THIS was an afternoon that provided evidence of the improvement of both sides, though Aberdeen fans may struggle to see this bright side of a Scottish Cup semi-final drubbing.
One year ago Neil Lennon watched his Celtic players succumb to a vibrant but undoubtedly lower division Ross County at the same stage in the cup. Yesterday, his team – and it is a team constructed by Lennon – cruised into a final with Motherwell. The difference is obvious. Only Scott Brown started both matches for Celtic and the progress to a cup final was a just reward for yesterday’s efforts just as humiliation was the inevitable return for a shambolic performance last year.
So what of Aberdeen? In January, they capitulated 4-1 to Celtic. The margin of victory was worse yesterday but there was fight about Craig Brown’s side and they made this a contest for the first half and never surrendered as the tide ran relentlessly against them.
They were fatally undone by Celtic’s second-half goals but the seed of defeat was sown in the 19th minute when Andrew Considine clipped Anthony Stokes. Willie Collum’s penalty award was correct but the dismissal of the defender, though required by the letter of the law, ensured that ultimately there could be only one victor.
The referee cannot expect a Christmas card with an Aberdeen postmark after awarding Celtic a second penalty, after the interval, but the Pittodrie side’s supporters, after lustily expressing their wrath yesterday afternoon, may consider this morning that all hope disappeared when Considine trooped off.
It took Celtic until the second period to frank their superiority with goals. They came with a sickening regularity for Aberdeen. First Charlie Mulgrew, signed from Aberdeen in the close season, condemned his former side to an uphill struggle by firing in a free-kick from wide right that flew over the Aberdeen backline and bounced past Langfield. Joe Ledley then took matters beyond any possible hope of redemption when he clipped home after Emilio Izaguirre freed Anthony Stokes to cross.
Kris Commons converted Celtic’s second penalty after Derek Young committed a needless foul on Stokes. The Aberdeen fans howled in anger but Brown conceded later it was a daft challenge and an obvious spot kick.
Shaun Maloney’s first goal on his return from injury was a simple tap in from a Mark Wilson cross. Aberdeen were thus put to the sword but can look back with some pride both at their defiance and determination to unsettle Celtic in the first half.
For all that spirit, though, the best chances in the first period fell the way of Celtic, with Stokes lining up to take the penalty kick already having missed two excellent opportunities.
It was hardly a surprise when the Irishman’s poor attempt was easily saved by Langfield as Stokes had already flicked over with an unchallenged header on the edge of the six-yard box and been denied by the goalkeeper when put clear by an excellent pass from Wilson.
However, Aberdeen had shown a belligerence that was lacking from their previous visit to Hampden. Josh Magennis had forced Fraser Forster to save low at his right post and the rebound fell unkindly for Chris Maguire.
With Maguire and Sone Aluko showing pace and no little trickery, there was hope for Aberdeen in the early stages. As Celtic missed chances, they seemed to gain in confidence and there was a collective will not to buckle.
This purpose did not diminish with the departure of Considine, his second dismissal against Celtic in a matter of months for the same offence, but it was useless in the face of what the Aberdeen manager later called “the best passing team in Scotland”. Maguire did have the ball in the net in the second half but he was offside. Aluko neatly created room and shot past after 72 minutes. But these were minor irritations for Celtic as they strolled to victory in the sun.
Daniel Majstorovic could be brought on with 10 minutes to go for a run-out to prepare himself for the rigours of what is certain to be a dramatic climax to the season. Maloney and Paddy McCourt were also introduced as Celtic removed Ledley, who suffered a knock, Biram Kayal, who seems to be saved from action at early opportunity on a regular basis, presumably to protect his groin, and Hooper, who still seems not to have recovered his fitness fully.
With Georgios Samaras, Daryl Murphy and Freddie Lungberg having the day off, and James Forrest resting unused on the bench, Lennon has ample reinforcements as he sizes up a double.
His jaunty march on to the pitch and the celebrations of the Celtic fans in a poor crowd of 30,000 were in marked contrast to the disappointment of a year ago. Celtic have won nothing yet but they have the chance of two trophies. This is the most significant change 12 months on.