Simunovic and Tierney Impress as Celts Shine
Whilst the clocks went back during the weekend just gone, Celtic may well have taken a small step forward as they eased past a poor Dundee United side by a comfortable margin. Once Leigh Griffiths bagged his thirteenth goal of the season, one which rather typified his industrious attitude on the field, the contest never looked like it would finish with any outcome other than a win for the home side. Craig Gordon kept Celtic’s tenth clean sheet of the campaign (from twenty-two matches in all competitions), one more than the Hoops had managed at this stage last season, and maybe – just maybe – we saw the first combinations of a new left side of defence.
Jozo Simunovic made his home debut, and although he was never seriously tested by a supposedly toothless Dundee United offence, the Croatian seemed assured on the ball and showed a great willingness to attack the ball in the air. Equally, on one of his forward raids, he stung the hands of Luis Zwick with a powerful shot from distance. It would be naive wholly judge Simunovic on this showing, but the initial signs appear encouraging nonetheless.
At left-back, Kieran Tierney made his fourth start of the season, again excelling as he deservedly picked up the man of the match award, as well as winning the penalty which Kris Commons dutifully dispatched to make it three-nil shortly before half-time. Notably, of the three domestic contests which Tierney has started this season (as well as the only one he made during the last campaign), Celtic have yet to concede a solitary goal. With a combined age of just thirty-nine, one cannot help but wonder whether Jozo Simunovic and Kieran Tierney may well become our first choice left centre-back and left-back pairing in the months and years to come. Regardless, one thing is certain, they deserve more opportunities to show us what they can do.
Stefan Johansen partnered Scott Brown at the base of Celtic’s midfield five, whilst Nir Bitton watched on from the bench. Whilst this does not happen as often as it did at one time, this partnership is not a wholly uncommon sight, although clearly Brown and Bitton remain Deila’s first choice pair. Notably, Celtic scored more than two goals and emerged victorious whilst Johansen was in this deeper role for the first time in thirteen months yesterday (ironically a League Cup fixture against Hearts being the last tie in which this occurred). Two-nil Celtic seems to be a remarkably common scoreline when the Norwegian plays in this position, with four of the last five matches in which this has been the case finishing with this result.
During Ronny’s tenure as the Celtic manager, the Hoops have won sixteen of the twenty-three matches in which Stefan Johansen has played in a deeper midfield role (circa 70%). However, they have only netted three goals or more on six of these occasions (26%), one of which came against KR Reykjavik and another in the four-three away defeat to Dinamo Zagreb. Indeed, we’re actually as likely to win two-nil if this is the case as we are to score three or more and win, but there’s nothing wrong with relatively narrow victories, so let’s not get caught up on that fact.
Further up the field, Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong started as our two wingers for only the fifth time this season, whilst Leigh Griffiths did something which last happened six months ago today, as he scored a goal with his right foot. Since that last occurred at the start of what would become a hat-trick against Dundee United at Tannadice on April 26th, Griffiths has scored sixteen goals with either his left foot or his head. Yet, with average of one goal scored for every one hundred and eight minutes he has played in all competitions this season, I doubt anyone is complaining about the current form of Celtic’s main striker. After all, of the thirteen men to score for Celtic this season (excluding own goals), Leigh has scored more than seven of them put together (Stuart Amstrong, Nadir Ciftci, Emilio Izaguirre, Mikael Lustig and Charlie Mulgrew (all with two); Scott Brown and Callum McGregor (with one each)). Also, whilst on the matter of goals, Aaron Kuhl was credited with an own goal yesterday after Scott Brown’s late run towards goal. “Who were the last team to score an own goal against us?”, I hear you ask. Yes, you guessed it, Dundee United, as Mark Durnan slotted the ball into his own net in August.
In closing, yesterday saw as good a victory as anybody could have realistically expected, as Celtic opened up a four point lead over Aberdeen who dropped two points at home to Motherwell on Saturday. Our five-nil win may not have expunged the significance of our recent defeat against Molde, but it is a step in the right direction. The next few matches are pivotal with regards our season, as a trio of victories could once again open up three tournaments, whilst losses could shut the door on two of them. Wins over Hearts and Aberdeen would boost the confidence levels suitably ahead of the huge visit of Molde, so let’s hope the team can push and achieve more positive results.