Celts survive 1st half scare to reach Scottish Cup Semi-Finals
4 vs 1
Celtic: Lustig (59') Sinclair (60') St Mirren: Davis (12')
Dembele (67') Griffiths (70')
Brendan Rodgers has today described St Mirren as the "best side we have faced domestically this season" and his side certainly needed all their powers of recovery this afternoon, as a stubborn Buddies team led by Jack Ross gave them a 45 minute scare in front of an expectant home crowd. In the end though, the quality of the champions elect was there for all to see in the second period as substitutes Patrick Roberts and Leigh Griffiths inspired the home side to 4 goals in a blistering 20 minutes.
Due to Celtic's form this season, you would have had to have been a very brave man to bet against them not coasting through this afternoon prior to the match. St Mirren, currently bottom of the Scottish Championship, would have been ecstatic to have even come away from Parkhead with a narrow defeat beforehand. In the end however, the game did not prove as straightforward for Rodgers' men. The Saints are currently on a good run and earlier this week even managed to defeat Neil Lennon's Hibernian, currently top of the second tier. So it is perhaps not hugely surprising that gaffer Jack Ross arrived in the East End of Glasgow with a clear, well structured game plan. A plan, which, for 56 minutes, was working terrifically.
Celtic started the game reasonably well. Their quick passing and incisive pressing was not as evident as usual but they were still on top of the visitors and were managing to control possession. St Mirren held firm though in the early exchanges and on 12 minutes found themselves with a free kick in a useful position. As is always the case with smaller sides coming to Celtic Park, set pieces are so often the main source of hope if they are to stand any chance of ending the game undefeated. This was no different for St Mirren, as the resulting free kick had clearly been worked on beforehand in training. The ball was played out wide with a disguised pass to Cammy Smith, who floated in a good ball to the back post towards the forehead of John Sutton, a man who has so often popped up to hurt Celtic in the past. He comfortably towered above Erik Sviatchenko to knock the ball down to Davis who could do nothing else but tap home from around 3 yards. The home crowd were silenced for the first time in what seems like forever domestically this season, but there was no need to panic just yet. After all, on the rare occasion that the Hoops have fell behind this season, they always managed to surge back somehow in the end.
That's not supposed to happen: Davis tucks home
Had Celtic managed to run up the park and immediately reply to the shock opener, no-one in the ground or watching at home would have been surprised. The men chasing an invincible season found it difficult for the remainder of the first half however, with St Mirren's compact, 'every man behind the ball' tactics frustrating even the most in form of players, such as Dembele and Sinclair. The best way to sum up the Saints' effectiveness in the first half is by assessing the performance of Kieran Tierney. The young full back, who is usually a certainty to be found marauding on down the left hand side of the park, was completely nullified in the opening 45' and when he is struggling, you know Celtic are having an off period, such is the reputation of the 19 year old now. There were chances for the home side however, most notably Moussa Dembele's sliced finish from a Scott Brown cut back. Winger Gary Mckay-Steven was at the forefront of most good things in the first half for the Hoops, however at the same time he was most definitely the poorest player for them. Football can be a funny old game at times
The 26 year old had a day he will soon want to forget as everything he tried simply failed to come off time and time again. With Forrest injured and Patrick Roberts only on the bench after his return to fitness, the past few games have provided the former Dundee United man with a platform to impress. It is safe to say however, he has simply failed to take it. There is no doubting he has the ability to cause teams problems, at least domestically, for Celtic, but he is the very definition of a 'confidence player'. At a time where Rodgers is looking to trim his squad and shape it into one in which every player can be relied upon, it is surely likely that Mackay-Steven will find himself part of the summer cull.
Despite dominating possession, the 1st half ended with St Mirren still in the lead and it has to be said, they were good value for it too. It is at times like this, that managers earn their money. Brendan Rodgers doesn't have to prove anything to anyone after his side's form this season, however he once again decided to remind us of why the Celtic faithful continue to gush over him. The vast majority of fans could see that Patrick Roberts had to come on at half time, and, sure enough, he did. The difference down the right hand side of the park was immediately evident as the second 45' kicked off, as the young Englishman toyed with the St Mirren defenders from the word go. The pace in Celtic's play had also changed, with captain Scott Brown setting the tempo after he was well below par in the first half. Despite the marked improvement however, the Champions were to face a further scare just after the 50 minute mark and once again, it came from a St Mirren set piece. Stephen Mallan, who's delivery was top class all afternoon, whipped in a cross from the far side of the park not far from the corner flag. The ball was a tasty one and made it's way towards Moussa Dembele who was zonally marking the front post area. The Frenchman made an attempt at clearing the ball first time, which he woefully mis-timed and sliced into the air, with the ball then going on to clip the cross bar and bounce agonisingly just outside of the goal-line. St Mirren were literally inches from taking an astonishing 2-goal lead, and this chance seemed to seriously kick the Celtic players into gear.
Back to business: Lustig celebrates his goal with Dembele
Before the Celtic comeback could begin, Brendan Rodgers felt the need to make a further change, on top of the introduction of Patrick Roberts. It saw the arrival of Leigh Griffiths, a man who, despite scoring 40 goals last season, has found it hard of late, with his training methods and mentality being questioned within the media in recent months. His rapport with the Celtic support has not been affected however, and his introduction was met with a roar of encouragement. The Hoops had now switched to 2 up top, this change of tactic a clear indication of the respect Rodgers had towards St Mirren. It didn't take long for both substitutes to make a lasting impact, as they were both heavily involved in the equaliser which came just before 60 minutes. Leigh Griffiths won the free kick on the far right hand side of the park, with Patrick Roberts then swinging a terrific ball in which was met by a deft Mikael Lustig flick, which proved too much for the St Mirren keeper to handle. You could sense a collective sigh of relief sweep around the ground. Now Celtic had the smell of blood.
Throughout the game, despite St Mirren's organised approach, you always felt that if Celtic managed to get a goal, the floodgates could potentially open. This proved to be the case somewhat, as the creative forces within the Hoops XI began to find more and more space around the pitch. The second goal swiftly followed a little over a minute later, with a trademark Scott Sinclair finish putting Rodgers' men firmly back in control of the tie. The Englishman had been anonymous for much of the game in all honesty, but popped up once again at a crucial moment, the sign of a top class player. He was heavily involved in the third as well, with his driving run putting the Saints defence into disarray and allowing Roberts to find some space on the right hand side of the box. The pair quickly exchanged passes before Sinclair played a simple ball across the face of the 6 yard box to find that man Dembele at the back post, for an easy tap in. The game was now officially over as a contest and in the space of 10 minutes, Celtic had gone from being on the receiving end of a massive upset, to coasting home as per usual. In the end there was even time for Leigh Griffiths to grab a good goal on his return, with his low shot from outside the box dipping home on 77 minutes. The top goalscorer from last season had a massive influence on the game in the second half and it was clear that he was out to prove a point to his manager ahead of the game against Rangers next weekend.
In the end, the scoreline will show a routine Celtic win. This wasn't the case for a large proportion of the match however, with plucky St Mirren really making the Champions work for their place in the semi-finals. Jack Ross' side can walk away with their heads held high and on this evidence will no doubt beat the drop in the Championship. Brendan Rodgers and his side on the other hand, can now look forward to another semi-final this season. They are now potentially only 5 domestic wins away from a historic treble, an achievement which cannot be underestimated. It remains to be seen who they will face in the semi-final, with the draw taking place at 17:30pm today. Whoever their opponents are though, the Hoops will still remain firm favourites for the competition and with their form throughout the season, no wonder. They needed a bit of time to gain momentum today, but it won't always be straightforward, especially when chasing a collective haul of 3 trophies.
Gone but not forgotten: Celtic players remember the late great Tommy Gemmell prior to the match