Falkirk 0 Celtic 1: Drill of the chase leaves Strachan feeling the heat

Click to follow
The Independent Football

So now we know the weight of seven SPL points: around 12 stone, or a bit heavier than Celtic's 5ft 6in manager, Gordon Strachan. It is certainly more than he can bear with ease.

Seven points was the margin by which Celtic trailed Rangers yesterday morning. Seven heavy, heavy points. Rangers, who beat St Mirren 4-0 on Saturday, had not held such a lump of superiority over their Old Firm rivals for eight years. (That's e-i-g-h-t y-e-a-r-s or f-o-r-e-v-e-r).

And although Strachan did not actually buckle under the strain of cutting the seven points to four with this unjust victory, the pressure is on.

Even the winning goal, netted by Scott McDonald from Shunsuke Nakamura's cross, was shown by replays to be offside. There was only one other shot on target from the visitors all afternoon: another Naka-Macca combo, over the bar. Celtic looked as comfortable as Ashley Cole in a newsagents. And rather less busy.

"Bumpy, muddy, windy," were three of the reasons that Strachan provided in attempted mitigation, although he had to concede his team gave Falkirk's goalkeeper little to do. "You're right," he said, adding more with hope than conviction, "it's just a blip, isn't it?"

He hopes, but cannot know. From the main stand here at the Falkirk Stadium, the eastern horizon is a face-full of oil refinery. All manner of sludgy, crude muck pours into Grangemouth and emerges slick and useful. At times recently, it seems that having your name on a Celtic team-sheet induces a reverse refining process. They start as slick, useful players.

Their highlights yesterday have already been discussed at appropriate length. Falkirk were better all around, overcoming the same bumps, mud and wind that affected Celtic to string passes together, and create chances. The former Celt, Kevin McBride, went close twice in the first half. Scott Arfield was a terrier in the second.

John Hughes's side were badly hindered by the first-half loss of Dean Holden with a suspected double leg break. Holden had kept Nakamura shackled until Stephen McManus wiped him out in a tangle for the ball. Yet Celtic, again, worryingly for their fans, were shadows of the team they can be. Less Jekyll & Hyde, more just hide. Or rather never show up in the first place.

It is a peculiar trait, and not new for Strachan's Celtic. Last season they had the title almost in the bag by Christmas but slogged to cross the line. Was that pressure? Or apathy? And what is the problem as chasers this time? Quite possibly another kind of apathy, and not one that affects them on Champions' League nights.

After listening to McDonald here yesterday, it is easy to believe that Celtic are SPL complacent. To paraphrase what the little Aussie said: we know we're playing dull football, but we also know the whole shooting match is going to come down to the three remaining Old Firm derbies, so chill out folks.

There is certainly truth in the fact that those derbies might have a big bearing on the title, whenever they can all be shoe-horned into the fixture list.

But it is also true that Strachan has played three derbies and lost three since Walter Smith returned to Rangers a year ago.

And every half-hearted match in pursuit of Rangers' lead is another notch of pressure on Strachan. Next up, Celtic face Motherwell on Wednesday. Win and they will be just a point behind Rangers having played one more game. Anything less, and the title slips further away.

Rangers have not set the skies ablaze with consistently dazzling football. But unlike Celtic – who needed an own goal to win last week, and recently lost to Inverness – Rangers have won 10 of their last 11 SPL games, and drew the other one. Saturday's win came courtesy of goals from Chris Burke, Kris Boyd and Steven Whittaker (twice). For all that they've made hard work of some victories – Gretna recently is exhibit A – they are winning, and scoring.

They are handling the pressure of being ahead better than Celtic are of being behind. But this jammy break for Celtic means Strachan isn't toppling, yet.

Goal: McDonald (45) 0-1.

Falkirk (4-4-2): Olejnik; Ross, Barr, Riera, Scobbie; Cregg, Arfield, McBride (Latapy, 81), Holden (Milne, 37); Moutinho, Barrett (Finnigan, 86). Substitutes not used: Barclay (gk), Aafjes, Bradley, Stewart.

Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hartley (Caddis, 75), Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; Nakamura (Sno, 68), S Brown, Donati, McGeady; Vennegoor of Hesselink, McDonald (Killen, 90). Substitutes not used: M Brown (gk), Zurawski, Riordan, Pressley.

Referee: J Underhill.

Booked: Falkirk Ross, Milne; Celtic McDonald, Donati.

Man of the match: Arfield.

Attendance: 6,803.

Comments