For a moment this afternoon, our dreams were hanging by a thread. A goal down, playing abysmally, looking as out of sorts as I’ve seen us, a ball flashed towards our goal. It hit the underside of the crossbar. It bounced wildly in the air. For a moment, just one, it looked as if it could end up anywhere. It dropped perfectly to a St Mirren player, standing, unmarked, alone, a split second in which months of work hovered on the razors edge.
The ball bounced high off the top of his head instead of being glanced into the net.
The moment passed.
The stark terror of it, the heart-stopping fright, subsided. Ten minutes later we were in front. On such breaks of the ball, football dynasties can rise and fall. In the aftermath of it, that feels like a moment that might prove to be greater than one on which a single game was precariously balanced. If the treble is secured this year, people will talk about it for years. If the treble is the start of what we think it is, and believe it to be, that moment will loom, enormous.
Would we necessarily have lost the game had that gone into the net? We’ll never know. This team has enough about them that I would not have been terribly surprised had it provided the impetus for us to score seven without further reply. Brendan’s change to bring on Griffiths pulled their defence all over the place, and we took full advantage of that; would they have buckled with a two goal lead or would they have hung on for grim death? Who can say?
Fate has other plans for this team. Whatever comes next, today was not to derail the momentum of this side. It rolls on, like a well-oiled machine, even if it took a while for it to rev up through the gears today. With all respect to the guy, and I like to give him his due because he earned it, Ronny Deila’s team might have folded at a goal down, and at two nil we’d have been dead and buried although more than half an hour remained, at home, against a lower league team.
There was a mentality issue then. The personnel is barely different; whatever was wrong there was not a matter of us not possessing the skills. There was something wrong in the heads of the players, some kind of weakness of spirt. There is no such problem now.
So what exactly happened to the team today?
Two things, I think.
First were two sub-par performances which, in the first half, acted as a drag on the other players. I like both players, by the way, but I’ve long said I would not mourn if either or both were allowed to leave. I thought Nir Bitton would have gone in the last window; the Brown-Bitton combination does slow our play down. I used to think it was Scott who was responsible; it’s not. It’s the big Israeli, who is a fine footballer but too languid for my taste.
When you need someone to move the ball forward at pace he’s not the man.
Rogic fits much better alongside Brown and Armstrong.
Bitton has a role to play, if Brendan wants to keep him, but it’s not on days like today.
He might be well suited to those big European nights when a slower build-up stops you from losing the ball against top class teams.
The irony is that our domestic game requires more drive.
Gary Mackay Steven should shine in that environment, but this kid is the epitome of a confidence player and he has none at the moment. I love that he wanted to stay and fight for his place in this team, but I think his time here has made him less than he was; this kid has to be playing every week, and on the evidence of the first half today you couldn’t justify that.
When those two came off – and Brendan changed the formation to do it, introducing Roberts and Griffiths – the whole game changed. We opened them up with ease. We got forward more quickly and with more confidence. Losing the extra man in midfield didn’t hinder us; it gave their defence too much to think about and cope with.
It was another inspired series of decisions from Brendan. He always seems to get these calls exactly right. He is clearly a great motivator, but Brendan is also an astute tactician who reads the game beautifully and knows just where to tweak to change the dynamic.
At this moment it would be remiss – in fact, it would be ridiculous – not to single out Scott Sinclair for huge praise for his second half display and, in particular, his magnificent goal. I don’t think a single Celtic fan in the country was anything other than delighted to see Leigh Griffiths get back on the scoresheet today and, of course, Dembele got his usual goal.
This was a job awfully well done in the end.
The team knew what had to be done when they come out for business in the second half, and they produced the goods.
The match was notable for more than just our comeback and the ruthless way we put St Mirren to the sword. We saw the debut of Koussai Eboue, our new signing, and whilst we didn’t get enough of a look to form any long-term conclusions it was good to see him get on the pitch, and their players certainly knew he was there.
And so we move forward to the draw; at the moment of writing this it hasn’t been made yet but that could hardly matter less. With the league title almost wrapped up and with a bow on the top we are now two matches at Hampden away from an historic treble.
I don’t particularly care who we get in the semi-final.
This is a team that fears nothing and no-one.
They are capable of coming back from being behind or starting like a runaway train.
They are unstoppable either way.