|Never forget that John Collins said this...|
Tonight was a tactical victory for Derek McInnes over Ronny Deila. While the starting XI was the same as for recent matches - with the obvious exception of the outgoing loanee David Goodwillie being replaced by the incoming loanee, Welsh international Simon Church from MK Dons - the starting formation was clearly devised with the visitors in mind. Jonny Hayes, sufficiently recovered from a bemusing dog biting incident (as in 'dog bites man', not 'man bites dog') started in an advanced role behind debutant Church, with Niall McGinn on the left and Adam Rooney on the right.
Defensively, the game plan was clearly to keep Celtic in front of the back four and not expose them to runs in behind from Leigh Griffiths and Gary Mackay-Steven. Interestingly, when Celtic came forward during the first half, Aberdeen's full backs moved infield to disrupt any creativity from Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor, and relied upon McGinn and Rooney to provide the defensive cover down the left and right flanks, respectively. With Craig Storie constantly nipping at the heels of Nir Bitton - who seemed content to stroll through the match without any real sense of urgency - and Kenny McLean shadowing Scott Brown - who displayed plenty of urgency, but seemed more pre-occupied with bundling over anyone who happened to strolled across his path (at one point fouling first McGinn and then Hayes in an impressive burst of less than 60 seconds) - the challengers challenged the champions to break them down.
The champions dominated possession for the first half hour; indeed, it was all Celtic - right up until Aberdeen scored through an unbelievable strike from Hayes. (I am hoping that Narey's Toepoker will be able to source a photo of Hayes ripping his latest left foot rocket to the 'foot like a traction engine' caption...) Suddenly, the momentum had swung the Dons way; a Hayes corner was swung McLean's way, and his unchallenged header in the box was struck home from close range by a left knee from Church.
Celtic never recovered from going behind
2-0 down at half time, Deila made his own tactical adjustment. Armstrong, who ended the first half cutting a frustrated figure, was withdrawn for new signing Colin Kazim-Richards, and Celtic switched from their preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to a more pragmatic 4-4-2. 'The Celtic Way' it was not - from the second half beginning, the tactics effectively resorted to were punting the ball up to Kazim-Richards in the hope he would knock it down to Griffiths, with their wide game essentially abandoned. To his credit, Kazim-Richards proved to be more than a handful for Ash Taylor; to his debit, he also appeared to stamp on the central defender's thigh after winning a free kick. Rumours of his ill-discipline appear to have not been that greatly exaggerated at all. Steven MacLean, bizarrely, only booked the new Bhoy.
As the game wore on, Celtic actually became less threatening. The ineffectual McGregor was replaced by James Forrest, but while his presence re-established some width down the right flank, his delivery was only dangerous to the youngsters sitting in the Merkland Road End. The final roll of the dice was to sacrifice right back Mikael Lustig for Scott Allan; fittingly for a player only on the peripheries of the Celtic squad, he was also barely on the peripheries of the pitch for the remaining 15 minutes of the match. It has previously been remarked that Celtic are at times a one man team, and that one man did eventually conjure a goal from a perfectly placed left footed shot from just outside the box, but coming in the last minute of injury time it served as no more than a consolation.
Coming off the back of that League Cup defeat, a result that must have sapped both fitness and morale, one wonders where the Champions go from here, at least in the immediate future. Celtic's attitude was questionable to say the least. Given that they didn't look up to the task of ousting a dogged but determined Aberdeen side, why would one think they could succeed on a bigger stage in future?
None of this will bother Aberdeen in the meantime; they may still dodge the questions regarding their title challenge, but the lights are definitely back on for now...
Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent. Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army. He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.