Celtic can look back on their pre-season campaign and take plenty from their performances if not the results. Today's game was no exception. Both sides were evenly matched, and it was a good showing of what we can expect in the coming season, though hopefully with a little less heat!
At points the temperature soared into the mid-thirties in the sun, with barely a breeze to ruffle Hooper's hair. This led to frequent water breaks, original when the physios came on, and later, when a goal-kick was being lined up or for any reason that could be manufactured. I'm sure Stafford brought so many substitutes (8 in total, 7 played) so that there could be frequent watering during substitutions.
Both sides traded attacks in the opening few minutes, the best of which was Hooper's rocket of a shot from just outside the box after Keeling had squared a good to him, but it was blocked. Stafford though earned several set piece situations as the defence harried their front line at the expense of a couple of corners and a free kick, which McAughirie bent just wide of the mark.
Celtic were trying to thread the ball along the deck around the exceptionally tall back line of Rangers. Potts, Caldecott and Keeling all seemed to be instrumental in these moves, and both Potts and Keeling had good opportunities after Caldicott threaded the ball to the edge of the 'D' to Potts who tried a first time shot that rebounded off Daniel as far as Keeling, his half volley was just wide.
The front line of Stafford were equally tall, and lacking the presence of Pearce, cross and dead-ball moves were always a threat. Szewczyk proved this when he got to a cross ahead of Bowker by dint of being three inches taller, fortunately, he put it wide. Moments later, he had got the better of Bowker again with a high bouncing ball, his hooked shot was blocked exceptionally well by Dootson at the expense of a corner. The corner fell to the mobile and dangerous looking Davison, and Dootson acrobatically hooked the snap volley away from danger allowing Bowker to clear.
The closest either team came to scoring though was right before half time when Potts spread the ball to Foster who had left his marker floundering to provide enough time for a curling shot from just outside the box that dipped and swerved but not quite by enough as it rebounded off the far post and back into play to be hooked clear with Ryan Price nowhere near it.
In the first half, Stafford had used their stature to boss the game, but as the heat began to tell on both teams, Celtic began to edge an upper hand in the second half looking far more dangerous, especially when Eastwood was teamed up with Gedman instead of Foster, who complimented rather than added to Eastwood's abilities.
Gedman should have earned Celtic a penalty almost from the off. He raced into the box and knocked the ball past Price, who's trailing arm brought Gedman crashing down. The referee ruled it accidental, and waved play on.
Despite Celtic's domination of the midfield, it was Stafford still creating great chances, through the commanding form of Davison. He brought the best out of Dootson with four superb strike that Dootson was equal to every time. The tall Rangers forward had the on the ball ability to turn Caldecott inside out, and on each occasion struck a sweet shot Dootson had to be on top form to save, first he tipped the rocket over the bar, then one-on-one, he saved with his legs.
At the other end, Eastwood was getting hungry, and with Gedman as his wing man, he was looking mean. If a Celtic goal was going to come, it would come from here. However, Price was not really worked, as Gedman lifted the ball over the advancing Price to Eastwood, but the ball was too high and his hooked shot was blocked by Daniel, then a few moments later, Wharton fed him a low ball, he turned Daniel and shot with enough power to make Price spill the ball, but there was no Celtic man on the follow through to hinder Price in recapturing the loose ball. Wharton interchanged with Potts to get into the box, saw too many bodies between him and goal and did a clever reverse pass to Eastwood, who tried to chip the still getting into position Price, but cleared the bar.
Gedman came close when Potts raced away from his new marker into the box and squared a low ball across the six yard box. Eastwood and Gedman were arriving at speed and both threw themselves at the ball, Gedman getting closest at the far post, but neither close enough to divert the ball into the net. As Celtic continued to carve up the opposition, a lobbed ball into the box looked destined for the goal until Price acrobatically turned it around the post.
The corner came to Norton, who squared to Eastwood, but his shot was blocked by Downs for a throw. Eastwood was seriously looking for a goal, and with quarter of an hour to go crossed to Norton, but Downs got the better of him, diverting the header for a corner, that Gedman headed just past the post.
Stafford made a substitute that at first looked good news for Celtic. They took off the dangerous Davison and brought on Jimmy Dunn.
Daniel got forward, beat Fitzgerald and slid a ball across the six yard line, where Dunn was waiting to tap home. Not completely against the run of play for the game, but certainly for the previous twenty minutes.
Celtic did try in the remaining ten minutes, but with the exertions of the previous eighty minutes, there was little left in the tank, and blessedly, the referee only added a minute, despite there being about six minutes to add due to the length of time taken to take on water during goal-kicks, substitutions, injuries and anything else that the ref could manufacture.
The two sides were very even in terms of ability. Stafford, like ourselves, had a good last season, but were just outdone by the ultimate winners. How the game would have panned out with something at stake, is something we'll have to wait a week to see.