Keane spots the way to win ugly
THIS was exactly the kind of game and the sort of result that would have had Tony Mowbray muttering gloomily about artisan values taking precedence over art, yet there was more to be learned from the way Celtic scraped victory than would have been rendered by a win of three or four goals.
When Neil Lennon was allotted the role of caretaker at Parkhead following Mowbray’s enforced departure two weeks ago, he stated that his priority was to install a mentality in his players that would enable them to see games through, regardless of the highs or lows of their performance.
On a rutted and sanded pitch which continually sabotaged attempts at fluent play, Celtic stuck to their task and edged their reward thanks to the game’s only goal from the penalty spot – Robbie Keane’s 12th in as many outings.
In similar circumstances earlier in the season, Celtic would have been edgy and vulnerable in the later stages of the proceedings. Instead, they remained composed and effective while Hibs became increasingly ragged in their attempts to retrieve the situation.John Hughes’ players could certainly make a case for being hard done by because the decisive penalty was awarded against Anthony Stokes for a high boot against Aiden McGeady on the hour mark, despite the fact that the Hibs forward never took his eye off the ball and could not have seen his opponent bursting into the challenge from behind.
“I felt it was a really dubious decision,” said Hughes. “I didn’t think for one moment that Stokes was ever doing anything except watching the ball. At worst, it was an indirect freekick, but the referee couldn’t get to the penalty spot quickly enough, really.”
Had Hibs taken their chances during a brisk opening that had Celtic on the back foot, the merits of the penalty award might well have been academic.
Lukasz Zaluska had to make a big save when a Derek Riordan free-kick was diverted his way and then the Polish goalkeeper – who had replaced Artur Boruc when his fellow countryman had to go home because of a family bereavement – was forced to make a crucial block from Stokes when the Hibs forward was put clean through on goal.
Lee Naylor, too, made a lastditch intervention to repel a Colin Nish effort on the line towards the end of a first half in which Hibs had played with pace and direction to unsettle their opponents.
The full-back was, however, restored to his beat by Lennon precisely to bring his qualities of concentration and determination to an ethereal team and he was arguably Celtic’s most effective player on a chill Easter Sunday afternoon.
For Naylor to achieve such status would have been the antithesis of everything Mowbray stood for during his brief tenure in charge, but many a watching Celtic fan must have thought that, had their team been able to win ugly in this campaign, Rangers would now be under serious pressure.
Celtic’s efficiency in the second half restricted Hibs’ threat to a single inspirational drive by Riordan which smacked off the top of the crossbar from 22 yards.
“Hibs are a very good team going forward,” said Lennon. “That’s their strength and they have goalscorers in Nish, Riordan and Stokes but I thought that our centre-backs snuffed out any real threat that they had. All the best defenders can defend well first and foremost and then they play after that. So we try to do the basics first and what we get next is a bonus.”
Celtic’s next outing gives them a break from the grind of the league and sees them meet Ross County in the Scottish Cup semifinal at Hampden Park on Saturday.
“I watched Ross County on Saturday and they’re a very good team who play with confidence and we will not take anything for granted,” said Lennon. “That game is huge for us in terms of where we are at the minute so we will be as prepared for it as we can be.” (©Daily Telegraph, London)
Hibernian (4-4-2) – Stack, Thicot, Bamba, Murray, McCormack, Cregg, Miller, Rankin (Benjelloun 78), Riordan (Galbraith 77), Stokes, Nish (Gow 88). Substitutes not used: Smith, Stevenson, Byrne, Taggart
Celtic (4-4-2) – Zaluska, Hinkel, O’Dea, Thompson, Naylor, McGeady, N’Guemo, Brown, Fortune, Keane (Rasmussen 84), Samaras. Substitutes not used: Cervi, Wilson, Crosas, Ki, Braafheid, McGowan.
Referee – C Richmond.