PLAYING host to the reigning champions should be enough motivation for any team to raise their game and make a statement.
However Dundee United were guilty of having more than one eye on next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Rangers as Celtic ran out comfortable winners.
The Hoops were too strong at Tannadice but had the Tangerines fulfilled their potential, the Premiership encounter would have been more closely fought.
United had everything to play for with the chance of catching Aberdeen and Motherwell in second place still a feasable possibility.
Putting the trip to Ibrox – where the pressure is on to reach a major cup final – on the back burner was always going to be difficult for the players, and so it proved.
Jackie McNamara’s side are right in the mix for Europa League qualification and were favourites with many bookmakers to turn over a Celtic side who have nothing left to play for having clinched the title and limped to a 1-1 draw at home to Ross County last weekend.
But you write the imperious Bhoys off at your peril and their overriding quality in every department shone through.
The home fans were up for the occasion – TV presenter Lorraine Kelly showing her usual devotion to the Terrors and was even joined in the Jackie Husband stand by comedian Timmy Mallett.
United’s form has peaked at the right time and belief that both aims of silverware and Europa League football can be achieved had risen with just one defeat in 11 before Celtic made the trip.
McNamara’s final message to his players would have left the words “start at a high tempo” ringing in their ears.
Yet straight from kick-off, they were up against a determined Celtic, who set the agenda within the space of five minutes.
After a sustained spell of possession, it took one free-kick, one lapse of defensive concentration and one moment of quality to put the record straight.
Georgios Samaras had a point to prove in his first start in two months and made his presence felt with a stunning technique, watching the ball curl into his feet and volley first time into the roof of the net.
It changed the contrasting mood as any optimism United sought to gather was pierced while Celtic’s confidence grew rapidly.
The Hoops stamped their authority and overwhelmed their young opponents as United could not get any sort of grip, much to McNamara’s evident touchline frustration.
The lack of intensity and inspiration was apparent in the first half for the Terrors, who simply had no answer to the dominance of Celtic in possession.
The likes of Beram Kayal and Stefan Johansen kept them ticking over in the engine room with Kris Commons drifting in between the lines.
Scotland’s leading player of the year contender was the architect as Celtic made their territorial advantage count.
The second goal was always going to be important – and there was only one team going to get it. Coming just beyond the midway point of the second half, it arrived at the perfect time in the perfect manner as far as Celtic were concerned.
United have received high praise for their fluid attacking style and they could only stand and admire as their arch nemesis in recent times Anthony Stokes played a one-two with Commons before finishing with aplomb.
The introduction of Gary Mackay-Steven at the interval brought the much-needed spark that United were missing with his pace down the left hand side while the withdrawal of Brian Graham allowed Nadir Ciftci to move through the middle as the spearhead.
The improvement in the final third from United after the break was stark but coincided with Celtic’s dip in urgency.
Keith Watson advanced further forward and Andrew Robertson bombed down the left but Mackay-Steven carved the openings that could not be finished off as the Scotland winger surely talked himself into next weekend’s starting eleven.
McNamara will be downhearted by a lacklustre effort in which his attacking triumvirate could not engineer the creativity to conjure chances, Ciftci could not trouble the Hoops defence, Fraser Forster had a quiet afternoon and their usually crisp passing was distinctly off colour.
With players pulling out of tackles and unwilling to exert themselves, United’s focus was firmly fixed on Rangers.
The question of whether cup glory should take precedence over league matters will no doubt resurface.
Running out in Glasgow’s East End on the final day of the season will merely be a privileged experience for United to share in Celtic’s celebrations – whether they will be back at Parkhead for the Scottish Cup final remains to be seen.
United will arguably never have a better opportunity to run down the Hoops, who they last beat two years ago just two weeks after Neil Lennon’s men clinched the first of three titles in a row.
Celtic nicked the three points back in August and denied United a first win at Celtic Park in 21 years by rescuing a point in November. Last term, the Tayside boys ran the champions close at Hampden in the Scottish Cup semis but were on the wrong end of a seven-goal thriller.
As those results suggest, the gap between the two sides is undoubtedly closing but Celtic’s will to win and ability to control matches is too powerful and ultimately the difference.
McNamara has got the better of every Premiership manager since being installed as Peter Houston’s replacement in January 2013 bar his former team-mate Lennon. A despairing fact that the former Partick Thistle boss would love to address.
Getting one over Celtic needs a collective team performance beyond the usual standards, a huge amount of luck, a vociferous atmosphere, a tactical masterclass – and the Hoops to have an off day. It didn’t happen.
The form book and odds favoured United. But this is Celtic. It’s what they’ve done for so long. They just do not lie down.
With serious business to attend to next weekend, United must bounce back and put the race for second place to one side ahead of a similar test of character against an Old Firm giant.
They will fancy their chances of making it a hat-trick – of wins in the cup over the Gers in the past three seasons.
Ryan Gauld Image via STV.TV Image Base
Neil Lennon Image by Excalibur via Creative Commons License