Tuesday 24 April 2018

Rogic's late winner sums up spirit of Celtic's Invincibles

Celtic players celebrate in the dressing room after beating Aberdeen in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final. Photo: Steve Welsh/William Hill/PA Wire
Celtic players celebrate in the dressing room after beating Aberdeen in Saturday’s Scottish Cup final. Photo: Steve Welsh/William Hill/PA Wire

Roddy Forsyth

Celtic's unprecedented achievement in scooping the Scottish domestic honours without losing a game was a classic example of sweating the small stuff. Inspiration stemmed from the appointment of Brendan Rodgers as manager.

Perspiration followed, as the Northern Irishman drummed into his squad that he expected them to play at a consistently high tempo, not only throughout each contest, but throughout the entire season.

It was entirely apt, then, that the acquisition of the William Hill Scottish Cup, to complete the domestic treble of honours, should be secured by an injury-time strike by Tom Rogic, a midfielder who rarely plays a full game because of a history of groin injuries which threatened to end his career.

The strength which took him beyond the drained figure of Andrew Considine to shoot past the previously inspired Joe Lewis for a dramatic 2-1 victory was totemic.

It was the 11th time Celtic had scored a goal in stoppage-time this season, proof of their remorselessness. It was the second time an injury-time goal had been required to quell opponents who had threatened the Hoops' unbeaten run and on the previous occasion - a 4-3 league victory on December 3, away to a Motherwell side who had led 2-0 - it was also Rogic who sealed the victory beyond the end of the regulation period.

When Rodgers arrived in the east end of Glasgow last summer, Celtic's run of unbeaten games numbered exactly one, the final home match of the previous season.

Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Under Ronny Deila, they had defended the Scottish Premiership comfortably, but the feeling that greater accomplishments had been allowed to slip away through lack of focus and application was shared by supporters and the Parkhead directors.

It is instructive to note that of Celtic's four league defeats of the 2015-16 campaign, two were inflicted by Aberdeen and one by Motherwell.

Aberdeen, indeed, also improved strikingly this season, so much so that Derek McInnes is entitled to consider himself desperately unfortunate that Rodgers was on hand to mobilise every ounce of Celtic's greater strength in depth.

Aberdeen finished their league season on a record points total yet were 30 points adrift of the champions. They reached both domestic cup finals and lost.

In a total of nine hours of football against Celtic, the Dons led only once - through Ireland international Jonny Hayes' eye-catching volleyed opener at Hampden on Saturday - and yet could not sustain their advantage for more than a minute, Stuart Armstrong's precise finish restoring parity.

McInnes and his team deserve great credit for countering Celtic's strengths to the extent that Rodgers's players looked out of sorts throughout the first-half, a spectacle so rare against native opposition that it made for a fascinating spectacle.

The summoning of sinews, however, favoured Celtic the longer the contest wore on and the sight of Aberdeen players prostrate on the turf when the final whistle sounded testified to the toll exacted upon spirit and flesh. They simply could not have given any more.

The question which troubles the Aberdeen support - who were every bit as drained as the players by the end - is, how will the club surpass this singular effort?

McInnes has been linked with the vacancy created by David Moyes's departure at Sunderland and several players - Ryan Jack, Peter Pawlett, Ash Taylor and Niall McGinn are moving on.

"Whether it's managers or players, if you are doing your job and you are linked with bigger or better clubs then you are obviously doing something right, said Hayes, who was the subject of two failed bids by Cardiff in January.

The manager has done a great job here, lifting the club out of the doldrums to be clearly the second best in the country.

"We have tried to match the best but it's still a work in progress and I know, with the ambition he has, he will do his best to put Aberdeen on that pedestal.

"As players and as a club and the fans as well, we would like him to stay on."

Celtic, for the moment, have no such concerns about Rodgers, whose schedule not only includes defending all three domestic trophies but also negotiating the perpetually-hazardous Champions League qualifiers to gain entry to the group stage and, as a definite marker of improvement, to make the knockout sequence of the tournament.

It is remarkable to recollect that Rodgers's first competitive game at Celtic ended in defeat by the miniscule Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar and that his first excursion into the group stage was a 7-0 thrashing in Barcelona. On the other hand, Manchester City's 10-game winning streak was halted at Parkhead, where Pep Guardiola's side had to come from behind three times to leave with a draw.

The Celtic squad's more immediate engagement with Europe will consist of holidays on Mediterranean beaches, a respite rendered uniquely sweet by the memory of 47 domestic outings unsullied by a single defeat. (© Daily Telegraph, London)


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