Stricken Celtic could have been just seven points off Rangers - had it not been for their fatal flaw

By Matthew Lindsay

Chief Football Writer

Stricken Celtic could have been just seven points off Rangers - had it not been for their fatal flaw

Get the Sports AM newsletter

THIS has been nothing short of a car crash of a season for Celtic in which everything that could possibly go wrong pretty much has.

The Parkhead club’s chances of completing 10-In-A-Row in the 2020/21 campaign were jeopardised from the very start by the fact that some players wanted to leave last summer and were prevented from doing so.

Not having any fans cheering them on from the stands because of the pandemic immediately put them at a disadvantage too.

After just two competitive matches, their momentum was disrupted when Holyrood requested that two of their games were postponed due to Boli Bolingoli breaching coronavirus lockdown protocols.

Positive Covid-19 tests and periods of self-isolation for key men like Nir Bitton, Ryan Christie, Odsonne Edouard, Hatem Elhamed and David Turnbull soon followed.

James Forrest and Christopher Jullien, automatic starters for Celtic on the wing and at centre half respectively, also suffered serious injuries that ruled them out for long spells.

And Albian Ajeti, Vasilis Barkas and Shane Duffy, new signings of whom so much was hoped and expected, failed to justify the substantial outlay it took to secure their services and make an impact.

Then came the Dubai debacle in January – a calamitous affair from start to finish that effectively ended their slim hopes of staging a late fightback. 

Yet, one important factor in Celtic’s annus horribilis has been largely ignored amid all the protests, political storms and poor performances.

Their defending at set pieces has been nothing short of diabolical.

The Jordan White goal they conceded at a second-half Harry Paton free-kick in the 1-0 defeat to bottom-placed Ross County up in Dingwall on Sunday night was far from a freak occurrence. 

The weakness in their armoury may not be as headline-grabbing as their left back playing in a Premiership game just days after returning from a whirlwind visit to a country on the government’s red list that he had failed to inform them about. 

But an examination of the goals Neil Lennon’s men have let in after corners, throw-ins and free-kicks in the past seven months show the failing has been every bit as damaging to their aspirations.

READ MORE: Neil Lennon: Ross County defeat summed up Celtic's entire season - there's been a softness about us

If Scott Brown and his team mates had done better when the ball was returned to play their bid to make Scottish football history and win their 10th consecutive title would very much be alive.

They are 18 points adrift of Rangers in the top flight and just weeks away from finally surrendering their grasp on a piece of silverware that has been in their trophy cabinet for the past nine years. 

If they had dealt with the dead ball deliveries and throws into their penalty box and just outside their area more effectively they would be just seven back with two meetings with their city rivals to come in their final eight Premiership outings. Leagues have been won from far worse positions.

Celtic have drawn no fewer than seven league games this term. In four of them, they have let in goals after set plays. They have, too, lost four times. Switching off at corners and free-kicks has cost them dear in every one of those defeats. 

Rangers centre half Connor Goldson capitalised on that weakness in the first Old Firm game of the season at Parkhead back in October when he got on the end of a James Tavernier cross in just the ninth minute and nodded beyond Barkas.

The defender added another from open play in the second-half so his opener wasn’t vital to the result. The home side, missing Christie and Edouard, were absolutely dire. They didn’t manage a single shot on target in the entire 90 minutes. 

That encounter, then, is disregarded in this review of Celtic’s myriad set piece slip-ups. Would remaining on level terms have seen them grow in confidence and possibly scrape a draw? It is highly unlikely given how bad they were that day.

READ MORE: Neil Lennon apologises to Celtic supporters for letting them down after defeat to bottom-placed Ross County

In many of their other draws and defeats, however, the flaw has been hugely damaging.

Against Hibernian at Easter Road in November, Scott Brown conceded a penalty with a clumsy foul on Martin Boyle after the visitors had failed to clear a Stevie Mallan free-kick. Scott Bain saved the Kevin Nisbet spot kick only for Jamie Murphy to net the rebound. 

Just seven minutes later a Ryan Porteous free-kick from deep inside his own half wasn’t intercepted and Nisbet atoned for his earlier miss. “The second goal was awful,” said Lennon afterwards. “It’s just people standing watching.” His team scored two late on to level. But they fell two behind after two set plays.  

Chris Kane scored after a throw-in to ensure St Johnstone drew at Parkhead in December, Callum McGregor turned a Rangers corner into his own net at Ibrox in January and his men lost, Nisbet equalised for Hibs in the East End in injury-time after Conor Hazard flapped at a Mallan free-kick and Duffy failed to clear.

That last game was played while most of the Celtic squad and management team was in quarantine after their ill-fated trip to the United Arab Emirates. But when they returned against Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena the following week Ciaron Brown was allowed a free header in their box at a Julien Serrano free-kick and put the hosts in front.

Against St Mirren at Celtic Park just 10 days later, Edouard cancelled out a Kristian Dennis opener in the first-half only for a Kristoffer Ajer to fail to deal with a Joe Shaughnessey throw-in wide on the left. Kyle McAllister crossed to Ilkay Durmus who volleyed past Bain. Then came White’s winner at the weekend.  

It is little wonder Lennon is so exasperated.  His team would, despite everything they have had to deal with, still have a real chance of doing 10-In-A-Row if they had handled set pieces better.

“It wasn’t a problem for us last season, but it has been a real problem for us this season with more or less the same personnel,” he said on Sunday. “You have to go and head the ball, you want to block runners.  It’s not good enough.”




Date: Saturday, November 21.

Potential result: Hibernian 0, Celtic 2.

Actual result: Hibernian 2, Celtic 2.

Set piece slip-ups: Penalty conceded, free-kick, 52nd minute; Kevin Nisbet goal, free kick, 59th minute.

Outcome: Two points dropped.


Date: Sunday, December 6.

Potential result: Celtic 1, St Johnstone 0.

Actual result: Celtic 1, St Johnstone 1.

Set piece slip-up: Chris Kane goal, throw-in, 79th minute. 

Outcome: Two points dropped.


Date: Saturday, January 2.

Potential result: Rangers 0, Celtic 0.

Actual result: Rangers 1, Celtic 0.

Set piece slip-up: Callum McGregor own goal, corner, 70th minute.

Outcome: One point dropped.


Date: Monday, January 11.

Potential result: Celtic 1, Hibernian 0.

Actual result: Celtic 1, Hibernian 1.

Set piece slip-up: Kevin Nisbet goal, free-kick, 91st minute.  

Outcome: Two points dropped.


Date: Wednesday, January 20.

Potential result: Livingston 1, Celtic 2.

Actual result: Livingston 2, Celtic 2.

Set piece slip-up: Ciaron Brown goal, free-kick, 15th minute.

Outcome: Two points dropped.


Date: Saturday, January 30.

Potential result: Celtic 1, St Mirren 1.

Actual result: Celtic 1, St Mirren 2.

Set piece slip-up: Ilkay Durmas goal, throw-in, 37th minute.

Outcome: One point dropped.


Date: Sunday, February 21.

Potential result: Ross County 0, Celtic 0

Result: Ross County 1, Celtic 0.

Set piece slip-up: Jordan White goal, free-kick, 71st minute.

Outcome: One point dropped.


Total points dropped: 11.