Neil Lennon is unlikely to be handed the £10 million he reckons Leigh Griffiths is worth any time soon, but the Hibs manager knows that somehow his players must start finding a way to turn the screw on opposing teams.
It’s been a recurring topic throughout this season – and beyond – but there’s no doubt a lack of goals has cost the Easter Road outfit, that inability to make the most of their chances seeing countless points slip through their fingers.
In Lennon’s estimation, Griffiths – whom the Hibs head coach branded “a £10m striker” – was the difference between his side and Celtic, the former Easter Road player taking advantage of an uncharacteristic error from Paul Hanlon to squeeze home the game’s only goal.
From there on in, as Darren McGregor insisted, the Capital team had Brendan Rodgers’ Premiership leaders very much on the back foot for long spells.
But, if truth be told, they again failed to make the most of that dominance, the only threat to the Hoops substitute goalkeeper Dorus de Vries being a ferocious shot from John McGinn which he managed to turn round the post.
“We need to capitalise,” admitted McGregor. “As everybody will tell you, when you get an opportunity at Parkhead you have to make the most of it. Leigh is a top striker and he did that.”
Griffiths didn’t need a second invitation as Hanlon mis-read Kieran Tierney’s cross, forcing the ball beyond goalkeeper Ofir Marciano from a tight angle. As every defender does having conceded a goal, McGregor ran the moment back and claimed it was one which could have been prevented.
While Lennon was adamant the cross should have been stopped at source, McGregor said: “It was a great cross from Tierney, right into the danger area. Paul tried to knock it on but Sparky has hit it with his weaker foot on a tight angle.
“Perhaps if I had reacted a bit quicker I could maybe have got it off the line. You come to Parkhead hoping to keep a clean sheet which is a difficult ask because they are so good going forward at such a fast pace.
“But from then on I thought we were definitely in the game. We put them on the back foot. To be honest, if you come away with a draw you are happy, that’s just being realistic. Yes, you are wanting the win but you know how difficult that will be. However, on reflection, a draw would have been a fair result. We can come away with our heads held high.”
Rarely will Celtic have found themselves so outplayed as they were during the second half of this match. Yes, they should have been ahead before Griffiths scored, Scott Sinclair contriving to somehow hit the woodwork after his team-mate’s effort had been superbly saved by Marciano, but Hibs defied Lennon’s fears that this third game in just six days might prove too much for his players.
With McGinn and Dylan McGeouch controlling the middle of the park, Efe Ambrose and Lewis Stevenson putting the shackles on Sinclair and James Forrest, while McGregor and Hanlon stood their ground in central defence, they looked confident and comfortable.
The introduction of Simon Murray appeared to unsettle Celtic’s back-line, the silence of the home fans a fair indication of how the game was going but for all their possession Hibs just couldn’t engineer the sort of opening they’d enjoyed early in the game when Brandon Barker’s pace gave him a clear run in on Craig Gordon.
The on-loan Manchester City youngster had twice found himself in a similar situation a few days earlier at Dens Park without being able to finish things off and again he was thwarted, the legs of Gordon, who later suffered a serious knee injury in a collision with Ambrose, preventing him from scoring the game’s opening goal.
“I seem to be saying this ad nauseum,” sighed Lennon. “We did not turn our superiority into a goal or goals. That was my only disappointment. We should have taken a point but I was immensely proud of the performance. In the second half we were the superior team – that’s twice we’ve done that at Celtic Park.
“There was nothing in the game. I was really disappointed not to have taken something and that speaks volumes for our performance.
“There was a real belief about the players’ second half and we merited at least a point. I had feared the worst beforehand with this being our third game in six days. I was looking for signs of fatigue, but there wasn’t much there against a top-quality side.
“However, attacking-wise we are not scoring or taking our chances. At Dundee, we had three or four gilt-edged chances and didn’t take them. We didn’t have gilt-edged chances in this game but we had decent chances.
“We were brave but ultimately we lost the game. We have to rectify that in goals some way.”
Marciano did pull out another point-blank stop to deny Sinclair again in the latter stages, the Israeli internationalist, who has had his critics – Lennon among them – at times this season continuing his run of stunning saves of late. But, in the end, it was all settled by that opportunistic strike from Griffiths, who took another step towards 100 Celtic goals with his first against his old club.
Lennon said: “The difference between the teams is a £10m striker – he is tops. That’s what it takes sometimes.”
For Rodgers. it was the ideal way to celebrate both his 45th birthday and his 100th match in charge as Celtic manager but, he admitted, he wasn’t in the least surprised at seeing his side run so close.
He said: “Hibs are a very good team. They haven’t lost many games and get results especially away from home.
“Having played them three times already this season I felt if we defended well we’d have a great chance to win the game and that’s how it turned out.”