Celtic travelled to Tannadice on the final day of the SPL season with the aim of finishing the campaign on a high and perhaps more urgently, halting a club record of six away games without a victory.
The Hoops’ last win on the road came against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on February 9th, and since then the Scottish champions have slumped to three defeats and three draws.
Again, like Celtic, United had endured mixed fortunes in recent weeks, drawing five and losing three of their last ten SPL fixtures, which had seen them slip out of contention for the battle for European places at the top of the league.
The visitors had the upper hand in this fixture over the course of the season before today’s final installment, with Celtic having won twice in Glasgow by four goals: 6-2 and 4-0. Furthermore, the two sides played out a 2-2 draw at Tannadice in November of last year.
More recently, the Hoops won through to this weekend’s Scottish Cup Final with Hibernian at Hampden after an extra-time winner saw them defeat the Terrors 4-3 in April.
Celtic were expected to field a younger, less experienced side for their final league encounter of the season, with one eye perhaps turning to next weekend’s opportunity to complete a domestic double.
Surprisingly, however, a near-full strength starting eleven was named by Neil Lennon, with only the departing Paddy McCourt considered out-of-place amongst a side otherwise filled with mainstays.
On a day when Jon Daly, Willo Flood and Barry Douglas played their last game for the club, it was Dundee United who got things underway.
Very quickly though, it was the visitors who took control of proceedings.
As the game settled, Celtic looked comfortable in possession, surging forward in a 4-3-3 formation. The full-backs Lustig and Izaguirre provided width with Samaras, Hooper and Commons being supported by Ledley and McCourt while Brown insulated the central defensive pairing of Wilson and Ambrose from any United counter attack.
With less than ten minutes on the clock, Celtic almost opened the scoring. Jon Daly, much maligned by the away support as he prepares to join Rangers in the Scottish Second Division, clumsily barged Kris Commons to the floor around 25 yards from goal.
Commons picked himself up to curl the ball into the danger area, but somehow his delivery missed every Celtic player and ricocheted off John Souttar. The young and inexperienced central defender could have done nothing to prevent the deflection, but thankfully for the Terrors, goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak was alert to the danger and smothered the rebound before it crossed the line.
Nonetheless, the deadlock was broken by the visitors. Again, Daly’s clumsiness on the edge of the box gave Commons an excuse to go down, and referee John Beaton awarded another free-kick.
Being in a more central area and at closer range than on the previous occasion, the Scottish international decided to have a strike, and his low effort was drilled into the bottom left hand corner of the net to give Celtic a one goal advantage with less than fifteen minutes played.
Commons, who has nineteen goals to his name in all competitions this season, looked to make it twenty within seconds as yet another free-kick was drilled low toward goal. However Cierzniak did well to stretch out a glove and palm the ball onto the post before scooping up the rebound.
The visitors strolled into a two goal lead in the eighteenth minute when Georgios Samaras drove infield towards goal from the left-wing. He darted past Brian McLean at right-back, before his strike from just inside the box took a wicked deflection off of the shin of John Souttar, causing it to loop up and over a helpless Cierzniak into the top right hand corner.
Souttar will perhaps feel in hindsight that he may have done better, as he seemed to encourage the Greek to come inside instead of showing him back outside toward the touchline.
Samaras, who looked on top form throughout, had the ball in the back of the net only two minutes later when he raced clear of Daly and Souttar at the heart of the United defence to latch onto a long diagonal. Despite rounding the ‘keeper and tucking it away, assistant referee George Drummond had his flag raised.
Eight minutes later, Celtic found their way through again; this time it was legitimate, and there was no offside flag.
Jackie McNamara must have been struck with a sensation of déjà vu, as yet again, Kris Commons stood over a free-kick. His delivery was met by Samaras as he rose highest to meet the ball, heading down and into the net beyond Cierzniak to give the visitors a three goal cushion at half-time.
The manner in which the second half proceeded was largely similar to how the first half had unfolded, with Celtic seemingly comfortable and assured in defence, while looking dangerous on the break as they probed United on either flank.
The only highlight on an otherwise gloomy day for the United fans was witnessing the talented Gary Mackay Steven’s clever and intricate link up play with Stuart Armstrong on the right-wing. However, as pleasing on the eye as it was, there was little end product for much of the second period from here or anywhere else on the pitch to trouble Fraser Forster’s goal.
At times, Dundee United seemed to labour as they tried to move the ball down their right flank through Mackay Steven and Armstrong to their detriment as they appeared to leave John Rankin and Barry Douglas largely isolated wide on the left hand side of the pitch.
However, United did begin to enjoy a degree of success as occasional opportunities trickled through to Mackay Steven, Armstrong, Mark Millar and Willo Flood. Unfortunately though, the Celtic backline was alert to any danger, largely restricting the Terrors to shots from distance.
Celtic finally bagged their fourth of the game to apply some gloss to the victory with less than five minutes remaining.
This time, substitute Anthony Stokes, who had replaced Kris Commons around fifteen minutes beforehand, drove into the left hand side of the penalty area, much like Samaras had in the first half. His strike was deflected off of Mark Millar on its way through, leaving Cierzniak stranded as he watched the ball hit the back of the net once again.
Having been linked with Everton and, more recently, Leicester City, Neil Lennon would not be drawn on his own future or potential summer transfer targets, but seemed quietly satisfied with the performance of his side. He said: “Excellent performance, I’m delighted. We rotated the forward players, giving Samaras and Commons a start today. Anthony Stokes has started the last two games and done really well.
“I got everything I wanted from the team today. When you’re 3-0 up it’s difficult to replicate, but even in the second half, I thought going forward on the counter attack at times we were fantastic.
“It’s another clean sheet, and the goalkeeper’s made some good saves. It was important we stayed competitive going into the cup final, so the team can feel good about themselves after that.
“It’s not ideal having to give players holidays while the season is still ongoing, but we felt it was a necessity, and they’ve come back fresh. It’s a little bit different from working for a whole season and then having a six-week break. Once we had the championship won, it was important to give these guys some time off.
“Some of them will be away in the first week in June with their country. We’re back in pre-season on the 20th of June and the Champions League campaign starts in mid-July. There’s just no time for them.
“Having said that, they’re fit boys. They’re athletes, so they’re well-conditioned. It was their attitude that pleased me the most today.”
Jackie McNamara was, understandably, less satisfied than his counterpart, but seemed relieved that the season had concluded, allowing him to begin building for next season, he added: “Obviously I’m disappointed about the goals. I thought they were cheap goals to lose.
“When you play a team like Celtic you know that one of their strengths is the threat they carry from set-pieces, and we’ve lost three out of the four goals from those situations. The other one is deflected in too, so from our point of view, they’re cheap goals. We gave ourselves too much to do with silly, soft free-kicks.
“Today doesn’t change anything. Obviously you want to finish on a high for the fans and for the players. I still have the same things I need to try and change and improve on for next year.
“It doesn’t help that we’ve had so many injuries at the back. That was why we had to play Jon Daly at the back. We’re also not the tallest team in the league, so set-pieces are always going to be a problem, as we saw today.”
Dundee United: Cierzniak, Souttar, McLean, Daly, Douglas, Flood, Millar, Rankin, Armstrong, Mackay-Steven, Boulding.
Subs: Anderson, Tornstrand, Dow, Ryan, Russell, Gauld, Gardyne.
Celtic: Forster, Izaguirre, Ambrose, Wilson, Brown, Samaras, Commons, Ledley, McCourt, Lustig, Hooper.
Subs: Zaluska, Gershon, Rogic, Atajic, Stokes, Fisher, McGeough.