It wasn’t a match to look forward to on Celtic’s season review DVD, but it’s another three points. Job done. Another one out of the way. Move on and focus on the tasks ahead.
Celtic will enjoy much more exhilarating wins this season, but a late Leigh Griffiths free-kick lifted them to a win over a stubborn, well-drilled Ross County for another important three points, taking them six clear of Aberdeen at the top of the Scottish Premiership table.
The Hoops didn’t have it their own way all afternoon, though. County were doggedly determined throughout the game, frustrating the champions with two solid banks of four and springing counter-attacks whenever possible.
It worked until Griffiths’ quality over a dead ball decided the game. On as a 65th-minute replacement for James Forrest, the Scotland international beautifully swept home a free-kick 12 minutes from time as Brendan Rodgers’ men stretched their unbeaten domestic run to 64 games.
Depth Makes Up For Lacklustre Individual Displays
Griffiths’ match-winning introduction from the bench on Saturday proved that old footballing adage: a team doesn’t win you the title; a squad does.
And Celtic certainly have one of those. Griffiths had as many goals as Scott Sinclair and Moussa Dembélé this season going into the weekend but still started the game on the bench. That is a measure of the quality at Rodgers’ disposal, though, as opposed to punishment for the striker’s sub-par performances.
Speaking of which, Sinclair and Dembélé both had off days. Celtic dominated the game, with 66 per cent possession and ten shots (only three on target, mind), but their final ball was often lacking while the usually exciting duo of Sinclair and Dembélé struggled to provide inspiration.
Indeed, it took Celtic until the 55th-minute to manage a shot on target when County goalkeeper Aaron McCarey stopped Dembélé’s effort. With the league leaders struggling to break down a structured, stubborn home side who have visibly been astutely-instructed by manager Owen Coyle on the training ground, Rodgers withdrew Forest for Griffiths.
The 27-year-old joined Dembélé in attack and just over ten minutes after coming on, he had clinched the points in spectacular fashion. More than 25 yards out, Griffiths expertly lifted his free-kick over the wall, curling the ball into the top corner in trademark fashion.
After the match, Rodgers hailed the match-winner: “It was a brilliant goal and anything their keeper had to do today, he dealt with it really well. But the free-kick must have been nearly 30 yards and to get it up and over with that speed and into the corner was amazing.
“And it was going to take something like that. You are never going to be at your fluent best all the time but mentally we are very strong. Okay, we can’t play perfect football, it was tough on that pitch today.
Speaking on BT Sport, ex-Celtic forward Chris Sutton described having both Griffiths and Dembélé available for selection as a ‘lovely dilemma’ for Rodgers. He’s right. Having quality players in the same position is precisely the kind of headache-inducing scenario a manager wants.
Not many coaches in Scotland can afford to leave a 17-time Scotland international on the bench. Olivier Ntcham also started on the bench and it’s not a stretch to claim that the 21-year-old Frenchman would walk into any other side in the Scottish top-tier.
But that is not to discredit the other teams in the division. Quite simply, they don’t have the resources that Celtic possess and having such a squad pays off when they’re not effectively executing their usual brand of free-flowing attacking football.
It’s not the first time it’s happened. Rodgers brought Dembélé on for Griffiths at the right during their Scottish League Cup semi-final win over Hibernian in October.
With the game delicately balanced at 2-1 with 24 minutes remaining, Dembélé emerged from the bench to land a killer blow to Neil Lennon’s side’s chances of reaching the final, his brace ultimately proving the difference in the 4-2 win.
Against St Johnstone in August, it was Callum McGregor who came off the bench to grab a late equaliser and keep their unbeaten run going. It’s a measure of both Celtic’s strength in depth and Rodgers’ in-game nous, recognising how one of his players can change the game when it’s stretched and spaces begin to appear.
Although Griffiths’ goal wasn’t from open play, County’s intensity was beginning to wane.
The Scottish International may get his first start since October against Motherwell in their second game of a quick fire trilogy against the same opposition. Dembélé may even miss the all important Champions League match against Anderlecht during the first week of December.
Griffiths may have the chance to shine yet again and prove why Rodgers was right to not let any of his forwards leave during the summer window.