League Cup semi-final: ‘Celtic relief after Kilmarnock bravely trade blows’

At the end, soaked to the skin, Ange Postecoglou walked to sections of the Celtic support, lowered the hood of his jacket possibly for the first time all evening and did his fist-pumping routine with gusto.

We’ve seen it all season but it looked like there was an ounce more passion in his celebration this time, a touch more meaning in his body language.

It wasn’t just the fact his team had just made another final – though that was reason enough to rejoice – it was how they did it.

This was a battle in conditions as foul as some of the things some of the Celtic fans sang at various times during the night, a victory forged in a tempest against an opponent that pushed them all the way.

Watching your team having to battle their way to victory brings a certain kind of satisfaction. Watching them avoiding the concession of a penalty with three minutes left to play when their lead still stood at one must have brought relief, too.

Even the unending rain at Hampden couldn’t douse Derek McInnes’ fire over that penalty call that went against them when Giorgos Giakoumakis went barrelling into the back of Joe Wright causing the Kilmarnock man to fall to the floor.

Killie appealed, strongly. Willie Collum ruled, weirdly. No penalty, no VAR, no end to McInnes’ frustration. He said his piece in the aftermath as he was entitled to. It was hard not to feel for him.

Killie’s part in this was unexpected. Nobody saw a contest coming. Even with the weather as it was – ducks would have quacked for cover – you couldn’t see the conditions being enough of a leveller to narrow the chasm that exists between these sides.

McInnes’s team are 38 points behind Celtic in the Premiership, they’d conceded seven goals and scored none in the two league games against Postecoglou’s men this season. They started with Kyle Lafferty who hadn’t played since mid-October for a ban on the back of a sectarian comment. Lafferty lasted 45 minutes.

A proper beating was the worst fear for Killie folk. Would they have settled for a face-saving loss beforehand? A 1-0 or a 2-1? A performance to build on even if it there was no final to look forward to at the end of it? When you are where they are in the league, then perhaps.

It was that mindset that McInnes railed against in the preamble. We could hear McInnes’ intensity, a hint of how driven his players went on to be.

He spoke of Killie being written off, how nobody on earth was giving them a chance, how everyone felt they could be on the end of a hiding.

He didn’t send his team out to defend their way to extra time or penalties, but to play, to take the game to Celtic, like an underdog in a prize fight meeting a favourite in the middle of the ring and trading blow for blow.

Danny Armstrong has been a star for Killie this season, a player with devil and little fear in his game. He took to this semi-final with relish. Alexandro Bernabei was nervous in his presence.

The unease spread to Carl Starfelt at times. In those early minutes Killie had chances but didn’t take them. Joe Hart saved excellently from Rory McKenzie. McInnes turned away from the pitch in angst. You can’t pass up chances like that against Celtic. McInnes knew the significance.

Celtic scoring with pretty much their first attack was a classic Celtic thing to do, a rope-a-dope in the rain. Daizen Maeda got it, but knew little about it.

Kilmarnock had their chances before Giorgos Giakoumakis, having survived a penalty scare moments earlier, tucked in Celtic's second in injury time
Kilmarnock had their chances before Giorgos Giakoumakis, having survived a penalty scare moments earlier, tucked in Celtic’s second in injury time

Lafferty couldn’t believe his bad luck when his clearance came off the impressive Japan international – a player who has returned from the World Cup in top form – and nestled in his own net.

At that point you might have expected Celtic to drive a stake through the collective Killie heart, but there was none of that. Postecoglou’s side had two goals ruled out, both correctly. They had other chances that they missed.

There was never a sense Killie were done until that late Giakoumakis goal went in, a testament to their own character on the day. The penalty shout that preceded the strike that made it 2-0 was the thing that McInnes focused on more than anything else later.

He’ll be sore that this team will not return to Hampden for the final, but the attitude, the chances created, the issues they caused Celtic would have enthused him hugely.

He has a relegation fight on his hands. If his players can dig in over the next three or four months the way they did for 90 minutes here then that is a fight he will win.

He has to rationalise it in that way. He has no choice. Postecoglou doesn’t have to do any such thing. It was a difficult night. His team underperformed and were pushed to the max.

They survived the scare of a big penalty appeal. Some of his best players didn’t deliver. None of that matters. None of it.

A place in the final is all that counts. The bottom line. Celtic want a treble this season. Despite the rain and the wind and Killie’s challenge they are another step closer to that.