Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Inverness impress...but still lose
A quick glance at the result of the Celtic game on Saturday and you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a walk in the park.  Celtic Park hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for ICT in recent years with John Hughes’s side on the wrong end of a 21–2 score line over the previous five fixtures.  This is now 24–2 over six matches but Inverness can count themselves extremely unfortunate not to have taken anything from the game.

Golden opportunities were passed up by Gary Warren and Jordan Roberts which, had they been taken, might have seen Inverness assume a commanding position in the game.  Unfortunately, the Highlanders only have themselves to blame as Celtic, booed off at half time by the sparse home support, showed a much more ruthless side to their game in the second half and handed out a lesson in finishing clinically.  A deflected effort from Gary Mackay-Steven got the ball rolling before a double from Leigh Griffiths (who else?) made the score line look more comfortable than it really was.

After the success of fielding a team without a ‘dedicated’ striker against Aberdeen, Hughes again went with this set up with Miles Storey and Roberts on the left and right flanks respectively with Ross Draper pushed up through the middle. Inverness actually dominated midfield, and so Celtic struggled to impose themselves; moreover, their defensive high line meant that when ICT did win the ball they could quickly feed it forward.  Whilst this didn’t always directly lead to chances, it did put Celtic on the back foot and they would often concede fouls from quick breaks. It was an interesting tweak of the system from Hughes and one that, for the first 45 minutes, looked like it could result in a win.

However, the first Celtic goal gave the home side confidence whilst Caley Thistle stumbled; the second goal killed off any hopes of even a point.  Inverness missed an opportunity here, because they missed their opportunities.  Their profligacy could well be the difference between being in the top half and the bottom.half come the split. AS

Paton goal not the only highlight at Tannadice
The highlights of Dundee United v Hearts were cracking, partly because of Neil Alexander's stunning save from Edward Ofere, partly because of Paul Paton's 'foot like a traction engine' winner, and partly because of all the stuff going on in the background.  For example...

A fantastic hissy fit from Gavin Gunning when Hearts scored - possibly aimed at his keeper.  Walker hit it with venom from fairly close in, so I'm not sure Eiji Kawashima could do much.  Perhaps the goalie might have more chance if Gunning and his fellow defenders hadn't made such an arse of defending a long ball over the top...

Kevin Clancy giving Jordan McGhee a very soft first yellow...and then building up the suspense beautifully with a pregnant pause before deciding to show him a second one later - even though the second yellow was as blatant as the day is long...

And, best of all, Henri Anier managing to get two yellows despite only being on the pitch seventeen minutes.  The first one, remarkably, was for persistent fouling, even though it was only eight minutes since he'd come on.  The second was for a stupid kick at an opponent after the ball had gone out of play for a nothing throw-in in Hearts half.  Best of all, it was in front of the away fans, who rose to wave their hands and shout some Gorgie equivalent of "J'accuse!".  What an idiot Anier is; he has no right to get another chance at United after stealing a wage for a year, and then he blows said chance like that.  But hey, it was fun...LS

Wotherspoon helps Saints stop the rot
With Aberdeen's Friday Night Fitba' match postponed due to a waterlogged pitch at Firhill (many a bemused Dons and Jags who tuned into BT Sport that night will have been treated instead to a thrilling scoreless draw between Bordeaux and Nice) Narey's Toepoker sent me instead to an alternative SPFL fixture in the manner of a BBC Executive ordering a disgruntled Sportsound pundit up the M8.

Motherwell opened the scoring in the first half through the prolific Louis Moult.  The Well top scorer, bemusingly left out of the starting line up for a couple of matches by Mark McGhee before their impressive 3-0 win at Tannadice in midweek, created a corner kick opportunity after being shepherded down the right flank by a couple of Saints defenders.  From the resultant set piece, James McFadden swung in a left footed cross and Moult shed his marker to head his side in front.  

The lead only lasted ten minutes.  At the other end of the pitch, Liam Craig laid the ball off for David Wotherspoon - despite already being inside the left corner of the penalty area, the Steelmen opted to leave him in yards of space, and Wotherspoon duly decided to curl a shot into the top corner.  For all of the (merited) hype that surrounded Michael O'Halloran during the first half of the season, this perhaps unfairly resulted in Wotherspoon's own contribution being overlooked.  A creative player who has also now scored his seventh goal of the season from midfield, I am surprised that the 26 year old has not generated some more media attention of his own, or even a token Scotland squad call up.  Gordon Strachan could do worse than pitch the fella in for a cap in one of their upcoming friendlies, if for no other reason than to stop him getting snapped up by the Azerbaijan national team.  (He apparently qualifies through this mum, who was born there.  If Milli manager Robert Prosinecki turns up to Pittodrie this weekend on a 'reckie', we have been duly warned...)

Despite St Johnstone exerting more and more pressure on Motherwell as the second half wore on, it looked as if the match was going to end a score draw.  However, Well fans will be more than familiar now with how this story has usually ended for the Steelmen in recent times.  Following a clumsy foul on John Sutton by teenage defender Ben Hall, Simon Lappin lobbed the free kick onto the six yard box and Tam Scobbie looped his header in for an injury time winner.

Remarkably, this was the third time this month that Motherwell have managed to lose a game as a result of an injury time winner by their opponents.  It is perhaps interesting to note, in this context, that Well this season are a striking contrast of young boys and old men.  Of the 14 players that played for them in this game, winger Marvin Johnson was the only player older than 25 without being in his thirties - an age demographic that most would consider to be a footballer's prime.  Perhaps this tendency towards conceding late goals has as much to do with having a group of players who have either not yet developed the match fitness and stamina to still perform near their peak beyond the 90 minutes, or are by that time desperately in need for a nice warm bath and a post-match mug of Horlicks.  Make no mistake, Motherwell are mired in the relegation battle yet again, and McGhee will need to work out how to best alloy these elements together - at the moment, they are less galvanised steel, more pig iron.

For St Johnstone, the win was a timely one, not only because it arrested a run of nine games without a win but also given that they next have a couple of challenging away trips to Partick and Aberdeen coming up within the next seven days.  Before O'Halloran's departure in the January transfer window, the Perth Saints looked to be well set for a fifth consecutive top six finish.  Although they returned to the top six again after this result, they'll now need to kick on to ensure that they stay there. MI

Accies' lousy road trip
What a thoroughly miserable weekend for Hamilton Accies.  184 miles up the A9, albeit to the beautiful Highlands.  90 minutes of toil on a ploughed field.  45 minutes against 10 men.  Zero points.  184 miles down the A9, albeit to beautiful South Lanar… never mind.

It’s the 10 men bit that would really sting. As every football fan knows, it’s the hope that kills you,
and after equalising with 25 minutes still left to play, Hamilton must have fancied their chances of taking a valuable three points home with them in the raise to separate the wheat from the chaff in the lower half of the Premiership. (Spoiler alert: there is no wheat).

While there are enough bad teams around that Saturday’s defeat isn’t exactly catastrophic, it is a missed opportunity.  The table is so congested that it only takes a wee run to buy yourself a bit of breathing room, as Dundee and Inverness have demonstrated recently.  Hamilton are not in a position where they can so carelessly throw away points that look to be there for the taking if they want to avoid a likely playoff against a good Hibs team.

County boss Jim McIntyre was pleased that his team had not let their cup adventures take their focus away from the league,and rightly so.  It’s not easy to do well in three competitions through the winter period, with a relatively small squad.  As Celtic have shown, even having 15 attacking midfielders in your squad doesn’t guarantee you’ll win everything.

I fancy Ross County in the League Cup Final next month, and I particularly admire the lengths they’ve gone to in their preparation.  Kudos to the Victoria Park groundsman for preparing a pitch to the exact same standard as Hampden. It’s the little things that bring success. IM

Keepers impress at Killie
A one-off "impress the new manager" performance?  Or a sign that Killie are better than their league position?  The home side certainly merited their draw against Dundee, in a game that either side could have won.  Unfortunately for Lee Clark's side, hard-fought draws are not going to get them out of trouble.  Only wins will do that, but Clark must feel there is a reasonable chance he can outsmart Martin Canning and Mark McGhee sufficiently that he can preserve the club's top flight status for a twenty-fourth consecutive season.

The main folk responsible for this match remaining goalless were the two keepers, who seemed determined to try and outdo each other with spectacular saves; I'd give the prize to Scott Bain for his point-blank stop from teammate Kevin Holt.  Bain and Jamie MacDonald (who has, to be fair, had a lot of practice this season) have been outstanding this year.  Both are rather unfortunate to be around at a time when the national team are rather well off between the sticks, though surely they are the next in line after David Marshall, Allan McGregor and Craig Gordon.

Perhaps MacDonald's hopes of greater things are gone, though 29 is a relatively young age for a keeper and experience appears to be improving his presence in his own box.  He remains a quality shot-stopper in this league, regardless.  But Bain?  He is just 24; one wonders if Aberdeen ever pine after a player that they let go in 2011, now that they are not exactly blessed in that position.  Bain is under contract at Dundee for another two years, but has the qualities required to play at a higher level than this.  24 was the same age that Gordon left Hearts; it wouldn't be a surprise if the Dens keeper has impressive suitors interested in paying Paul Hartley an impressive fee to let him go...LS

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.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically a Rangers fan, but these days he tends to support them ironically.  He agreed to help with this blog because now he can tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

Andrew Sutherland (AS) occasionally writes for When Saturday Comes.  He would never miss an ICT match unless he was offered a date with the lead singer of CHVRCHES...who he would then take to said ICT match.

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