Around the time of the Super Bowl, American Football pundits constantly trot out an old cliche - "defence wins championships". For all the offensive quality and razzmatazz on show from the household names, these pundits say, it is the defence (I will refrain from putting an 's' in the word as we are on the east side of the Atlantic) who are the critical factor; if they are rubbish, you simply can't win the big prize.
Sadly for Celtic at Pittodrie on Saturday, Edson Braafheid had a momentary brain fart with 15 minutes left and thought,j ust for a econd, that he was playing American Football. As Tony Mowbray lamented afterwards, the Dutchman's daft handball offence gifted Aberdeen a penalty when, at 4-2 down, they were completely out of the game. Fifteen minutes and another impression of the Keystone Cops later, The Dons had their equalizer and Celtic had dropped two more points. With Rangers having stretched their title advantage back into double figures by seeing off Hibs today, the Championship race is effectively over, unless there is an away win in the Old Firm derby at Ibrox in a fortnight.
The nicest thing you can say about the performance of Celtic's backline (Caddis-Thompson-O'Dea-Braafheid, for the record), is that they were utterly, utterly abysmal. There was less panic to be found on the sinking Titanic than there was when the ball was loose in the visitor's penalty area. Braafheid was clearly brought on loan from Bayern Munich for his abilities to attack from full-back; while he gets to the by-line effectively and appears to be capable of a good cross, his lack of positional sense was cruelly exposed by the space and time afforded to Darren Mackie for Aberdeen's second goal. Mackie, who had not scored at Pittodrie for 21 months, could have had a cup of tea and oggled page 3 of The Sun before bothering to lash the ball into the net. Paul Caddis, meanwhile, looks like what he is - a young man who has been stuck on the bench with almost zero playing time, then parachuted into a crisis situation and expected to be up to speed straight away.
But it was the central pairing that would have given Mark McGhee most cause for glee when he saw the teamsheets. Celtic are missing Glenn Loovens (who has been rank this season) and Jos Hooiveld (nobody actually knows if he is any good, nor how to pronounce his name correctly) who I guess would be the first choice pairing at the minute. But if Rangers were without David Weir and Madjid Bougherra, they could pick from Danny Wilson, Lee McCulloch, Kirk Broadfoot and Sasa Papac as decent stopgap options. Mowbray, having flogged Gary Caldwell and Steven McManus in the transfer window (yes, I know they were useless this season too, but at least we know they are capable of better) is left with Darren O'Dea and Josh Thompson. Thompson is only 18, with almost no previous pro experience, and lacks the assurance of the Gers' teenage defender Wilson. That might be because Wilson's matches have seen him babysat by David Weir, old enough to be his dad. Thompson, in contrast, has been stuck beside O'Dea, who has regressed horribly since two glorious performances against Milan in the Champions League in 2007. The stocky Irishman was so mediocre on loan at Reading this season that the struggling Championship club couldn't wait to get shot of him.
And to cap it all, the Celtic defence is devoid of protection from those in front of them. That's supposed to be Landry N'Guemo's job, I think. Yet whilst the Cameroon midfielder is in the lineup every week, I'm damned if I can ever remember seeing him on the pitch. He couldn't be more anonymous if he had been involved in a radiocative accident that had turned him invisible. So time after time, Thompson and O'Dea find themselves more overexposed than John Terry's wife in that bikini.
Let's face it, Rangers have hardly been great shakes since that ridiculous, and temporary, explosion of form in December. Today's victory over Hibs was much mopre workmanlike than 3-0 suggests. But the fact is that their defence barely broke sweat, that Lee McCulloch did a good job of tracking Hibs' midfielders, and that Steven Whittaker scored, yet again, from right back. Rangers will win the title because they concede so rarely. Mowbray's plan of packing his side with firepower might make them good to watch, but, by the time we get to May and Robbie Keane has legged it in the way Craig Bellamy left Celtic Park after a loan spell, I can't help feeling that Big Tone might wish that he hadn't shipped out McManus, or that he had spent Keane's extortionate wages on something vaguely resembling a decent centre-back.