League Cup final: Celtic relish 'digging deep'; Aberdeen 'have to find goal-scorer'
When the leaning tower that was Ryan Christie scored what was the winning goal in the League Cup final at Hampden, his old manager, Derek McInnes, turned away from the action in the manner of a man who could no longer watch what had just gone on.
Close to 45 minutes of frustrating Celtic gone out the window. Almost a full half of limiting the influence of the players he had most feared now cast to the wind. And it had to be Christie, didn't it? The player he believed in when Celtic didn't. The guy he picked up, dusted down and delivered back to Glasgow in rude health now coming back to hurt him.
One chance for Christie and one goal. It was all that Celtic needed. Sure, Jozo Simunovic poked a shot on to his own crossbar in the second half, but it was an isolated incident. For all Aberdeen's thunder, for all their commendable spirit and fight, it was always a safe bet that if Celtic scored first then the final was done.
So many love-bombs have been dropped on Celtic for their attacking play, but their defence has been a rock throughout this extraordinary run of 22 consecutive victories in domestic cup competitions under Brendan Rodgers, a run that has seen them play for 1,890 minutes while conceding only seven goals and keeping 17 clean sheets, a run that has now seen them win five finals with a cumulative score of 10-1. In 22 games they have been behind only twice, for a total of 47 minutes.
Rodgers declared this victory as the most satisfying of the seven he has won. That comment spoke to the difficult period Celtic went through this season; the frustration Rodgers felt at what was a poor transfer window, the doubts he had that his team was moving forward, the damaging exit from the Champions League, the flakiness of some of their domestic form earlier in the season.
Up until they found themselves again, Celtic Park was a pretty stressful place. In the wake of their loss to Kilmarnock in late September it was Rodgers who said that the fans should be alarmed. That set a hare running. Rodgers' relationship with chief executive Peter Lawwell was not what it was, his satisfaction in the job had changed, his prospects of staying beyond the summer had been compromised.
The Rodgers of then is a different animal to the Rodgers of now. Indeed, the Celtic of then is not the Celtic of now. If you said then that they would go into a cup final a few months later with Scott Brown and Olivier Ntcham on the bench and Christie as one of their go-to men in midfield, you'd have been put on trial for stupidity.
That's the reality, though. Celtic might have got lucky with Christie. Had they been successful in the pursuit of John McGinn, would Christie be a Celtic player now? Doubtful. By failing badly in their recruitment, they have triumphed hugely as a team. A weird irony.
- Aberdeen winger Mackay-Steven discharged from hospital
- Cup win 'most satisfying' of Rodgers' seven in a row
- Cup final hero Christie feared Celtic exit
- 'To be part of this Celtic team is unbelievable'
McInnes 'has to find a goal-scorer'
Aberdeen have a lot going for them as a team - they brought organisation and intensity to the table - but up front they are a barren place. Coming from behind in a Cup final against Celtic? It was Everestian in scale for a team that has many strikers on its books, but no goal-scorer.
Consider McInnes' options when trailing 1-0. By then he had lost his most potent attacker, Gary Mackay-Steven being stretchered off in a clash of heads with Dedryck Boyata that was so gruesome it made the blood run cold. That was wretched luck for the player and his manager. It was like removing a harness for that mountain climb once Christie scored.
Persisting with Sam Cosgrove meant placing trust in a player who has scored three times in 52 games in senior football. Relying on Niall McGinn meant hoping that a winger with one goal in his last 27 games for Aberdeen was suddenly going to find his range. Bringing on James Wilson was to put his faith in a man who has scored twice in 11 games. Stevie May was also on his bench at Hampden. May has scored one goal in 16 games this season and only six in 60 appearances since his move to Pittodrie.
Scott Wright, another attacking option on the bench, hasn't scored in his last 22 matches. Add up this season's individual goals totals for Cosgrove, McGinn, May, Wilson, Wright and the two other attackers on the bench, Bruce Anderson and Conor McLennan, and you still don't get to 14, the number of goals that Celtic's James Forrest has on his own. As McInnes said pre-match: "None of our strikers are lighting fires."
In the end, Aberdeen found themselves in familiar terrain, a loser's dressing room full of angst at another lost final and anger at some of the things that went on within.
McInnes railed against one thing and then another, against a penalty given against his team that should never have been, against a red card that he felt should have been given against Christie but wasn't, against Mikael Lustig for an over-the-top celebration at the end that he said lacked class.
The Aberdeen manager got the most out of his players at Hampden. Everything wasn't good enough on the day, though. For McInnes, the message now is the same as it has been for a while. However he does it, he has to find a goal-scorer - probably two goal-scorers - who can take advantage of the good work that's done elsewhere on the pitch.
For Celtic, the pursuit of an eighth consecutive trophy carries on in midweek with a trip to Motherwell. This team has its own in-built motivation, its own set of standards, but the sight of Rangers atop the Premiership table will add more edge to their campaign.
You got a sense from Rodgers post-match, that the games he enjoys winning the most are not the routine 3-0s, 4-0s and 5-0s, but the ones where his team have to dig deeper into themselves to come up with the answers. The Cup final was a little like that.
If - and it's still a big 'if' - the Premiership becomes a tight affair over the next four months, then you suspect that they'll relish that battle, too.