Celtic 2 Raith Rovers 0
Raith Rovers gave an excellent account of themselves despite being knocked out of the League Cup at Celtic Park last night.
The outcome of the tie was in doubt right up until Celtic scored a late second goal, which was testament to Rovers’ gallant performance.
After limiting the Scottish champions to very few opportunities in the first half hour, Rovers fell behind in the 33rd minute to a trademark Kris Commons strike from outside the box.
Despite the setback, the second tier side continued to make life difficult for the hosts, and had chances to grab an equaliser before Stefan Johansen made sure of Celtic’s progress into the quarter-finals with an 87th minute breakaway goal.
Raith boss Ray McKinnon admitted that it was a bittersweet night for him with feelings of pride mixed with a sense of a missed opportunity.
“I’m really pleased with the boys,” he said.
“They worked extremely hard to stay in the game, to allow us to go and have a bash a them in the last 20 minutes.
“We had Celtic rocking near the end and if one of our chances had gone in, you never know what might have happened.
“It’s a bittersweet night.”
One of the highlights of the Raith performance was young midfielder Ross Matthews, who was handed only his third competitive start.
It was a big call from McKinnon, and the 19-year-old repaid his manager’s faith with an eye-catching performance, which included a few crunching tackles on Celtic and Scotland captain Scott Brown.
“It’s a game that suited Ross,” McKinnon said. “He’s got great work ethic and great recovery.
“He tackles well - I’m sure Scott Brown will vouch for that - and he’s not too dissimilar to Scott Brown.
“He’s only just turned 19, he’s got a great temperament, and he covers the ground well. He does everything that people don’t see.
“He done excellent - he covered the areas perfectly and he made it difficult for Kris Commons. The young lad done great.
“He’s a good young player with a bright future.”
Celtic fielded a strong team, despite making six alterations to the side that thrashed Dundee 6-0 three days earlier, while Raith made two changes from the 2-1 victory at St Mirren on Friday.
John Daly dropped to the place with Craig Wighton preferred in the lone striker role, while Ryan McCord made way for Matthews in the centre of midfield.
Despite the imposing surroundings, Rovers, playing a compact 4-5-1 formation, settled into the game quickly and enjoyed a few decent phases of possession.
Indeed, it was the visitors who carved open the first chance on 13 minutes as Grant Anderson’s flick sent Wighton racing into the box and the on-loan Dundee striker forced a diving one-handed save from Craig Gordon with a low angled drive.
For all their possession, Celtic had been unable to fashion a clear opening until a moment of magic from Commons produced a goal out of nothing.
The midfielder picked the ball up in a pocket of space 22 yards from goal, and as Kyle Benedictus charged out to close the space, Commons simply shifted the ball onto this left foot and drilled a low shot into the bottom corner of the net.
Four minutes later, a slack touch from Anderson allowed Celtic’s impressive young left back Kieran Tierney through on goal but Benedictus made a superb goal-saving block.
Raith’s stubborn defending continued to frustrate the hosts until half-time, and again, in the early stages of the second half, as Celtic bossed the game without ever overrunning the visitors.
After absorbing pressure, Raith should have levelled on 58 minutes when Jason Thomson’s long throw dropped to Matthews in the centre of the box, but the youngster sent his volley over the bar.
Celtic seemed to be coasting but they came close to doubling their lead in the 68th minute when Gary Mackay-Steven found space in the box and saw his effort deflected just wide.
With 20 minutes to go, McKinnon had seen enough to suggest that the tie was there for the taking and he replaced Iain Davidson with Daly to push two up front.
Initially, Celtic used the extra space in midfield to their advantage and only a fantastic diving save from Cuthbert prevented Mackay-Steven from scoring at the back post.
Celtic sub James Forrest then also went close with a 22 yard strike that curled just wide with Cuthbert rooted to the spot.
But once Rovers made another two changes - bringing McCord and Mitch Megginson on for Matthews and Anderson - they really started to put pressure on the home defence, resulting in a few panicked clearances.
Raith’s big chance arrived on 82 minutes and the headlines seemed destined for Daly as Wighton’s brilliant back-heel in the box gave the ex-Rangers striker a clear sight of goal but his curling effort sailed over the crossbar.
Raith continued to attack and after good interplay on the edge of the Celtic box, McCord fired a long-range effort over the bar.
With Rovers pouring forward there were now huge gaps at the back, and Celtic made them pay for missed chances when Johansen ran clear in the 87th minute to slot home the killer second goal.
The relief all around Celtic Park spoke volumes. The Hoops may have progressed to the quarter-finals as expected, but Raith certainly made them work for it.
Celtic: Gordon, Blackett, Ambrose, Cifti (Nesbitt 88), Brown, Commons (Rogic 65), Mackay-Steven, Janko, Johansen, McGregor (Forrest 65), Tierney. Not used: Bailly, Izaguirre, Stokes, Lustig.
Raith Rovers: Cuthbert, Thomson, Toshney, Benedictus, McKeown, Matthews (McCord 78), Anderson (Megginson 75), Davidson (Daly 70), Craigen, Wighton, Stewart. Not used: Laidlaw, Petrie, Ellis, Mackie.
Referee: John McKendrick