The Herald - Herald Sport
Sleepy Celtic’s post-title slump goes
Postecoglou’s side off the pace again as Hibs set up derby-day shoot-out for fourth place with city rivals
CELTIC’S post-title slump continued as Hibs closed in on a place in Europe with a thrilling victory at Easter Road. Six goals, two penalties, one goalkeeping howler, a red card and another rescinded combined to serve up a hugely entertaining evening in Leith. Barring a monumental shift in goal difference – or Inverness springing an all-time Scottish Cup upset – Lee Johnson’s side will compete in Europa Conference League qualifying, and could still finish ahead of rivals Hearts if they win this weekend’s Edinburgh derby.
Celtic, meanwhile, have won only once in their last five Premiership outings, and haven’t picked up three points since being confirmed champions. They had Daizen Maeda sent off for two bookings, while Hibs were given a VAR reprieve after referee Kevin Clancy initially flashed red at Jake Doyle-Hayes moments later. Reo Hatate put Celtic ahead from the spot, and Oh HyeonGyu restored their lead after Elie Youan equalised, but from there it was over to Kevin Nisbet, Paul Hanlon and Youan again to earn a memorable win for the Hibees.
Celtic in a rut 4 2
With the Premiership trophy safely on its way to Celtic Park this weekend, Postecoglou continued to shuffle his pack. There were starts for Sead Haksabanovic, Alexandro Bernabei, Yuki Kobayashi, Tomoki Iwata, Liel Abada, Oh Hyeon-Gyu – even Scott Bain got a first run-out of the season.
Iwata’s move into the base of midfield from his central defensive assignment against St Mirren on Saturday pushed Callum McGregor into a No.8 role with Reo Hatate, an intriguing dynamic we haven’t seen much of under Postecoglou. On the night, we didn’t get much of Haksabanovic, the winger succumbing to a first-half muscle injury that could feasibly make this his last involvement of the campaign.
Maeda’s red card changed things, obviously, but this was another night where Celtic weren’t really at it.
They are already champions, but have dropped their previously relentless pace since clinching the title, losing twice and conceding nine goals in the process. Nobody will be hitting the panic button ahead of the Scottish Cup final, but Postecoglou will demand his players sharpen up for Hampden.
Game of two halves
There was European football on the line for Hibs at kick-off, but that didn’t make for anything more than a largely uneventful first half. It initially promised more straight from the outset, with the hosts having two decent chances through Elie Youan in the opening moments before Abada darted in off the right flank to test David Marshall at the other end.
Aside from Hatate’s penalty opener, the first half meandered past with Hibs mostly content to sit deep and try to break on the champions. There wasn’t even the excitement of a debate over the penalty award for Celtic, Lewis Stevenson absolutely wiping out McGregor on the penalty spot after Bernabei’s excellent through ball set sub Maeda in behind to cross. Hatate was typically nonchalant from the spot to get himself back among the goals.
Things went up a notch after the interval, however, owed in no small part to Hibs deciding to press higher and try to force the issue. With Youan’s goal, it was an approach that initially looked to be paying off.
But having conceded 13 times in their previous three outings against Celtic this season, the Hibees know more than most the dangers of going toe-to-toe with the league winners. The first time Postecoglou’s side played through their hosts’ press, they scored: Oh reacting first to a loose ball in the box after Celtic worked their way up the left.
That wasn’t the end of the excitement, though. Far from it.
Maeda’s relentless harrying of opponents is bound to see him concede a foul or two, but the winger found himself a yard off it on a few occasions and it ultimately earned a red card for two bookable offences.
A heavy challenge from DoyleHayes on the advancing Oh drew Clancy into reaching for his red again mere seconds later, but he then decided that was a hasty call when beckoned to see it again on the VAR monitor. Doyle-Hayes had only just returned to the pitch when Ralston was adjudged to have shoved Will Fish to the deck from a corner, and Nisbet stepped up to bury the penalty and draw his side level.
From a state of near-disengagement in the first period, Easter Road was suddenly rocking. Maybe that’s what put Bain off, maybe it was the ring rust. Either way, his fumbling of Youan’s so-so shot from distance was
what consigned Celtic to defeat, and he didn’t do too much better when Hanlon’s back-post header made it four.
The pick of the goals on the night was the Frenchman’s fine volleyed finish to bring the scores level. Youan, clearly buoyed by signing a permanent deal last week, looked a threat early with a few eye-catching runs in behind the Celtic defence, testing Bain with a shot inside the opening minute.
On such evenings, forwards are required to be ruthless when their chance comes along, and the 24-yearold was exactly that. CJ Egan-Riley’s
cross from the right could only find the head of Ralston, but his looping clearance didn’t cover enough ground, landing perfectly onto Youan’s left boot as he smashed brilliantly beyond a motionless Bain and into the bottom corner.
Hibs close in on Europe
St Mirren’s defeat up at Aberdeen means Hibs have very nearly secured a place in next season’s Europa Conference League qualifiers. They sit three points ahead of the Paisley side heading into the final weekend’s fixtures, but with a vastly superior goal difference. All that could really stand in their way now is Inverness upsetting the odds and beating Celtic to snatch the place away via winning the Scottish Cup.
If that measure is to be the decider, then St Mirren would require nothing less than a 15-goal swing to sneak into fifth spot. Short of something incredible, that isn’t going to happen as they host
Rangers and Hibs go to Hearts for a last day Edinburgh derby.
If the Easter Road side do get over the line, it will ensure a positive end to a decidedly mixed season. Considering Johnson was, not so long ago, involved in a game dubbed “El Sackico” for the losing manager, getting a crack at the continent is a decent outcome for his first season in charge.
Some positive recruitment in January suggests the manager is very capable of getting it right to take them on even further in the summer. As it is for many Premiership sides outwith Celtic and Rangers, consistency has been elusive, and would make a considerable difference moving forward.
If the Easter Road side do get over the line, it will ensure a positive end to a decidedly mixed season