If Brendan Rodgers is to be taken at face value regarding his development of Ryan Christie, Celtic’s manager was doing himself a disservice when hailing the influence of “footballing gods” on collecting more silverware.
Christie, the match-winner, looked destined never to make it at Celtic so long as Rodgers was in office. The midfielder spent a season and a half on loan at Aberdeen, Celtic’s League Cup final opponents, with the Pittodrie club hopeful of coaxing Christie north permanently as recently as last summer. Christie edged back into Rodgers’ plans to the point where he has become a key team component, signed a new contract and became part of the Scotland side within a matter of weeks. This fairy tale rather sums up the majority of Rodgers’ time in Scotland.
Rodgers insists – quite rightly – that Christie’s talent was never in question. Rather Celtic’s manager allowed the Aberdeen spell so the 23-year-old would add physicality and power to his game. “Ryan always had quality,”said Rodgers. “He came back from Aberdeen and it was about waiting for the moment. In big games he is now showing he has the quality to play for the biggest teams.”
Christie’s father, Charlie, was once a classy midfielder who failed to settle upon leaving his Inverness home for Celtic. “When I came here, Ryan was Charlie Christie’s son,” Rodgers added. “Now Charlie is Ryan Christie’s dad.”
A penny for the thoughts of Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, who admitted he kept shirt number 22 – Christie’s favourite – free in the close season in case he could lure the player. Aberdeen continue to suffer frustration at Celtic’s hands, though in this final they put up a spirited fight.
“Any final defeat is sore,” said McInnes. “Celtic have a bigger, better squad, better players, but my players gave absolutely everything. We restricted Celtic to very few opportunities which isn’t easy. We played with tenacity, aggression and common sense. I’m really proud of my team.”
Aberdeen’s issue, as has been recurrent this season, was a lack of punch. Celtic did not play particularly well – and, as Rodgers acknowledged, were not clinical enough themselves – but the mental approach of a side that has been peerless in Scotland for so long must be recognised. Rodgers has now won all seven competitions entered by Celtic and 22 cup ties out of 22.
Christie’s latest moment arrived during a lengthy first-half stoppage time, necessary after a serious clash of heads between Gary Mackay-Steven and Dedryck Boyata. Celtic’s centre-half was able to play on but Mackay-Steven, who had been knocked unconscious, required hospital assessment. Thankfully McInnes later revealed the winger was okay and sitting up. But the scale of worry from fellow players at the time was obvious.
Boyata played the long pass that was collected by Christie in more space than Aberdeen should have allowed. Christie’s initial shot was well saved by Joe Lewis but the Celtic player retained his footing sufficiently to scoop home the rebound.
Celtic’s best chance for a second goal owed everything to woeful officiating after Dominic Ball was wrongly penalised for a handball which occurred outside the penalty area. But Andrew Dallas awarded a spot-kick. Even Celtic’s most fervent supporters would admit justice was done when Lewis batted away Scott Sinclair’s shot.
Jozo Simunovic came closest to hauling Aberdeen back into the game when the Celtic substitute miscued a clearance on to his own bar. Sinclair fluffed his lines again after terrific build-up play from Callum McGregor but there was never any strong sense Celtic would require a second goal.
Can Rodgers now contemplate a third domestic clean sweep, a treble treble? “That’s a long, long way away,” he said. The last two months have seen a stark upturn in Celtic fortunes, after a start to the season when Rodgers made his concerns perfectly plain.
When asked how this situation was corrected, the former Liverpool manager said he took his team “back to basics” in terms of how they managed games. “Forget all the technical jargon, it’s about denying the opponent time to play and then technically playing at a quicker and faster level.” Basics, in the context of Celtic and Rodgers, means winning.
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