Gretna 0 Celtic 3: Strachan halts decline but still needs miracles

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The Independent Online

Crucified last week, resurrected yesterday. If only things were as simple for Gordon Strachan. Despite this win over a club in crisis, the Celtic manager still requires minor miracles to retain the SPL title and be acclaimed a messiah by fans still smarting from last Tuesday's Scottish Cup exit to Aberdeen.

That was the latest in a string of disappointments. Celtic had previously been held 0-0 at home by Dundee United in the league to drop further ground on Rangers. And before that was the departure from Europe against Barcelona.

Yesterday, the least expected from Strachan's men against a club already certain to be relegated was a comprehensive win. Goals from Scott McDonald, Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink and Georgios Samaras guaranteed the points, but it was far from convincing fare.

Had Nicky Deverdics not missed a sitter that would have been an equaliser for 1-1, the outcome might have been different. It says something about Celtic's current stutters that their fortunes can be so influenced by the poise – or lack of it – of a stand-in Gretna striker.

Strachan said that "the display was not great," but that "the result was very good". He said it was good to see three strikers score, after a run of four games in which Celtic scored a total of one goal. He also made a point of emphasising that last week's performance against Aberdeen had been better. He is obsessed with criticism. The shape of the SPL race will now be defined by the three remaining Old Firm derbies, the first of which is on Saturday. They are the most eagerly anticipated Rangers-Celtic games in years.

If Celtic lose at Ibrox, the chances of Rangers winning the league, already odds-on, will become virtually unbackable. A Celtic win would blow the race wide open again, although Strachan has yet to chalk up a point (or even a goal) against Rangers in three games since Walter Smith returned as their manager.

Yesterday's match was a rather lower-rent occasion. Gretna were at "home", but because their borrowed ground, Motherwell's Fir Park, is a quagmire, the game was played at Livingston's Almondvale Stadium. Only 3,561 people turned up, a meagre tally not helped by no tickets being available on the day.

Celtic had been offered up to 7,000 seats. Their fans bought 2,200. Uninspiring football of late was probably one reason. Whatever, it was the lowest crowd to have watched Celtic in any SPL game in the league's history. Those in attendance missed little until late in the first half, and even then McDonald's opening goal was straight from the Route One manual. Artur Boruc kicked from his area, Hesselink flicked on, McDonald netted.

Prior to that Gretna had been more adventurous and coherent, with Brendan McGill and their captain, Paul Murray, shining without end product. Murray cleared a Scott Brown header from the line, while McGill had one shot blocked in the area, and saw another low effort go just wide early in the second half.

He was also the provider of the chance for Deverdics' blunder, the latter swiping at the ball a few yards in front of an open goal, and missing. The only other incidents of note were Celtic's other goals, both late on and from crosses by Aiden McGeady. "Nicky fluffed his lines, bless him," said Mick Wadsworth, the Gretna manager. "It was a good chance, and a big chance. At 1-1, who knows?"

Gretna have problems more serious than this latest defeat. The future of the club remains uncertain. A cash advance from the SPL will almost certainly allow them to complete the season.

But escape from administration is another matter, as is whether they will even be allowed to be rejoin the Scottish Football League after relegation. The SFL is concerned about the substandard state of Gretna's home, Raydale Park. And whether Gretna will be in a workable state for any Scottish football next season. Some Celtic fans have similar concerns about Strachan.

Goals: McDonald (42) 0-1; Hesselink (70) 0-2; Samaras (88) 0-3.

Gretna (4-4-2): Fleming; Naughton, Hall, Meynell, Skelton; McGill (Griffiths, 82), Murray, Osman, Baldacchino; Deverdics (Barr, 66), Wilkinson (Makinwa, 73). Substitutes not used: Krysiak (gk), Hogg, Schultz-Eklund, Taylor.

Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, Naylor; Nakamura, Brown (Hartley, 73), Robson (Sno, 81), McGeady; McDonald (Samaras, 63), Vennegoor of Hesselink. Substitutes not used: Mark Brown (gk), Riordan, O'Dea, Killen.

Referee: C Thomson .

Booked: Gretna Osman, Skelton. Celtic Brown.

Man of the match: McGill.

Attendance: 3,561.

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