ANGE POSTECOGLOU praised the character of his Celtic players as they came back from an early setback to claim a famous 2-1 triumph at Ibrox to kick off April in dramatic circumstances.
The win pushed the Hoops six points ahead at the Premiership pinnacle with six games to play and they are now overwhelming favourites to clinch their tenth championship in 11 years after last season’s unexpected fall from grace.
Postecoglou watched his team roar back in defiance after conceding a third-minute goal to Aaron Ramsey with the elegant Tom Rogic nonchalantly knocking in a quickfire leveller after Allan McGregor had pushed away a drive from Reo Hatate.
PROUD…Ange Postecoglou watches his team win at Ibrox.
Cameron Carter-Vickers emphasised his worth to the side with a defensive performance that bordered on the heroic and the on-loan Spurs centre-back also had time to add his weight to the attack to claim the winning goal just before the turnaround.
There wasn’t a failure in the green and white hoops on an afternoon where everyone stood up to be counted. Callum McGregor delivered an inspirational display and his colleagues responded with an impressive relish. Daizen Maeda and Giorgos Giakoumakis must have trod on every blade of grass on the Ibrox playing surface and there is now a six-day respite before the visit of St Johnstone on Saturday April 9.
A beaming Postecoglou enthused: “I’m really proud. I’m proud of the players and it was an enormous effort.
“The opposition had everything going in their favour – they scored early, the crowd was up and in those kind of situations, to turn it around like we did showed real character throughout the whole game. I thought it was outstanding.
“They’ve shown it from the start and I keep saying it to people that it’s probably the thing that’s undervalued about this group of players.
“There have been no excuses along the way, we’ve just put our heads down and kept going. That character they’ve shown right throughout the year, we needed every bit of it on this occasion because it was a real derby game and I’m proud of their efforts.”
Postecoglou continued: “We clawed our way back into the game after they got off to a bit of a flying start, but we were never going to settle for a point, we were never going to settle for a draw.
“We came here to win and we posed them some problems. We had some chances to further extend that lead.
GOVAN GLEE…Cameron Carter-Vickers, watched by team-mate Carl Starfelt, races away in triumph after scoring the winner at Ibrox.
“They put on some pressure, but I thought we dealt with it really well. They put a lot of crosses in the box and Joe made a couple of good saves, but I thought we handled it really well.
“You don’t come away from a game like this unless the players have shown every bit of the best of themselves.
“Sometimes it’s the football that’s the decider and we had our moments, but we had to show real character and courage and determination, led by an outstanding leader in Cal – I thought we handled it well.”
A few days later, Postecoglou received praise from an unexpected source – Eddie Howe who had been the Parkhead club’s priority target as they searched for a long-term replacement for Neil Lennon.
The move eventually broke down and Celtic turned to Postecoglou to guide them through the choppy waters of season 2021/22.
Howe, who was named Newcastle United boss in November, hailed the Greek-Australian, saying: “I think he’s done an incredible job.
“I did actually watch the Old Firm game on Sunday. It was a very interesting game, the atmosphere is always electric and are very interesting games to watch from a coach’s point of view.
“Full credit to him, his staff and players for what he’s done this season because it was a team in slight transition and I think he’s been excellent in recruitment.”
WE’RE ON THE WAY…Ange Postecoglou inspires Celtic closer to the coveted crown.
Kyogo Furuhashi made his much-anticipated comeback against St Johnstone at Parkhead on April 9 – after his last appearance against the same club in Perth of Boxing Day – and came within inches of marking the occasion with a goal as the Premiership pacesetters racked up a 7-0 victory.
The Japanese international hitman, who missed 17 consecutive games with a hamstring strain, was given the green light to come on as a 74th minute substitute and with one of his first touches, he launched a breathtaking long pass straight onto the chest of Daizen Maeda who knocked it down for Liel Abada to thunder in the seventh and final strike.
Then came Kyogo’s moment to attempt to claim his 17th goal of the campaign when he ran onto a through ball to drive a low effort wide of the clawing fingers of the overworked Zander Clark, but, unfortunately, the effort edged just wide of the far upright.
It would have capped a fabulous day for the Hoops who stretched their unbeaten domestic record to 33 games with their biggest score of the campaign.
Reflecting on the club’s top scorer’s return, Postecoglou said: “I’m pleased for him because he is a great guy. And a super footballer.
“He was so important for us when we really needed somebody to step up. The whole group has watched him work really hard on his own in rehab, so it was great to get him back out there.
“He looked like the quality player he is and he is going to be super important for us.”
The manager was delighted with the performance and continued: “We were on it from the start. It was a danger game for us because St Johnstone have been on good form and are hard to break down.
“We needed to start well and, like a lot of games, we were on top early, but it was good to see us keep going.
“At half-time, we spoke about that because it was a game we could have seen out quite comfortably.
“There’s a couple of things at work there – one is the players, who consistently try to push themselves and we also had some quality coming off the bench which helps to drive things, too.
“We need to keep our head down, put the accelerator down and if we keep playing as we did on this occasion we will have a good chance.”
TITLE IN HIS SIGHTS…Ange Postecoglou prepares for the league run-in.
The Scottish Cup journey ended in anguish at the semi-final stage when Carl Starfelt unfortunately deflected a left-wing cross away from the stranded Joe Hart to give Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s Ibrox side the extra-time winner after it had ended 1-1 in 90 minutes.
Greg Taylor, with a rare strike, put the Hoops ahead, but Scott Arfield curled in the equaliser to deny Postecoglou the opportunity of the treble in his debut campaign.
The confrontation was laced with controversy with referee Bobby Madden in the middle as usual following a series of inexplicable decisions – one of the main ones being his refusal to show a card to John Lundstram who looked on a one-man course to intimidate opponents.
The former Sheffield United midfielder was allowed to waywardly charge around the pitch without fear of a card or even a quiet word from the whistler.
However, the Parkhead manager refused to dwell on the club’s first domestic defeat in 33 games. Instead, Postecoglou will utilise the Cup setback as motivation for the five-game run-in to the Premiership’s conclusion with the Hoops, six points ahead, and within touching distance of their 52nd flag.
He said: “We are disappointed. It was, unfortunately, an opportunity we didn’t take. It was a typical semi-final, very tight. Both teams had their moments and they took theirs in extra-time and, unfortunately, it decided the game.
“We’ve had a lot of challenges this season, this is another one. We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We need to dust ourselves off and look forward to the next game.
“We’ve got five games to be champions of this country and that doesn’t change after today.
“Our focus has to be that we make sure we use this disappointment to fuel what is going to happen in the next few games.”
NO HOLDS BARRED…Callum McGregor is rugby-tackled by Joe Aribo.
A defiant Postecoglou added: “If it’s all been about pressure, when you have lost three games out of your first six, and you know that for the next 32 games that you probably can’t lose another one, or maybe one more, there’s a hell of a lot of pressure there, you know.
“But we haven’t thought that way, so we’re not going to change our thinking now. Back then, what was important to us, was that in each game we try to play our football and approach every game in the same manner and keep building on that.
“And that’s what we’ll do for the next five games. I know people maybe now just look at it and think ‘they are in a good position here – they might be able to win it’.
“But we’ve been working under stress and pressure the whole way through. And I think when you do that, it almost becomes normal to you that this is just another week where you have to win a game of football.”
A week after the Hampden setback, Kyogo scored his first goal of 2022 when he rose to Filipe Jota’s astute right-wing cross to thump a 12th-minute header low past Ross County keeper Ross Laidlaw in the vital 2-0 triumph in Dingwall. The Portuguese flyer added the second near the end.
Amazingly, it was the Japanese talisman’s first strike since his exquisite lob over Hibs netminder Matt Macey to propel Celtic towards their Premier Sports League Cup Final victory at Hampden on December 19.
Kyogo, who was replaced in the 64th minute to make way for 13-goal Giorgos Giakoumakis, will have a crucial role to play in the remaining four league fixtures against the Ibrox outfit, Hearts, Dundee United and Motherwell before the league season reaches its climax on May 14.
Reflecting on the exploits of the Japanese talisman, Postecoglou smiled: “He’s a hell of a player and most teams would miss a player like him.
“And he’s worked hard to get back, so it was great for him to get a start. He’s still not super-sharp, if he was he would probably have had three. He has that little bit of magic about him.”
And there was more to come from the fans’ favourite.
April 3: Rangers 1 CELTIC 2
April 9: CELTIC 7 St Johnstone 0
Hatate, Giakoumakis, Maeda, Juranovic (pen), O’Riley (2), Abada
April 17: CELTIC 1 Rangers 2 (after extra-time)
April 24: Ross County 0 CELTIC 2
* TOMORROW: Don’t miss the twelfth thrilling instalment of CQN’S EXCLUSIVE tribute to Ange Postecoglou.