step forward and lashed an unstoppable effort from just outside the box low past Lewis at his left hand.
The Hoops celebrated and attempted to get back into their usual stride, but they weren’t helped by a farcical decision by Madden or his assistant in the 22nd minute.
Mark Reynolds clearly pushed Griffiths in the back to send him spinning on the left touchline. The ref awarded the Dons a throw-in much to the frustration of Rodgers and his assistant Chris Davies.
When the ball was moved forward, Stockley clearly caught Tierney smack in the mouth with an elbow. Remarkably, there was no retribution from the match official.
The left-back was treated for five minutes before groggily going off to be replaced Rogic with McGregor taking up the left-sided defensive position.
Celtic’s shape didn’t look quite right and Gordon was required to make three excellent saves from Graeme Shinnie, Ryan Jack and Stockley to make sure the Pittodrie outfit didn’t take advantage.
Griffiths came close with a free-kick that was only a yard wide of the target and Sinclair had a terrible miss just on the half-time whistle.
He got on the end of a cunning left-wing cross from Griffiths, but, from four yards, lifted the ball over the bar. An astounding miss.
Rodgers worked on the challenge ahead in his 15-minute half-time talk and the champions took over in the second-half.
In the 50th minute, Sinclair set up Griffiths, but his shot was deflected just past the post by Ash Taylor.
Two minutes later, Rogic released Sinclair and Lewis blocked at his near post.
Within seconds, though, Celtic had a scare when McGregor dwelled on the ball and was robbed by Hayes, but his low cross was missed by Kenny McLean.
McGregor’s hesitancy could have been punished to the maximum.
That, however, was the Dons’ last genuine chance. Celtic rolled forward as they pummelled a back-pedalling defence.
Just after the hour mark, Armstrong tricked his way past Shay Logan on the left, but his parting shot was beaten away by Lewis.
In the 64th minute, Roberts, who had a somewhat quiet afternoon, worked a little piece of magic outside the box, but the sprawling Dons keeper dived to his right to get a fingertip to his shot to deflect it onto the base of the right-hand upright and away for a corner-kick.
Boyata had a clear header from a corner-kick, but missed the target completely as he put the emphasis on power and not precision.
Gordon made a decent save low to his left from a long-range Shinnie effort before Griffiths had an angled drive beaten away by the overworked Lewis.
And then Sinclair, untypically, missed again when presented with an ideal opportunity after a deft cross from Griffiths.
The Player of the Year didn’t make proper contact and Lewis scrambled the ball clear.
A couple of minutes later, Lustig was presented with an open goal from a Griffiths left-wing free-kick, but completely lost his bearings and managed to divert the ball away from the intended target.
Extra-time was on the horizon until that man of magic Rogic intervened.
What a way to end such a fabulous season.
Brendan Rodgers arrived on these shores a year ago and so far it’s been domestic bliss.
As easy as one, two, three, in fact!
Gordon; Lustig, Simunovic, Boyata, Tierney (sub: Rogic 25); Brown, Armstrong; Roberts, McGregor, Sinclair; Griffiths.