INVERNESS CT 1 CELTIC 3
Champions bounce back from Europa League heartache with Highland victory
INVERNESS CT 1 CELTIC 3
WITH Celtic out of Europe before Christmas, supporters turning against him in increasingly large numbers and one of his own players publicly revolting, Ronny Deila needed this.
That the victory at Inverness Caledonian Thistle was not wholly convincing and was only sewn up late on with a comical and highly dubious own goal, was of little concern to the Norwegian.
This was a horrible fixture for the Scottish champions to have to negotiate less than two days after such an energysapping game and demoralising result and it would have been understandable if points had been leaked.
The Celtic squad had struggled through heavy snow on their way up the A9 to the Highlands on Saturday afternoon and the pitch had to pass an early inspection yesterday morning following torrential overnight rain.
However, a draw or a defeat would have increased the pressure which has been mounting on a manager as a consequence of unconvincing displays in the Europa League and which peaked following a 2-1 loss to Ajax at Parkhead on Thursday which ended their slim hopes of making the knockout rounds.
It was vital for Deila that his side prevailed. A 3-1 triumph achieved courtesy of a Callum McGregor goal, a Leigh Griffiths strike and a late effort which was credited to Carlton Cole at the time, but which actually went in off Inverness defender Danny Devine, sent Celtic further clear at the top of the Premiership table. It was a satisfying end to a difficult week.
“It was a tough game,” admitted a relieved Deila. “Inverness are a good team and they worked us. They have a lot of energy and on the back of the result on Thursday against Ajax and having just two-and-a-half days to recover it was a good win.
“We didn’t control the game with the ball, but we did well defensively and hurt them with a couple of very good and effective attacks. I’m pleased with the boys that we bounced back and won to put ourselves in an even better position in the table.”
A McGregor goal in the eighth minute, which was almost identical to the one he had netted early on against Ajax, got the visitors off to the perfect start and was warmly received by the large travelling support braving the elements. It was, though, not to be a straightforward afternoon for a side failing to play at their highest level.
Nir Bitton and Stefan Johansen, who were suspended for their club’s penultimate Group A game against their Dutch opponents, returned to the starting line-up at the expense of James Forrest and Gary Mackay-Steven but they were unable to make a significant difference.
Caley Thistle, despite having won just one of their last six matches, gradually took control of proceedings in the first half and Miles Storey deservedly drew them level with his seventh goal in 11 games six minutes before half time.
Deila withdrew Stuart Armstrong early in the second half and replaced him with Scott Allan. The midfielder had looked sharp after coming off the bench on his European debut on Thursday and he continued in a similar vein yesterday.
He had a hand in the second goal in the 59th minute. He sent Kieran Tierney into the opposition box and the left back cut the ball back to Griffiths who drilled a shot beyond Owain Fon Williams and high into the roof of the net.
Griffiths had accepted personal culpability for the reverse to Ajax. His manager was pleased that he put a below-par display behind him with what was his 19th goal of the season.
“Leigh has been brilliant this season,” said Deila. “He scores almost every game. Yes, he had some chances against Ajax, but every striker misses some chances. He worked hard and he has a good attitude.
“That is really what you can expect from every player every time. Ups and downs in performance will happen, but again he has bounced back today and I am happy for him and I am happy for the team.”
Anthony Stokes, the Republic of Ireland internationalist who last played for Celtic back in August, had caused a stir online before kick-off when he had Tweeted his unhappiness about being left out of the matchday squad.
Deila feels the striker has to display the same attitude as Allan, McGregor and Tierney, three men who have not featured regularly but who were instrumental in Celtic securing a victory which put them seven points ahead of nearest challengers Aberdeen, if he wants to be involved in future.
“When you have a good attitude in training, when you work hard, you are loyal, you are very humble and you want to learn, like Callum McGregor, Scott Allan and KT, you get payback time,” said the 40-year-old.
“That is what is so nice to see as a coach. Players who really want to under- stand, who look into themselves instead of looking about at everybody else, always get achievement.
“Those guys have been unbelievably good examples of players who have been out and who worked themselves into things and show on the pitch that they want to play.”
Despite Deila’s insistence that Stokes can still feature in the future if he applies himself properly in training, it would be surprising if he plays for Celtic again and would not be a great shock to see him depart, either on loan or permanently, at some point the January transfer window.
If one forward’s career at the Glasgow club seems to be nearing an end another’s is just beginning. Carlton Cole, the former Chelsea, West Ham and England striker, made his debut when he replaced Tom Rogic after an hour.
Having not played since May, it is fair to say the 6ft 3ins target man is lacking a yard or two of pace and some match sharpness. However, he was involved in the final goal with five minutes remaining.
Deila is hopeful he can build on the run-out in the weeks and months ahead. “Carlton needs time,” he said. “But there is a lot more to come from him.”
FIRING AGAIN: Leigh Griffiths is joined by Tom Rogic as he celebrates returning to scoring ways in Inverness