Bhoys' fury at referee as Inverness scupper treble dream
Celtic 2-3 Inverness CT (after extra-time)
So, no trebles for Celtic this season. Instead, the celebratory dreams are being sunk by John Hughes, his Inverness players and their enchanted support after they destroyed the Hoops' dream of a clean sweep to reach the Scottish Cup final against Falkirk, where the Highlanders will savour the unaccustomed status of favourites for the trophy.
However, Celtic left Hampden Park incensed by the failure of the match officials to spot a blatant hand ball by Josh Meekings, which should have seen the Inverness defender shown the red card and a penalty-kick awarded against him.
Referee Steven McLean, his far side assistant Frank Connor, and Alan Muir - the additional assistant behind the Inverness goal - were all unsighted in what amounted to a perfect storm for the trio.
However, in yet another powerful case for a video official to be able to offer immediate advice of such a crucial infraction, those in the media seats could see immediately on their TV monitors that Inverness should have been down to 10 men and facing a penalty-kick.
"That's why it's so hard to win the treble - small things count against you," said Ronny Deila, whose stated aim throughout this campaign has been to become only the third Celtic manager after Jock Stein and Martin O'Neill to win the three domestic honours in Scotland.
"I think everybody saw what happened. Maybe we need seven referees. One on each post.
"Their one task is to look at what is happening in the six-yard box and on the goal line. You can't blame the main referee for that. Referees make mistakes as well but this mistake was very hard to take."
Deila, though, was honest enough to concede that Celtic had set themselves up to be shot down by a Caley Thistle side who had beaten and drawn with them in league fixtures.
"We had control, 11 v 11 and we should have killed the game before but we didn't do it and put ourselves in a very sad situation."
That said, enormous credit is due to Hughes for having learnt from last year's sterile display in the Scottish League Cup final defeat by Aberdeen, when the Inverness players sat deep and created little.
On this occasion, he set his team out in a 4-4-2 formation and was prepared to take the game to Celtic whenever possible.
The gamble for Inverness was that they would be outnumbered by Celtic's five in midfield and it was one of those, Nir Bitton, who stepped forward to crack a drive off the crossbar after 12 minutes when he fastened on to the breakdown of a practised corner-kick routine.
Celtic's next set-piece provided the breakthrough and was the consequence of a tremendous forcing run on the break from his own half by James Forrest, who cut beyond Ross Draper and was bundled off the ball by Gary Warren.
Virgil Van Dijk struck the free-kick delightfully from 22 yards, clipping his delivery off the inside of the near post and beyond Ryan Esson.
First-half injury-time saw the incident which aroused Celtic's ire.
Stefan Johansen pierced the Inverness box on the left and struck a shot which looped off Esson and beyond the back post where it was met by Leigh Griffiths with a header which was goal-bound until Meekings stuck out his right hand to divert it.
McLean and his retinue were the objects of loud and protracted protests from the Celtic players for what remained of the half and all the way down the tunnel.
Celtic's sense of grievance was magnified when a penalty-kick was awarded and a red card brandished against them when Craig Gordon took Marley Watkins down as the Inverness midfielder bore down on him from an adept counter-attack.
It took five minutes for Lukasz Zaluska to come on - Forrest made way for the Pole - and the replacement goalkeeper's first touch was to pick the ball out of the net after Greg Tansey's cool conversion.
Inverness now used their numerical superiority to play give-and-go football in the Celtic half, stretching their opponents until gaps appeared but two good opening saw Edward Ofere snatch at shots and push them wide. As the contest moved into extra-time it remained delicately poised.
Five minutes into the added period, Ofere got it right when he trimmed a low drive past Zaluska from Watkins' prompt.
The drama took a further twist when John Guidetti, who had just replaced Griffiths, struck a free-kick from 22 yards and saw it kick up off the turf and over Esson to make it all square once more.
Tiring legs on both sides suggested that a shoot-out would be required but, with five minutes left, both Inverness full-backs advanced down the flanks in unison and the indefatigable Graeme Shinnies sent a cutback across the goalmouth for his opposite number, David Raven, to angle a drive beyond Zaluska.
"That was unbelievable because coming into extra-time Raven was sitting down and I grabbed him by the scruff of the neck," said Hughes. "I told him to stand up because sitting down is a sign of weakness in those circumstances.
"I emphasised to the players that they would never have a better time to go on and beat Celtic, down to 10 men in the semi-final of a cup.
"Before David scored I was going to bring on another winger, Aaron Doran, and put him in the full-back position but more advanced so he could take their left-back on.
"Thankfully I didn't do that and David Raven came up with the goal. I didn't realise this is the first time the club have been in the final of the Scottish Cup and that's a remarkable achievement given it was formed only 21 years ago."
Of his team's status as tournament favourites, Hughes said: "That doesn't sit nice with me - I love us to be underdogs. I love to create siege mentality. I'm just looking forward to it." (© Daily Telegraph, London)