Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic lay down a marker with win over Aberdeen
Brendan Rodgers has made more progress in two months at Celtic Park than Ronny Deila managed in two years.  In Europe, qualification to the UEFA Champions League has been achieved and Celtic will now have glamour ties against Barcelona, Man City and Borussia Mönchengladbach - plus additional revenue of around £20 million - to look forward to.  Domestically, Celtic have now played the teams that finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in the Premiership last season and defeated them all to comfortably reach the quarter finals of the League Cup and lead the league - with a game in hand - going into the international break.

The writing was pretty much on Aberdeen's wall from the moment Leigh Griffiths nutmegged Kenny McLean and struck a shot from the edge of the box and off the inside of the near post for the opening goal.  Sure, the Dons levelled the scores against the run of play through Adam Rooney, but parity only lasted a matter of minutes as Andy Considine rashly charged out of position to close down Tom Rogic, allowing the Aussie to play in James Forrest to fire in a sumptuous finish with the outside of his right boot.

As the second half wore on, Aberdeen rarely threatened to peg Celtic back a second time.  Late in the game, a clumsy challenge in the box by Mark Reynolds on Scott Sinclair (possibly an unnecessary one, too, with Shay Logan tracking back to cover) led to a red card for the former and a penalty that was scored by the latter.  Rogic's late free-kick put further gloss on the result.

The final scoreline may have been a touch harsh on Aberdeen.  For all of their dominance, Celtic actually struggled to make many clearcut chances; however, they were ruthlessly efficient with the opportunities they did create.  Asked after the match if any of the other teams in Scotland could live with Celtic's attack, Griffiths didn't think so.  On the evidence of what I saw from Messrs Forrest, Griffiths, Rogic & Sinclair on Saturday, I don't think so either. MI

Boyd inspires Kilmarnock
When Kris Boyd trudged off the pitch in injury time to be replaced by Souleymane Coulibaly, Kilmarnock manager Lee Clark led the standing ovation.  Boyd had rolled back the years with a crisp left-footed finish across the keeper to give Killie the lead...though the scene of him outrunning Clint Hill to reach the through ball reminded this writer of a Dad's Race at a primary school sports day.

But that was just one of the veteran's contributions.  Playing as a lone striker, Boyd's hold-up play as outstanding.  And so was his work-rate.  When his side went down to ten men, he took over a role as the first line of defence with gusto, chasing down opponents and even winning the ball in a slide tackle with a few minutes left.

Maybe Boyd was particularly up for this game because he was playing a former club.  But whilst Steven Smith is the skipper, this was a captain's performance that could have only inspired the quartet of teenage midfielders he was playing in front of.

One couldn't help thinking back to Boyd's peak; in those days, neither Rangers nor Scotland felt they could trust him as a lone frontman, given that he rarely offered anything outside the penalty box.  Imagine how successful he might have been had he put shifts in like this every week when he was in his twenties.  Still, at thirty-three, he seems to have realized that he needed to add to his game in order to remain relevant - a bit too late for my liking, but it made for a highly enjoyable watch on Friday night. LS

Foran's subs rescue Inverness
Losing a fourth straight league game would have been reason for Caley Thistle to panic, particularly when their next two matches are against Aberdeen and Celtic.  But there would have been huge disappointment had they not ground out a win against St. Johnstone, given the number of chances they passed up in a dominant first half.

Tommy Wright's perplexing decision to start David Wotherspoon in central midfield, rather than Murray Davidson, turned this into a far more open encounter than one expected.  With next-to-no pressing in the middle of the park, Greg Tansey and particularly Iain Vigurs dictated operations in the opening 45 minutes.  Had it not been for some profligate finishing and some great goalkeeping from Alan Mannus, Inverness could have been out of sight by the break.

Whilst Davidson's half-time introduction made the game far more even, the home side still got the goal they deserved.  But Wright's further attacking substitutions, coupled with an almost instant panic from ICT after they took the lead, saw the game quickly turn into a siege around the home goal.  Richard Foster's equalizer had, in truth, been coming.

However, Richie Foran showed that he's no(t entirely a) mug with clever switches of his own.  Bringing on three new attackers and telling them to stay high up the pitch effectively forced his players to abandon their defensive mindset, and gave them back the momentum.  No-one could argue that in the end Josh Meekings' scrambled winner (Arthur Montford would have enjoyed that) was thoroughly deserved. LS

Hearts hit their stride
What better way for the good people of Edinburgh to get away from all the business of festival season in the capital, than a nice afternoon out in Glasgow’s leafy west end to watch a cracker of a football game.  I appreciate a tactical, defensive game as much as the next football hipster, but there’s something nice about watching two teams play two up front and go at each other.  And not only did we get a couple of set piece goals, but they were classics of the genre, with extra points for Liam Lindsay for putting his header in off the bar.

Hearts appear to have hit their stride. They look good going forward, strong at the back, and have strength in depth that everyone other than Celtic will be envious of.  Whether they can separate themselves from Rangers and Aberdeen, and hang onto the Champions' coattails may depend on whether they can keep hold of Callum Paterson for the season, the one player who would be difficult for them to replace.

A special shout out to Tony Watt too. His last minute winner was very well taken, and given that a quick Google of his name hasn’t brought up anything of significance, it was probably the highlight of his career so far. IM

Without Irvine, Ross County are overrun in midfield
Two midfielders playing as full-backs and no Ali Crawford (missing with concussion); Hamilton Accies should have been there for the taking.  Yet Martin Canning's side ground out a first win of the season which they thoroughly deserved.  Jim McIntyre made some comments about the pitch but the truth is that he made a mess of setting up his side.  As in defeat to Dundee on opening day, his side were outnumbered and outfought in midfield, denied any time on the ball by energetic Accies whilst Massimo Donati sat in front of his defence controlling the game.

With no space for their strikers to drop deep into and a lack of quality wide play, County were blunt offensively.  Credit for that should go to Canning. whose gameplan was spot on.  But that's twice that County have been beaten and outplayed by a team playing 4-2-3-1; whilst against Dundee they were in a shambolic 3-5-2, this time they were in a standard 4-4-2 and still struggled.  Without an energetic, physical midfield player (Jackson Irvine scored for Burton Albion on Friday night, by the way), they can't compensate for being a man short in that area.  Either McIntyre needs to find a replacement for him - Prince Buaben would be a decent addition, if the rumours are true - or change system. LS

Motherwell and Dundee are both short of firepower
What to take away from a fairly turgid goalless draw at Fir Park?  Probably that both Motherwell and Dundee looked solid at the back.  Kevin Gomis made an assured debut for the Dark Blues and should be an upgrade on Julien Etxabeguren.  At the other end, 22 year old Ben Heneghan impressed again and looks like a fine signing by Mark McGhee who may yet go on to bigger and brighter things.

On the flip side, both sides could really improve in an attacking sense.  Motherwell will be sorted after the international break when Louis Moult returns from injury.  Dundee on the other hand, cannot be so confident.  Faissal El Bakhtaoui offered only a sporadic threat up front, and whilst it could be claimed that he is still finding his feet at this level the bottom line is that there is still a massive Kane Hemmings-shaped hole up front that hasn't been filled - and a Greg Stewart-shaped one on the flank that hasn't been filled either.  Adequately replacing even one of them has so far been beyond Paul Hartley...and he's running out of time to do so. LS

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could 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.

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