Saturday, January 29, 2011

Co-operative Insurance Cup: Celtic v Aberdeen

Was it really only a couple of months ago that Aberdeen and Celtic met in Glasgow and produced the SPL's most one sided result?

That 9-0 walloping seems a long time ago now.

It's hard to claim that Celtic have enjoyed a regal procession to the top of the league since then. They haven't, there has been the odd faltering step along the way.

But they are now top of the SPL. And in January's big clashes they've shown their resolve and their ability. Could even the most optimistic of Celtic fans have predicted the ease with which they brushed aside Rangers or the brutal show of attacking force that crushed Hearts at Parkhead?

Since that infamous trip to Glasgow Aberdeen have experienced both more despair and the promise of redemption.

Mark McGhee, the man who, despite everything, delivered them to this semi final, has fallen by the wayside. Few mourned the passing of another manager who stood hapless in the face of the quirky pressures that abound at Pittodrie.

In his stead they called on Craig Brown. A 70 year old Scotsman, no trophy winning pedigree, devoid of glamour. And yet it has been a long time since I've seen the odd (they're all odd!) Aberdeen fan of my acquaintance so enthused.

Brown, the veteran maestro, has achieved the twin coups of an immediate impact and a few promising signings in just a few weeks. The result is a club free from the swirling uncertainty of the very foot of the table, a club beginning to look forward with optimism again.

Two clubs with confidence, two clubs looking forward. An almost perfect semi final clash.

The lesser of our cup competitions? Yes, but still a prize to cherish. For Celtic, Neil Lennon's first managerial trophy. Most Old Firm managers of the past will tell of the importance of claiming your first silverware and Lennon will be keen to make amends for the Scottish Cup defeat to Ross County last year.

The chance of a first club trophy for Brown as well given his late, late emergence as a top flight club manager. And a trophy for Aberdeen, the first since 1995-96, a way to assuage some of the pain of the past few years.

So still a trophy to cherish for both these sides. Painful to fail at the semi-final stage as well, no matter what the competition is.

And an intriguing battle in the dug-outs. Craig Brown and Neil Lennon. A clash of styles right there.

The elder statesman Brown with his, mostly, measured public utterances, the novice Lennon with the passion to say what he thinks and hang the consequences.

But maybe not complete opposites. A steely desire to win and a genuine passion for football can hide behind many guises. And this match will mean a lot, a hell of a lot, to both of them.

What can we expect of the game itself?

Celtic remain favourites. But despite their recent form it is a measure of the progress at Pittodrie that they are not the certainties they would have appeared in November.

That Brown was publicly critical of his players after they beat Inverness in midweek suggests that, whatever his tactics, he'll be looking for an extra ounce of efforts, just a touch more determination from each and every one of them tomorrow.

I certainly don't expect Aberdeen to freeze on the big stage and, we can't forget this is Craig Brown, they'll look to keep it tight. To frustrate and deny before plundering an advantage for themselves.

For the plundering they'll be hoping to catch out Celtic's still depleted rearguard in a way that Hearts couldn't manage on Wednesday night.

Brown will also be aware that Hearts defended badly and Celtic were ruthless in taking advantage of that largesse.

So a fighting, defensive Aberdeen looking to catch Celtic on the counter. It's a hard task but other teams have pulled it off this season.

Other than guarding against complacency, asking for calm heads and patience it is difficult to see what Lennon can really ask his players to do differently.

Celtic are now in possession of the most dangerous attacking threat in the country. If they are kept supplied the goals will come. The danger is that Aberdeen actually manage to work out a way to frustrate and contain.

It's when teams manage to do that I feel Celtic look vulnerable, too quick to lose their patience and chase the game. That in turn drags the shape out of the team and exposes the defence.

Might a sustained show of stubborness suddenly have Celtic fearing the worst, the hangover from that Ross County game creeping into their minds, adding to their apprehensiveness?

It would be an impressive feat for Craig Brown to pull off.

I suspect it will prove to be just beyond him though. Aberdeen should be able to keep this one tight but I think Celtic will eventually just have too much for them and win it by the odd goal.

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