Gulf in class but Raith take heart from dogged display

KIRKCALDY ; Starks Park ;'Scottish Cup ; Raith Rovers v Celtic ;'Allan Walker'Photo ; WALTER NEILSON
KIRKCALDY ; Starks Park ;'Scottish Cup ; Raith Rovers v Celtic ;'Allan Walker'Photo ; WALTER NEILSON
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A CLUMSY tackle, or an exaggerated dive.

Whatever your opinion on it, the fact that it took a debatable penalty, after almost an hour’s play, for a Champions League side to make the breakthrough, says a lot about the efforts of the Raith Rovers players on Sunday.

They may have eventually succumbed to the margin of defeat the gulf in class demanded, but they did themselves, their club and their town proud by giving Celtic a run for their money.

Celtic’s shock defeat to St.Mirren in the League Cup semi-final seven days previous meant they were never going to take their Scottish Cup trip to Kirkcaldy lightly - as proven by Neil Lennon’s team selection.

Seven of the 11 that beat Barcelona took to the field, with top stars Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama - both rated at £10m - starting along with a sprinkling of internationalists.

With a badly cut up pitch, and a strong, bitingly cold wind blowing through the stadium, it was certainly a less than hospitalable welcome to the east coast for the men in green and white.

The Raith team sheet handed to the press showed a surprisingly bold attacking formation featuring two strikers and two wingers, but whether through an office error, or a deliberate ploy to confuse Celtic, this information was false.

The official line from the club office was that an “honest mistake” had been made. As expected, Rovers went with a much more defensive line-up, basically Brian Graham up front on his own, and everyone else behind the ball.

When the two teams emerged from the tunnel side-by-side the difference in size and athleticism was apparant. Grant Murray was understandably cautious.

It may not have been pretty to watch, but Rovers game plan worked in the first half as they managed to tick off the first aim of most big underdogs - to reach half-time at 0-0.

They did so without hardly setting foot in the Celtic half, but through good defensive shape, some heroic blocks and sheer hard work they limited the visitors to very few openings.

There was an early let-off when a Charlie Mulgrew cross struck Eddie Malone’s arm at the back post, but with such a strong wind interfering with the ball’s trajectory, referee Steven McLean was correct to show leniency in this instance.

Left back Mulgrew was Celtic’s biggest attacking threat in the first half as he set up camp in the left wing position. He cut inside to test David McGurn with a low drive after 14 minutes that the ‘keeper did well to hold, and then almost scored direct from a corner in the 35th minute as his inswinging cross missed everyone and brushed against the far post.

Raith right back Jason Thomson briefly escaped from his defensive leash to burst into the Celtic box on the half hour only to be wiped out by a body check from Joe Ledley. You’ve seen them given, but again the referee was correct not to award a spot kick.

With stage one of mission impossible completed, Murray asked his players to show more attacking intent in the second half, and it took them just 30 seconds after the restart to give Celtic their first real scare.

Allan Walker picked up the ball in space in the wide right position and swung over a superb cross that was just beyond the reach of the stretching Graham.

A few minutes later, Beram Kayal’s trip on Malone allowed Graham to register Rovers first shot on target, a 25-yard free-kick that required a good save after bouncing awkwardly in front of Lukasz Zaluska.

The game quickly fell back into the pattern of the first half with Celtic dominating possession and they came very close to the breakthrough in the 50th minute when Tony Watt’s clever back-header from an Adam Matthews cross drifted just wide of McGurn’s post.

Six minutes later came the game’s pivotal moment.

After ushering Kris Commons away from goal Simon Mensing then stuck out a leg to try and win the ball - always a risk when you’re in your own box - and the Scottish international subsequently tumbled to the deck.

There was little contact between the players, but the fact Mensing had got away with a similar challenge just a few minutes earlier meant he was asking for trouble by lunging in again.

Commons didn’t need much invitation to fall over, but then showed his quality by burying an unsaveable penalty into the bottom corner and Raith’s hard work went out the window.

However, they were not quite out of the tie yet and they enjoyed their best spell of the match in the aftermath of the Celtic opener.

Some sustained pressure failed to yield a decent attempt on goal - Clarke wasting the best chance by volleying into row Z - and when Rovers had a proper go in the last 10 minutes, Celtic simply picked them off on the break.

In the 83rd minute, substitute James Forrest burned the otherwise excellent Laurie Ellis for pace then dinked a shot over McGurn for 2-0.

Then a few minutes later, Mulgrew capped off his impressive showing by finding the top corner with a curling shot from 20 yards.

It was a cruel end and ensured that, unlike 1994, there would be no dancing in the streets of Raith.


Twitter: @mattelder_ffp