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Inverness CT 1 Celtic 0: Fringe players fail but champions have eyes on another prize . . .

IF it will be good for the SPFL Premiership if Celtic seal a place in the Champions League group stage by extinguishing Maribor's hopes tomorrow night, so it was also important for the top flight's credibility that they did not roll over Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Eoghan O'Connell of Celtic puts the ball into his own net after Lukasz Zaluska tries and fails to clear a Marley Watkins cross. Picture: SNS
Eoghan O'Connell of Celtic puts the ball into his own net after Lukasz Zaluska tries and fails to clear a Marley Watkins cross. Picture: SNS

Celtic will stretch their legs and put clear blue sky between themselves and everyone else soon enough. For the meantime they sit fifth in the table. Inverness, league leaders at the start of the weekend and still so at the end of it, were not about to be pushed aside by a tepid Celtic team with only six regular starters. It would have been bleak for the division if a Celtic side thrown together from the youths and the fringes delivered a routine win in Inverness.

Instead the understudies, the hopefuls and the pretenders produced a mediocre performance which lacked the creativity or variety required to break down a compact, organised, committed home side. Chances were made and squandered in the first half and when Eoghan O'Connell scored an own goal after 65 minutes - think of Tom Boyd's against Brazil at France 98 - the champions never looked especially likely to recover. Inverness manager John Hughes said the closing 25 minutes resembled the Alamo for his defenders. That was nonsense given Celtic's lack of chances and his own men's comfortable resistance. All the play was in front of their two banks of defence.

The hosts sit four points ahead of Celtic, albeit with a game more played, and have won three and drawn the other of their opening four league games. Hughes has had a more impressive start to the season than many predicted. "It was difficult at the end of last season for the manager to come in and get his ideas across," said centre half Josh Meekings.

"He didn't get the time he wanted but we had the pre season and he brought his ideas and we've seen clearly what we wants to do. I think the old manager [Terry Butcher] was a bit more direct. We have a slower approach now and try and keep the ball and play passes and tire people out rather than go in gung ho."

An entire Celtic team never saw action on Saturday: Craig Gordon, Adam Matthews, Mikael Lustig, Virgil van Dijk, Jason Denayer, Emilio Izaguirre, Biram Kayal, Scott Brown, James Forrest, Aleksandar Tonev and Jo Inge Berget, some because of injury, the majority because manager Ronny Deila wanted to rest them to ensure their freshness for tomorrow night's play-off decider against Maribor.

The context of that fixture should inspire a performance of greater tempo, quality and authority than the deputies produced in the Highlands. A team with Kris Commons, Charlie Mulgrew, Leigh Griffiths, Teemu Pukki, Nir Bitton and Efe Ambrose should have looked far more composed in Inverness, all the same, and Anthony Stokes, Stefan Johansen and Callum McGregor were all on after half-time too.

"Some of the key boys got a rest but it was still a strong enough team to go out there and put in a performance," said McGregor. "I don't think we played as well we could have."

Commons's touch was out and he, along with Griffiths and Pukki, failed to convert reasonable chances.

A goal is not a necessity against Maribor. A clean sheet would ensure qualification after the 1-1 draw in Slovenia. The temptation to believe the hard work has been done must be resisted. "The boys are not under any impression that the job is finished," said McGregor.

A year ago McGregor was nowhere at Celtic. To be precise, when they had to save themselves in the home second leg against Shakhter Karagandy he was watching on television in a Nottingham hotel room having just been sent on loan to Notts County. Twelve months on he is a key man, his emergence confirmed by the fact he was one of those rested for the first half on Saturday.

"We know exactly what we have to do to get the result. All the energy will go into that. The games at Murrayfield had a lot of people there, about 40,000, but it's still not the same as playing at Celtic Park. The crowd gets going on a European night and that puts a wee bit pressure on the away team. Hopefully we can get the crowd going and spook Maribor a little bit, and get at them.

"We dominated possession in the first half in Slovenia but you are always susceptible to the counter attack. We just have to be careful we don't get caught by throwing too many bodies forward at the one time. We have to get a good balance in the team and attack at the right times. I'm sure we'll be ready for it."

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