Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Caley blow title race wide open
The race for the Scottish Premier League title is now in its final furlong and it could well be decided by a photo finish after Inverness Caley Thistle blew it wide open.
Celtic's disastrous defeat at the hands of Caley in the Highlands leaves Rangers at the summit of the table a single point ahead of their arch rivals. Neil Lennon's men suffered a demoralising 3-2 loss to Terry Butcher's troops, a result that now leaves Walter Smith's men in the box seat as they chase a third successive league crown.
The fixture, played after the start of the much maligned top six split following a series of postponements, could well cost Celtic the league and even some of their player their jobs.
Butcher's boys took an early lead when Charlie Mulgrew turned the ball into his own net before Kris Commons levelled the scores. Grant Munro, who has been told he can leave Caley this summer, put the hosts back in front and then Shane Sutherland made it 3-1.
The Parkhead men did rally late on and reduced the deficit when Commons netted again from the penalty spot but it was too little to late to leave Lennon at a loss as to what went wrong.
"We were all over the place against Inverness and if you play like we did you don't deserve to win any game. There's no excuse," said Lennon. ''Defensively we were poor, going forward we were poor. You never expect that kind of performance.
"We need to take the title to at least the last day of the season. And with a bit of luck somebody might do us a favour along the way.
"I'm very disappointed with the second-half performance. We looked like a team that ran out of ideas very quickly - and ran out of a bit of heart as well. That's not something I can't throw at them for the majority of the season but Inverness wanted it more."
The Celtic gaffer will be hurting but is experienced enough to know there could well be a few twists and turns along the way yet before the destiny of the SPL trophy is finally decided. They've still got three tricky fixtures to negotiate starting away against Kilmarnock at Rugby Park on Saturday if they are going to keep the pressure on Rangers.
The Celts drew with the Ayrshire men at home back in December when a late Thomas Rogne goal salvaged a point for the title challengers. Nothing less than a win will do this time round.
Lennon will be fearful of dropping points on the road and it could well prove to be a pivotal fixture in the run in. Celtic have also got a tough Tynecastle clash with the third strongest team in the league Hearts who will want to finish their season on a real high.
The Hoops lost on Gorgie Road at the beginning of November when strikes from Ian Black and David Templeton earned all three points and their next encounter could well prove to be crucial.
Their final league fixture of the season comes against Motherwell at Parkhead just six days before they face the Steelmen at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final.
It might well be a dress rehearsal for the big day but it certainly won't prove to be anything less than a keenly contested fixture particularly if the league crown is still on the line.
Celtic have suffered mixed fortunes against Motherwell this season having lost to a John Sutton double at Fir Park in February. Well boss Stuart McCall has already gone on the record as saying he's determined to see his side play a part in the final destiny of the championship.
While former Celtic and Aberdeen defender Derek Whyte has urged Lennon to demand an instant response from his troops to keep their title dream alive.
"The result against Caley is a major blow to Celtic's title hopes especially at this stage of the season as they held the upper hand following the recent Old Firm draw," he said. "But they have to bounce back and quickly to ensure they continue to keep the heat on Rangers.
"They are now relying on other teams to do them a favour but at the very least they've got to win their final matches to stand any chance."
Rangers face Hearts and Dundee United at Ibrox and Kilmarnock away in their final three fixtures of the campaign. Walter Smith's men have only dropped points to United this season when they lost 3-2 to the Tannadice team in Govan at the start of April.
However, Smith, who retires at the end of the season, knows just how important it is for Rangers to win all three of their remaining fixtures if he's to bow out at the top.
Smith is far too long in the tooth to take anything for granted despite now holding all the aces thanks to Caley's surprise victory. The veteran manager will now be looking for his troops to hold their nerve and see out the remainder of what has already proved to be a memorable SPL campaign.