Celtic mark flag day with Ross County win in season opener

Celtic began their pursuit of a fifth successive league title with victory over a new-look Ross County in the first match of the 2015-16 Scottish Premiership season at Parkhead.

  •  Griffiths (pen) and Johansen net for Celtic in repeat of 2013 opening day match
  •  Celtic keeper Gordon lucky to stay on pitch after foul on Irvine outside the box
  •  Ronny Deila’s defending champions unfurl championship flag before kick-off
  •  The Hoops unbeaten on opening weekend since 2-1 defeat at Hibs in August 1997
  •  Ross County remain winless in the six games they have played at Celtic Park
Brown carries trophy
Bringing the silver out: Celtic captain Scott Brown carried the Ladbrokes Premiership trophy onto the pitch before kick-off (Picture from Sky Sports)

Celtic began their pursuit of a fifth successive league title with victory over a new-look Ross County in the first match of the 2015-16 Scottish Premiership season at Parkhead.

Leigh Griffiths converted a fourth-minute penalty after a foul by new County skipper Andrew Davies to get the defending champions up and running early on but went off injured soon after.

Stefan Johansen’s rifled effort sealed the three points 10 minutes before half-time and Celtic could have increased their lead had Staggies debutant Scott Fox not been in top form in goal.

The visitors improved after the break and created chances of their own with Craig Gordon – who could have been sent off for bringing down Jackson Irvine in the first half – making fine saves to deny Craig Curran and substitute Raffaele de Vita.

Jim McIntyre on sidelines
Learning curve: Former Dunfermline boss McIntyre is still putting his own stamp on Ross County since replacing Derek Adams last September (Picture from Sky Sports)

After a sluggish start, County boss Jim McIntyre will be encouraged by his side’s second-half display but aggrieved by referee Willie Collum’s decision to show Gordon a yellow card after the Celtic keeper felled Irvine outside the box when a goalscoring opportunity seemed inevitable.

Celtic, however, were more than worthy of the three points and boss Ronny Deila – despite describing his side’s second-half performance as “not good enough” – will be pleased to make a winning start to league business ahead of Wednesday’s crucial Champions League third qualifying round second leg against FK Qarabag.

Ronny Deila second half
Satisfied: Deila described Celtic’s first-half display as “OK” but said his side were “too open” after the break (Picture from Sky Sports)

With that in mind, 18-year-old left-back Kieran Tierney was handed only his second senior start in place of the suspended Emilio Izaguirre and Charlie Mulgrew, who is still nursing a knee injury sustained in last weekend’s friendly win over Rennes.

County boss McIntyre has been the busiest manager in Scotland in the summer having recruited 12 new faces ahead of his first full campaign after performing a miraculous escape with eight wins in a nine-game unbeaten run over the spring to finish ninth last term.

The Dingwall men made the long journey north hoping to spoil Celtic’s flag day and the sense of anticipation reached a crescendo when John Clark – the current Celtic kitman and member of the Lisbon Lions side that won the European Cup in 1967 – began the celebrations before kick-off by unfurling the championship-winning flag.

John Clark
Back on familiar territory: Former Celtic and Scotland centre-back John Clark, 74, was invited by the club to raise the flag after their 46th title triumph last term (Picture from Sky Sports)
Flag
Preparing for lift-off: Celtic’s Scottish Premiership flag on the pole before the pre-match festivities (Picture from Sky Sports)

The buoyant mood in Glasgow’s East End continued when Griffiths was upended in the box by ex-Bradford centre-back Davies – one of five County debutants in their line-up – as early as the third minute.

The Scotland international – restored in attack as summer signing Nadir Ciftci started a six-match ban for biting Dundee’s Jim McAlister while a Dundee United player – had infamously missed a spotkick against Stjarnan in the Champions League last month.

But this time the ex-Wolves striker managed to squeeze the ball underneath the despairing dive of Fox before appearing to feel the effects of Davies’ mistimed lunge on his calf and was eventually withdrawn in discomfort on 18 minutes.

Stefan Scepovic on for Griffiths
Concern: Griffiths, 24, swapped places with the Serbian, 25, after picking up an early injury which may keep him out of Wednesday’s Champions League tie (Picture from Sky Sports)

Hitherto, his replacement Stefan Scepovic – who scored twice on the final day of a difficult debut season against Inverness in May – struggled to make an impact or stake a claim but did force Fox into a diving save in stoppage time.

Celtic had enjoyed a dominant start with a familiar pattern of patient probing and crisp passing before the game’s controversial moment arose, which left the furious County bench berating fourth official Stephen Finnie.

Out of nothing, Dedryck Boyata – the £1.5 million signing from Manchester City making his first league appearance – squandered possession to ex-Nuneaton striker Curran and his exquisite pass released the impressive Irvine down the left channel.

The Australian midfielder – who joined permanently from Celtic this week following a loan spell in Dingwall last term – looked to have a clear sighting of goal after rounding Gordon but the Scot was fortunate to be spared the second red card of his Celtic career.

Gordon yellow card 22 mins
Foul: Gordon rushed out of his box and made contact with Irvine as the County midfielder accelerated towards goal (Picture from Sky Sports)
Gordon booked
Yellow: Willie Collum shows a yellow card to Gordon although Ross County felt it should have been a red card (Picture from Sky Sports)

The Celtic rearguard had conceded only 17 goals on their way to finishing 17 points above second-placed Aberdeen last season but was unconvincing throughout with Curran allowed to advance towards goal unchallenged before firing wide from 20 yards.

But the hosts’ ability to carve frequent chances and charge through the gears was apparent as Gary Mackay-Steven’s poked effort was repelled by Fox following a neat lay-off by his ex-Dundee United team-mate Stuart Armstrong.

And Celtic afforded themselves much-needed breathing space before the interval with Mackay-Steven getting the break of the ball from Marcus Fraser to tee up Johansen, who fired home an unstoppable drive for his third goal of the competitive season already.

Johansen goal 35 mins 2-0
Thumper: The Norwegian – who scored 13 goals in all competitions last season – struck the clinching goal from 15 yards (Picture from Sky Sports)

A quiet start to the second period amid a subdued atmosphere reflected Celtic’s measure of control and the damage limitation exercise facing the Staggies – beginning their fourth successive top-flight campaign.

Although County had drawn on their previous two visits to Parkhead, McIntyre’s side retained hope of at least scoring a goal against the champions – something they had failed to do in the three league meetings last term.

Gordon – who kept 22 clean sheets in his debut campaign to earn the Scottish Football Writers’ Player of the Year award – was equal to the task, though, to block Curran’s effort with his knees before clawing away de Vita’s powerful effort after excellent work by Fraser down the right.

Celtic had evidently – and understandably – taken their foot off the pedal yet still threatened to put County firmly out of sight but failed to capitalise on 22 second-half corners with their disappointing set-piece delivery easy for the visitors to defend against.

Kris Commons replaced Johansen on the hour mark and the midfielder – who returned as a substitute against Qarabag in midweek after breaking his toe – managed to test Fox’s reflexes with a rasping long-range drive.

As sunshine turned to rain in Glasgow, the influential Armstrong saw a clipped cross-cum-shot turned over the crossbar by the busy Fox – a summer recruit from across the city at Partick Thistle.

Nadir Ciftci
Banned: The 23-year-old Turkish international watched proceedings from the stands (Picture from Sky Sports)

With the game wide open, County displayed a willingness to break forward at pace and Michael Gardyne – who made his loan move from Dundee United permanent during the close season – had a half-hearted penalty appeal waved away when barged off by Virgil van Dijk.

The end-to-end nature of the second half continued right up to the final whistle as Commons – a scorer on the opening day against Aberdeen in 2012 – had another fizzed effort beaten away by Fox before Gordon parried away County substitute Brian Graham’s attempt.

Nevertheless an eighth straight opening-day win had long been confirmed for Celtic, who now switch their attention to the defining midweek trip to Azerbaijan and seek to finish off the tie having edged the first leg 1-0.

Meanwhile, the Staggies look ahead to next Saturday’s home clash with Hamilton with belief that they can have a better season than last year.

Ross County summer transfers
Squad turnover: Four of the 12 summer signings so far have previous Scottish top-flight experience while five have arrived from the English Football League (Picture from Sky Sports)

ANALYSIS
Celtic 2-0 Ross County

Managers on touchline
Watching on: Both Ronny Deila and Jim McIntyre will have seen plenty to please them but will expect their respective sides to improve in the coming weeks (Picture from Sky Sports)

“Few were expecting Celtic to slip up given their impeccable record on the opening weekend of the league season and the Hoops completed the job with a relative degree of comfort but not without a few sticky moments. Ross County made the worst possible start by gifting Celtic the initiative through their own carelessness but recovered thereafter to show what their new-look side may be capable of this season. Craig Gordon had to make two or three superb second-half saves but the question regarding whether he should have been on the pitch or not will continue to be asked. The Celtic keeper was sent off in the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat to Inverness last season for a similar offence and one factor that cannot be argued is that on another day another referee may have interpreted the situation as denying a clear goalscoring opportunity. Ronny Deila will be happy enough with what he saw and will be sweating on the fitness of Leigh Griffiths although Nadir Ciftci is available for the midweek trip to Azerbaijan. For Jim McIntyre, he will have been delighted his side didn’t cave in after a poor opening and will hope he can integrate more of his summer additions in the coming weeks when the games get easier.” 


TEAMS:

Celtic team
Rested: Nir Bitton and Mikael Lustig were left out of Celtic’s line-up ahead of the second leg against Qarabag with Efe Ambrose and James Forrest the beneficiaries (Picture from Sky Sports)

Substitutes:  Griffiths (on for Scepovic 19′), Janko (on for Tierney 60′) and Commons (on for Johansen 60′).

Booked:  Gordon (22′), Armstrong (61′)

Goals:  Griffiths (4′ pen), Johansen (35′)

Ross County team
Debutants: Five new arrivals made the starting line-up (Fox, Davies, Foster, Murdoch and McShane) while six other new signings were on the bench (Picture from Sky Sports)

Substitutes:  De Vita (on for Murdoch 56′), Boyce (on for Curran 70′) and Graham (on for McShane 86′).

Booked:  None

Goals:  None


Willie Collum referee
The 36-year-old sent off 11 players in the Scottish Premiership last season – more than any other referee (Picture from Sky Sports)

Referee:  Willie Collum (Scotland) –  8/10
Attendance:  45,197

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