The reason for employing such tactics is simple: it’s a way of overcoming a superior footballing side. Celtic are, by some distance, the best team in Scotland with the ball on the deck and have shown themselves to be so over the course of a season which saw them hit their stride in the autumn and win the championship at a canter.
Only a week ago the players and management team were being lauded in all quarters for their achievements. And yet questions will now be asked about how good they really are, why they seem (as some will put it) to “bottle it” at the national stadium.
I don’t personally subscribe that the theory – one only has to look to the victory in the Scottish Cup final last year for evidence to the contrary. Still, it does seem that nominally weaker sides are able to get the better of a well-oiled Celtic machine at Hampden.
Why does it happen? Well, all sides can have off days, and I’m certain Neil Lennon will say some of his men are tired after a hard season. He may also – rightly – point to notable absentees from the starting line-up against Hearts, namely Forrest, Kayal, Matthews, Rogne, Big Dan, Izaguirre and others. Neither should we lose sight of the fact that this is a young side which still developing and still very much on an upward curve.
Nevertheless it is up to the manager et al to make sure the team are fully prepared for spoiling tactics from the opposition and indeed fired up for the occasion. The truth is that for both Killie and Hearts, this was the culmination of their efforts this year.
Lennon, more than anyone else, will know that there is work to be done by way of preparing for these games; that is the key to overcoming the tactical ploys of his peers. Once on the pitch it’s crucial to make the most of our superior technical ability in breaking down stuffy defences.
Just as in Lisbon all those years ago these games require a high tempo, domination of midfield and a desire to mix the up the play: long and short, wide and narrow. Doing so allows space to develop – a point proved by the minutes leading up to Gary Hooper’s late equaliser against Hearts.
Neil Lennon will rightly look back on this season with pride in what has been achieved, but he will also rue what happened in the two cups and conclude that there is room for improvement.
He may also have cause to regret his actions in confronting the ref at full-time, the fact that he did so “again feeling like we’ve been done” is irrelevant. Such public intemperance will only add grist to the mill for his detractors and likely land him with another touchline ban. He is on record (via Twitter) as saying he feels the decision was “personal”. If by that he means the ref gave the spot-kick because of ill-feeling towards either himself or his club, then Celtic absolutely must pursue the matter with the SFA.
The manager would also be wise to take the cup defeat as an opportunity to make a clear case to the board – if he has not already done so – that further funds are needed this summer to bolster the squad.
The truth seems to be that we are well ahead of the rest in the SPL, but when it comes to one off matches at the business end of cup competitions, a bit more quality and experience would not go amiss. So ignore those who reach for the ready-baked ‘bottlers’ headlines. They are overly simplistic and fail to reflect the truth about this Celtic side – the champions of Scotland – and what they have to offer over the coming years; rest assured, a little fine tuning is all that’s required.