Monday, December 19, 2016

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic's reserves struggle to step up
Celtic continued their waltz towards title number six in a row with a routine yet nervy win over Dundee at Celtic Park on Saturday.  Leigh Griffiths and Nir Bitton scored the goals that made the difference and it was the third game in a row with a goal from last season's top scorer.

Brendan Rodgers rang the changes and it made for a lack of width for Celtic as Gary Mackay-Steven and Ryan Christie both seemed to want to cut inside, leaving what seemed like four central attacking midfielders.  The absence of first-choice full-backs Kieran Tierney (injured) and Mikael Lustig (benched) was also noticeable.  Christian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre both had tough shifts down their respective flanks and couldn't offer the same attacking prowess.  So Celtic toiled as they tried to break down Dundee.

The suspended Scott Brown was also missed; Nir Bitton lacks his bite, but the Israeli's goal, a finish as good as you are likely to see from outside the area, somewhat made up for it.

The best domestic start for any Celtic manager ever continues to roll on although the last three games have been a bit of a slog.  Big matches against Hamilton, Partick Thistle and Ross County and the small matter of a visit to Ibrox are still to come before 2017.  Twelve points out of twelve and the league is over. PF

Aberdeen stutter at the wrong time
Last Tuesday night, Aberdeen lost the opportunity of closing the gap to second placed Rangers when floodlight failure hit Pittodrie Stadium.  This weekend, the Dons once again failed to add to their own league points tally in a match that we may end up reflecting on as the game that lights finally went out on their tenure as the second best side in Scottish Football.

With minutes remaining in the match, Aberdeen had worked hard to overcome an early deficit.  While other strikers in this league earn plaudits for their goalscoring feats, Liam Boyce continues to quietly go about his business for Ross County; his deft poach from Michael Gardyne's cross saw him also slide into first place in the top scorers list, the first man to double figures in the Premiership so far.  However, the Dons managed to rein back the Staggies after a Shay Logan cross flashed across the box for Niall McGinn to convert at the back post.

With ten minutes remaining, a key moment in the match; a desperate lunge by Kenny van der Weg brought down Jonny Hayes and refer Craig Thomson immediately brandished a red card.  With Ross County down to ten men, it appeared as if Aberdeen had been given an opportunity to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat.  Instead, a late cross into the box was nodded down by Andrew Davies and Ryan Dow reacted first with a looping header for the winner.

So, a valuable win for Ross County, which sees them return to the top six of the season following a variable run of form over the last couple of months.  As for Aberdeen, they now fall seven points behind Rangers and, with a transfer window round the corner that may see the latter strengthen further, the former will struggle to find a way to close that gap in future. MI

Should Partick Thistle write off the Celtic game?
If anything, Partick Thistle will feel they dropped two points at Tynecastle, given their second half dominance after Sean Welsh's equalizer.  However, the draw keeps them bottom of the table as we head into the busy festive period.

And Thistle's is busier than most, because on Tuesday they play at Celtic Park - the fixture which, for the second year running, was scandalously rearranged so the Champions could send their reserves to play in a friendly.  That will be the second of five games in just fifteen days before the winter break.  They then have a trip to Dingwall on Friday night followed by home games against Dundee and Kilmarnock.

Those three games are of utmost importance to Thistle's hopes of avoiding the drop.  In contrast, their infamous record against Celtic is well known; no wins in their last thirty meetings since January 1994, and nineteen consecutive defeats.  With the hopes of getting anything from this one slim-to-zero, should Alan Archibald rest his first team to keep them fresh for the critical clashes to come?  It must be tempting, though a shellacking could wreck club morale regardless of who starts. LS

Little for ICT to be happy about despite a draw
An away point is always a decent result in this league (unless you're one of the Gruesome Twosome), but it was about the only positive Caley Thistle could take away from Rugby Park.  They'd be bottom of the league but for Gary Warren's late equalizer, and could be there on Christmas Day unless they take something from Ibrox next week.

There was again precious little to reassure Inverness supporters that the rest of the season won't be a fight against the drop.  Injury problems seemed to have eased, but such was the strangeness of Richie Foran's lineup that this author queried whether the seven on the bench might have beaten the eleven in the starting lineup in a match.

Foran clearly wanted to stop the bleeding, but the worst defence in the league still managed to concede despite five defenders starting the game.  And as a consequence the team's attacking threat was further blunted, especially with no natural wide players in the team.  Add in a knee injury to the team's only likely goalscorer, Lonsana Doumbouya, and the future does not look bright.

This author has been on the brink of writing a 'Foran Out' blog for a few weeks now.  Given that ICT have now gone seven games without a win, it may come relatively soon.  However, there are some bookies offering 10-1 on them going down, which I'd say are pretty generous odds.  LS

St. Johnstone struggle at home again
It has been a weird old season for St. Johnstone so far - one where they are unbeaten in five games against Aberdeen, Hearts and Rangers and could have won all five, yet where four of their five league defeats have come to Inverness, Kilmarnock, Partick and Ross County.  Consistently inconsistent and all that.

Most curious is the complete desertion of their home form.  The Perth Saints have a deserved reputation for being difficult to beat, and no more so at McDiarmid Park.  Until now.  They've won three out of nine league games in Perth, and the latter three of the aforementioned losses have come on their home turf.  At least they managed to salvage a point against Motherwell, but it was another poor result from their perspective.

Next up are Rangers at home.  Perhaps, given the nature of the opponent and the size of the travelling support, Tommy Wright can, and should, convince his players to treat it like an away game? LS

Waghorn's return to form a welcome boost for Rangers
After two morale boosting wins at Ibrox against Aberdeen and Hearts, Rangers knew that a lot of that good work would have been undone had they slipped up at New Douglas Park on Friday night. Given some of the performances they've put in away from home, that was always a distinct possibility.

 The surprise in the starting lineup was Martyn Waghorn’s return to the team, and boy has he been missed. Not that a team who spends £1.8m on a striker should miss a Geordie with hamstrings made of paper, but having a natural goalscorer makes all the difference in these types of games. Rangers took their chances and looked home and hosed until Andy Halliday had a brain fart at right back.

 This could turn out to be a pivotal weekend in the race for second with the other contenders dropping points. Aberdeen look horribly inconsistent just now and Hearts’ new manager is bound to take some time to find his feet. If Waghorn can show the kind of form that he showed in the Championship then what is already a nice 7 point cushion could quickly become unassailable.

The most disappointing part of the game was the quiet performance of Ali Crawford. He’s been great to watch this season and will surely go on to bigger and better things. A game on live TV under the lights would have been the perfect opportunity to show off his talents, but credit to Rangers for keeping him under wraps. IM

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

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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