Monday, 21 February 2011

Celtic’s left-wing coalition powering to victory

Celtic took a firm grip of the SPL title race with a dominant 3-0 win over Rangers at Celtic Park.

Two goals from Gary Hooper and another from Kris Commons, his second in two old firm appearances, moved the hoops eight points clear of their rivals at the top of the league, although Rangers still have two games in hand.

The points are of course vital but with 12 games and three more old firm encounters to come in league and cup, this was more of a psychological victory for Neil Lennon’s young side.

The contrast between the clash yesterday and the last time the sides met at Celtic Park five months ago was staggering. On that day Celtic, like yesterday, went ahead thanks to a Hooper strike. However, they were pegged back early in the second-half and crumbled. The visitors cruising to a 3-1 victory.

What cost Celtic that day was inexperience. A veteran Rangers side able to seize the initiative when it was handed to them through a combination of Celtic errors and penalty so soft fairy liquid tried to sue for copyright.

Yet, yesterday there was never any doubt of that possibility once Hooper had hit the front this time round. Again experience was the key factor. This time, though, it was Celtic’s young legs and vibrancy that outpaced and outclassed a weary looking Rangers side.

Much attention had been paid pre-match to the surprising selection of Georgious Samaras to partner Hooper in attack. Anthony Stokes can count himself very unlucky that nine goals in his last seven games was still not enough to guarantee him a starting role. Samaras’ selection, however, does underline the difference in both squads. Lennon able to choose horses (and in Samaras’ case this term is sometimes more than appropriate) for courses.

Apart from the ever excellent Hooper, it is Celtic’s left side that has caught the eye in recent weeks and did so again here.

The formation of the quartet that has caused so much damage has been brought together through a combination of luck and judgement from Lennon. Emilio Izaguirre has been an absolute steal and arguably Celtic’s player of the season from left-back, whilst the introduction of Commons in January has proved to be another piece of shrewd business from the Northern Irishman.

But the introduction of Charlie Mulgrew at centre-back, brought about only by injuries to Daniel Majstorovic and Glenn Loovens, has proved to be a revelation. Similarly, Joe Ledley, after an alarming dip in form, had lost his place in the side to Ki-Sung-Yeung. The Korean’s involvement in the Asian Cup throughout January and February allowing the Welshman to reclaim his place and he has shown his best form in a Celtic jersey over the past month.

The movement of Izaguirre, Ledley and Commons caused Rangers all sorts of problems, whilst Mulgrew’s distribution from the back adds a much needed dimension to the build-up play from the back.

It was Izaguirre, Ledley and Commons who combined for Celtic’s first goal at Ibrox a fortnight ago. Yesterday it was Mulgrew, Izaguirre and Commons who set up Hooper to score the opener. The English striker powering past 40-year-old David Weir before slotting under Allan McGregor. One commentator described the move as like an express train blowing past an old-puffer. The difference in pace so alarming it was more like an express train bypassing the platform.

11 minutes later the flying Honduran Izaguirre went on another rampage, played in beautifully by Samaras he measured his run and pass to perfection, breaking the offside trap and laying the ball across for Hooper to slide in.

The advantage of having Mulgrew, a left-back by trade, and Ledley, who played there earlier in the season, is also apparent on the few inevitable occasions when the Honduran is caught up field and out of position.

It is this fluidity, teamwork and energy that has characterised Celtic’s run of 11 wins and two draws since Boxing Day. Tearing into opponents from the off and not waiting for the cavalry charge in the final minutes as they have under other managers in recent times.

More importantly, the young naïve side that was swept aside early in the season by Rangers’ experience now believes. Believes in themselves, believes they can beat Rangers and believes they can win titles.

Commons added the third 20 minutes from time with a swerving right foot shot from the edge of the area that in truth McGregor should have dealt with.

With a third of the season still remaining there is still time for Walter Smith’s side to regain the advantage and for a Celtic side who haven’t been down this road before to freeze with the finishing line in sight – it shouldn’t be forgotten that if Rangers win their two games in hand they will only be two points off the top with the final old firm game of the season to come at Ibrox – but for now the momentum is only powering in one direction. With two cup ties between the two to come in the next three weeks as well, Rangers need to arrest their slide quickly if they are to avoid Lennon replicating his mentor Martin O’Neil’s achievement of a domestic treble in his first full season in charge.

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