HOW a team reacts to setbacks, and how they handle moments of adversity, often reveals more about their title credentials than when they are hammering supine opposition. When they are on the ropes, do they have what it takes to reach within themselves and produce a knockout blow?
Celtic answered that question on Wednesday evening. It had looked for all the world as if Ange Postecoglou’s men were going to coast to another three points on their travels, blowing Aberdeen off the Pittodrie pitch in a blistering opening 45 minutes. To stretch the boxing analogy further, perhaps to breaking point, it was such a one-sided affair that it could have been stopped at the interval.
Aberdeen though had been saved by the whistle, and to their immense credit, came roaring back at Celtic. And make no mistake, as Lewis Ferguson’s header found the net to draw them level, and with a frenzied Pittodrie against them, Celtic were wobbling.
Or so it appeared. For about a minute later, Jota produced the rope-a-dope, and Celtic had answered the challenge.
In the aftermath, there was much reflection from a Celtic perspective not only on the positive aspects of their mental resilience, but also on the defensive weaknesses that were exposed by Aberdeen’s set-piece creativity.
In this ultimately narrow but crucially important win then, they learned much about themselves, and took some harsh lessons away that must be heeded if they are to maintain their slender advantage over Rangers at the top of the Premiership table.
According to Matt O’Riley, who got his first Celtic goal with a deflected effort that put them 2-0 to the good in the Granite City, manager Postecoglou had his players prepared for the rocky night which unfolded, allowing them to react in the proper way.
“He said before the game that he can’t say how the game will pan out,” O’Riley said.
“Anything can happen and we obviously conceded two goals which weren’t ideal, but you just have to react to it, which we did.
“It was another three points, which was definitely the main thing. It was a tough game against quite a physical side. The pitch cut up near the end which didn’t really suit us, but you have to adapt to the conditions.
“We definitely could have played better, could have managed the game better. We let them back into the game which was a bit unnecessary, but at the same time we managed to grind out the win which was the main thing.
“We gave away sloppy goals but again that happens. You have to react, which we did, which was the main thing.
“We have shown before that we can come back from – not necessarily losing positions – but just tough games in general, to see out games.”
When Celtic moved two ahead after just 20 minutes at Pittodrie, what was striking over and above their dominance at that point was that both scorers – Jota and O’Riley – had been dropped to the bench for the weekend win over Motherwell.
That was clearly a decision made on the basis of squad rotation by Postecoglou, but the strong performances from both on the night not only justified the call, but showed that the depth of the Celtic squad is now pushing the best out of players eager to grasp any opportunity they get on the pitch.
“We have a really strong squad now so in terms of rotation it is going to be really important,” O’Riley said.
“We have so many games coming up that everyone genuinely needs to be ready because 10 games in a month, it is hard to play every game and play at your maximum potential. So, in that sense, I think you really need to utilise the squad as much as possible.
“Me and Jota came in [at Aberdeen] and helped out and that’s all we can do.
“Obviously I am delighted [to get my first goal]. I missed one chance against Dundee United which was a really good chance, which was playing at the back of mind a little bit.
“So, I said before the game that I could do with scoring just for my own head, and fortunately it happened.
“It was amazing, it was also in front of the fans which always makes it better.
“I am not too fussed about goals as long as we are winning, that’s the main thing for me.
“Of course it is nice to get contributions yourself but three points is the main thing, honestly.”
O’Riley milked that moment in front of the traveling Celtic fans, and he is happy to be able to repay the support they have shown him since his arrival from MK Dons last month.
“I am very grateful for that,” he said. “It is not necessarily easy to settle in quickly at a club like Celtic so I am really happy with the way it is going, and obviously support from fans is always nice, so I am very grateful for that.”