Celtic responded to consecutive league defeats last month in decisive fashion, with authoritative wins against Livingston, Dundee, Newco, St Mirren and Buckie Thistle. The record books will show another win on Saturday against Ross County, but the champions lacked even modest authority.
After their capitulation at home to Partick Thistle in the Scottish Cup a week earlier, I assumed Ross County had “chucked it” and would bring minimum resistance to Celtic Park. There’s a reason I don’t bet. Refreshingly, County pressed Celtic throughout and were denied a point by the width of the crossbar and an added time save by Joe Hart.
After taking the lead in the opening minute through a fortuitous Alistair Johnston deflection, the champions should have finished the game off in some style, but by halftime it was clear a spark was missing. By then, County keeper George Wickens had a few of us reading his bio (on loan from Fulham). He had not only saved a Luis Palma penalty, he did so twice, after an encroaching defender cleared the first rebound before Luis could latch onto it.
Palma and Alexandro Bernabei were involved in the move which led to the goal, but as the opening half closed, both looked short of confidence; Alexandro has surely been pondering his place at the club in recent weeks, Palma with penalties on his mind.
The midfield pairing of Matt O’Riley and Paulo Bernardo, which has been so important in Celtic’s winning run, failed to cope with the game. Maybe Matt’s week, full of distraction, didn’t help, maybe the Celtic Park pitch, which has was in its worst condition in years, interrupted their quick passing game. It was certainly a day for an industrial, as opposed to cultural, midfield.
Palma and Liel Abada were replaced during the second half by Nicolas Kuhn and Mikey Johnston. I worried for the debutant, it is always easier to introduce players to a team that is playing well, instead of hoping a new face will turn the tide. As it was, the changes made little difference.
As we left the ground it struck me how physically light we were. There was not a bruiser in any midfield or forward position. In defence, Cameron Carter-Vickers has width, but Alexandro Bernabei is almost adolescent-looking. On a wintery pitch, these things are noticeable.