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Celtic won their first trophy of the season by defeating Motherwell 2-0 in Sunday evening’s Scottish League Cup final. The reigning champions won thanks to goals in the second half from James Forrest and Moussa Dembélé.
Brendan Rodgers’ side won comfortably in the end, but the game was at times a tense affair. The half-time score was 0-0 thanks mainly to an exceptionally organised defensive setup from Stephen Robinson and his players, who worked hard to keep themselves in the contest.
However, a moment of magic from Forrest, cutting in onto his left foot to calmly place into the back of the net, gave Celtic the lead. And, when referee Craig Thomson awarded a penalty after Scott Sinclair had his shirt pulled by Cédric Kipré, Dembélé stepped up to seal the win.
Motherwell can be proud of their team performance, particularly without the ball. They may also have right to feel aggrieved over the penalty decision, which seemed harsh. However, few will argue that the better side on the day won.
Here we look at the major tactical insights as Celtic picked up yet another piece of silverware under Rodgers’ guidance.
CELTIC RESTRICTED BY MOTHERWELL DEFENCE
Robinson lined his Motherwell side up in a diamond midfield, with Chris Cadden playing just behind strikers Ryan Bowman and Louis Moult. The youngster was tasked with picking up Celtic captain Scott Brown and he did an excellent job for the most part.
Rodgers often likes his leader and midfield pivot to drop deep between the central defenders to help build possession. The centre-backs – on this occasion Jozo Simunovic and Dedryck Boyata – will then take up wider positions while the full-backs push forward down their respective flanks.
However, Motherwell’s strikers fanned out wide to cover the passing lanes between Celtic’s centre-backs and full-backs. Cadden would then sit between them, covering Brown and, occasionally, forming a cover shadow on his opposite man before pressing the centre-backs. This ploy reduced the effectiveness of the Scottish champions’ build-up play.
MOTHERWELL MAN-MARKING BLUNTS CELTIC
Simunovic and Boyata were often tasked with driving forward with the ball at feet, though neither looked particularly comfortable in doing so. Motherwell’s front three stifled Celtic’s initial build-up, while their man-marking in the midfield area made it difficult for Rodgers’ men to play through the middle.
Whenever Celtic’s centre-backs looked to pass forward centrally, they found the opposition trident of Carl McHugh, Liam Grimshaw and Andy Rose directly up against their midfield team-mates. This discouraged such passes or, if they were played, ensured the ball receiver had little time or space to continue progressing the attack.
CONSTANT CELTIC MOVEMENT
Up against a defensively well-organised opposition, Celtic’s movement was always going to be crucial. Fortunately, this is one of the most impressive aspects of their attacking play, and it was on show once again on Sunday.
Brown occasionally dropped between the centre-backs to draw Cadden out and create space in the middle third, where Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor moved laterally and vertically to try and disrupt Motherwell’s defensive structure and create gaps to pass or dribble through.
Sinclair switched between maintaining his width and dropping deep in the left inside channel to receive, while Dembélé at times drifted out to the left, from where he could drive inward onto his favoured right foot and commit defenders. Both attackers were looking to create space behind the opposition to be exploited.
Motherwell defended extremely well, but still struggled to dispossess a Celtic side that moved cohesively as a unit.
FORREST KEY AGAIN
Forrest came off on 78 minutes and received a rapturous ovation from the Celtic fans in the Hampden Park crowd. He, in many ways, was the defining individual for his team once again, having established himself as a key player in recent weeks.
Whether as a wing-back in a 3-4-2-1 or a winger in a 4-3-3, as he was on Sunday, the Scotsman always looked to drive at his opposite man and commit defenders. He also works incredibly hard, utilising his energy and pace to own the right flank.
However, in the Scottish League Cup final his dribbling and running were overshadowed by a sublime finish that opened the scoring. Given a glimpse of space in a tight game, he took full advantage to give Celtic the lead.
MAN ADVANTAGE HELPS CELTIC
Celtic were frustrated for large parts by a solid Motherwell defensive strategy, but looked headed for a win nonetheless as they gradually asserted their control over the contest when they were awarded a controversial penalty. It’s a shame, but that decision will overshadow what was an increasingly intriguing final.
Kipré made minimal contact on Sinclair and some will argue the Englishman could and should have stayed up. However, if the penalty award was in itself debatable, the red card for Motherwell’s centre-back was very harsh.
With Celtic two goals to the good and with a one-man advantage, the Scottish League Cup final was essentially over as a contest from the 60th minute onwards.