There was to be no dream Old Firm matchup in either of this year’s cups after Rangers lost 3-0 to Dundee United the night prior to Celtic’s match. The league leaders were away to Raith at one of the more old fashioned grounds in the country: Stark’s Park.
After losing to St. Mirren last weekend, everyone at Celtic knew the importance of progression to the quarterfinals of the Scottish Cup. This was reflected in the starting eleven that Lennon set out.
Lineup and Formation
Injuries to Emilio Izaguirre and Georgios Samaras in the midweek game against Kilmarnock meant that the starting eleven was fairly predictable. Wilson and Lustig anchored the back four with Matthews and Mulgrew on either side. The four midfielders formed a diamond with Hooper up front and Tony Watt alongside him as Lennon moved away from the 4-3-3 shape which has been deployed with regularity in the last three or four matches.
The 4-4-2 didn’t take long to transform into more of a 2-6-2. With Rovers only playing one man up front, and their midfield sitting deep for the vast majority of the opening period, Matthews and Mulgrew could push on as a wingback would and Lustig and Wilson comfortably dealt with the lone number nine for Raith. At times they were higher than Kayal and Ledley, the respective wide men in the midfield diamond.
Adam Matthews and Charlie Mulgrew both had strong games. Mulgrew in particular was the premier source of attacking support in the opening minutes. The majority of play in the first half was down the left hand side, and Mulgrew spent most of his time on the ball attempting to deliver it straight to Hooper and Watt. Both him and Matthews were so advanced that they were the ones linking with the two front-men, and not the midfielders.
As a result, Commons was left with a bit part role for the bulk of the half and Kayal and Ledley tasked with trying to win the knockdowns. With Matthews and Mulgrew playing so high up the pitch, they began to pin back Raith in wide areas. As a result, Wanyama was left with acres of space to switch the play in the middle and Ledley needed to cover for Mulgrew when he wandered up high on occasion.
Celtic style of play
There were few gaps in the home side’s defense to penetrate, and so Celtic stuck with long balls into the box as their chief means of attack. The idea was to catch Raith out of position rather than allow them to settle into a defensive shape; a scenario which makes them more dangerous on the break.
The heavy and wet pitch was easily cut up, and so any ideas of playing swift, passing football was quickly out of the question. This was likely influential in Lennon’s selection of Mulgrew at left back, and reasoning for playing a 4-4-2. From the left back position, he was able to use his delivery skills to send diagonal balls into Hooper and Watt. He wouldn’t have been able to do that as effectively as a center back or playing in a system with only three defenders.
Raith Rovers managed to do a fine job in the first half of making sure Celtic didn’t win the long balls. When they did, the home team managed to prevent link up play following a knock down.
Celtic started the second half better than they ended the first. Matthews fired a ball just over the bar, and Tony Watt saw his glancing header drift just wide of McGunn’s right hand post.
The visitors were awarded a penalty on the fourth claim of the match when Commons went down under Mensing’s challenge. Commons was facing away from the Raith goal and there was no need to put a challenge in. There were claims that Commons dove, however Mensing’s leg was certainly outstretched and clipped the right foot of the Celtic player. It was a criminal mistake by the defender, and one that, predictably, shaped the flow of the remainder of the game. The spot kick was coolly dispatched by Commons himself, and the floodgates opened for Celtic.
Substitutions and Change of Shape
Scott Brown and James Forrest replaced Beram Kayal and Tony Watt in a double change following the penalty. Forrest took Watt’s position up front rather than playing out wide. Brown had a few decent chances, but saw his efforts sail well wide. Stokes then replaced Commons and Celtic moved to a 4-3-3.
The change allowed them to take advantage of Raith’s aggressive changes following the penalty. They were forced to press, and as a result, Celtic were able to go with three in the middle and three up front, allowing for more link and build up play.The long balls hadn’t been especially effective in the first fourty five minutes, and neither had Hooper and Watt had much success running at the Raith defenders, so the changes were welcome in conjunction with the altered circumstances following the first goal. Forrest and Mulgrew secured a victory, and the scoreline suggested a more comfortable win than was the case for Lennon’s men.
The game may well have been forced to a replay, as Raith were plodding along just fine until the penalty. However, once the spot kick was converted, it changed the entire nature and fluidity of the game, allowing Celtic to go on to comfortable victory.