McGeady key to Celtic's title drive
Published 13/02/2010 | 05:00
A test of Rangers' nerve is Celtic's aim when they return to the scene of their first league outing this afternoon, intent on reproducing the form that drove them to a convincing victory at Pittodrie on the opening day of the season.
That performance seemed to signal a team bolting from the traps in their quest to regain the title, but the impression was deceptive.
Six months later -- and having seen Rangers open up a gap that stretched to 10 points last week -- Tony Mowbray's players are anxious to back style with substance as they face Aberdeen again, this time with a reconstructed side designed to mount a sustained offensive in the last third of the season.
And it's to Aiden McGeady that Mowbray is looking to inspire a Celtic charge.
The Ireland midfielder started on the bench for last week's Scottish Cup fifth-round win at Dunfermline but returned for Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Hearts at Parkhead, where he set up Marc-Antoine Fortune for the clinching goal which took the Hoops to within eight points of Rangers at the top of the table.
"I think Aiden benefited from the rest he had the other day," Mowbray said. "You can't keep going back to the well with Aiden. He had been magnificent for five months before his performance level dipped a little bit. However, against Hearts, especially in the second half, he was back to the exhilarating talent that he is, getting supporters out of their seats."
The much-changed Hoops are likely to be without six players who began the season in impressive form at Pittodrie, beating Aberdeen 3-1 on the opening day. Massimo Donati, Danny Fox and Scott McDonald have left the club while Darren O'Dea, Andreas Hinkel and Shaun Maloney are injured.
Mowbray, with tongue in cheek, said: "We got praise for the performance? I can't remember that.
"Someone will tell me exactly how much the team has changed from the opening day to the team we play against Aberdeen, but it has changed a lot.
"That day Maloney was out of this world; they changed their right full-back after 20 minutes because Maloney gave him a hard time. But Aberdeen will be prepared for us. We are expecting a tough game."
As a consequence of injuries, Celtic are likely to have to begin with a back-line of Paul Caddis, Josh Thompson, Thomas Rogne and Edson Braafheid, who have had only a few minutes' experience of playing as a unit -- and that at the end of the midweek game against Hearts.
Rogne is 19, Thompson a year younger, which makes their combined age less than that of David Weir, the Rangers captain. Whatever Celtic's line-up may be, there will be close scrutiny of Mark McGhee's Aberdeen selection.
The Dons manager cancelled his weekly pre-match briefing yesterday in protest at what he claimed were misplaced reports that he might field a weakened team.
What he did say, following Aberdeen's 2-2 draw with Hibs on Wednesday, was: "We do not necessarily have to beat Celtic on Saturday to finish fourth in the SPL and make Europe. We do have to beat Raith in the cup."
Whoever McGhee selects will have the task of trying to shackle a Celtic side that showed signs, against Hearts, that they might not take long to find a destructive rhythm, especially with Robbie Keane marauding around the edge of the opposition penalty box.
"I think we've had four training days since the closing of the window to get the squad together," said Mowbray.
"Players do have to learn about each other's talents and strengths and weaknesses, so instantly our midfield can see that although Robbie Keane can come and join in and link, he likes to sit on the shoulder and get slid in past the last man, gambling on offside and onside.
"He's a great personality and character in the dressing-room." (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Aberdeen v Celtic
Live, ESPN, 12.30