Kilmarnock 0 Celtic 0
(SPL, Dec 7th 1997, Rugby Park)
IN an almost incidentless game - if you discount the copious illegalities - Kilmarnock swarmed over the Celtic midfield, easily contained the frail threat up front against them, and but for some deeply flawed refereeing, might have had at least one penalty. If this Celtic side are just one element short of the complete picture you have to say that the final result will be no glorious artwork.
Celtic had Paul Lambert and Craig Burley trying to do the same job in the middle of the park, bumping into each other and struggling to put an imprint on the play.
Their opponents jostled and jarred and harried and with wee Pat Nevin (right) juking and jinking, the ball in hypnotic obeisance, they created loads of width and confusion, but few direct threats. There were only five shots on target by each side and none of them posed much of a threat. The Kilmarnock defence was excellently resilient, but then the paucity of the opposing attacking flattered them.
Henrik Larsson was in what used to be called the centre-forward position with Simon Donnelly and Andreas Thom, (until he was replaced) on either flank, but the chances which they fashioned were frugal. In the second half there were two flabby shots which barely troubled Dragoje Lekovic, who seemed to collapse in stages to deal with them, and that was it. By then the Celtic engine-room had clocked off. One conclusion the manager will have come to is that Lambert and Burley cannot co-exist in the same proximity.
Right from the start - with the pre-match celebratory coloured balloons still blowing around on the snell wind - it was clear that Killie's tactic was to try and defend in their opponents' half and bottle up the midfield when they lost possession. They pushed the ball up quickly using the flanks, where Nevin was tanner ba'ing away without achieving the space he needed to dart in a killing cross.
In Jerome Vareille they have a player who really fancies himself against any defender. He's quick with a neat touch and turn and he can put himself about a bit. As Tommy Boyd quickly realised, and just before the half ended, the two finally became disagreeable to each other and indulged in a spot of sly footwork which had both of them booked. Boyd was exceedingly lucky not to go off in the second half when he pulled Vareille down with a disgracefully late tackle but craven refereeing by Mike McCurry, presumably unwilling to make the numbers uneven, failed even to stop the play.
The home side's pressing game puzzled Celtic throughout. Bobby Williamson, the Kilmarnock boss, kept leaping out of his hutch to urge his players to press flesh on flesh, which they did commendably, if occasionally unfairly. Celtic were drawn continually into the mixing and brawling which made for a scrappy and towsy event.
Lekovic in the Kilmarnock goal had only two real saves to make in the first half, the first one he clutched with relief under the bar after Stephane Mahe and Thom had one-twoed on the left before the German cut in to crash one of his customary right-footers at him. The other was a scrabbling kick away from Donnelly at the end of Celtic's singular and best move of the first half. Burley and Larsson twice exchanged one-twos before the dreadlocked one chopped the ball just too fiercely across and the stumbling shot on the run achieved neither adequate pace nor direction.
Both sides enjoyed periods of control, but the home side are entitled to feel cheated. Nevin had befuddled the Celtic rearguard on several occasions before he slithered into the box in the 53rd minute, turned round Alan Stubbs and before he could shape to ram in a short cross from near the byeline, he was shunted into an untidy mess by his opponent. Outrage and trepidation in roughly equal measure all around, but the referee saw nothing untoward in the assault. The second was less clear-cut, but the unfortunate Boyd was once more the transgressor, whipping the pins from Paul Wright just inside the crucial line, but play was fussily waved on. Near the end Donnelly with a spot more alacrity might have scored when the abysmal Lambert sent him in, but a diving effort by Jim Lauchlan impeded the shot enough to turn it past.
Celtic seemed to have run out of both hope and ambition by then and Kilmarnock were doing the bulk of the attacking, although there was more promise than precision with them and Stubbs and Marc Rieper at the back were rarely struggling to recover. Tempers by then had been restored with three Celtic names in the book (Mahe, Boyd and Lambert) and one Killie (Gus MacPherson). The referee blew precisely on time, after a half punctuated by hold-ups, as if he wanted the wretched affair not to continue an additional second. But then he had had an important and ignominious part in it.
Lekovic ,MacPherson ,Kerr ,Lauchlan ,McGowne ,Holt ,Nevin ,Reilly ,Wright ,Vareille ,Burke (Henry ,74)
Subs not used: Mitchell,Roberts,
Gould ,Boyd ,Mahe ,McNamara ,Rieper ,Stubbs ,Larsson ,Burley ,Donnelly ,Lambert ,Thom (Jackson ,69)
Subs not used: Annoni, Hannah,
Referee: McCurry (Glasgow)
Bobby Williamson: "I was pleased that we had a clean sheet and that we matched Celtic so well in midfield. Mark Reilly and Gary Holt did so well against Burley and Lambert that you couldn't tell who were the million-pound players.
But we really didn't create enough chances, didn't put Gould under any pressure. Still, I'm happy to have taken a point from the game."