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McGeady missing in time of need

As the dust settles on an Old Firm game that has surely determined it is the blue half of Glasgow that will be toasting a title triumph this season, Celtic manager Gordon Strachan has some difficult questions to address in regards to his mystifying team selection following Celtic's defeat at Ibrox.

Eyebrows were immediately arched at the sight of a Celtic line-up that saw Shaun Maloney's name boldly included from the start for the first time in the SPL since December at the expense of fans' favourite Aiden McGeady.

It was the latest in a series of perplexing tactical decisions from the Celtic manager which often seem to fly in the face of form or reason and it has backfired on his team with potentially devastating consequences for their title bid.

A game of such importance called for calm heads and the decision to recall a player (albeit a talent such as Maloney), who has barely kicked a ball for the first team this year, seemed to be an act of unnecessary recklessness from Strachan.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from McGeady's absence is that the spat between the Celtic fans' darling and Strachan does not seem to have been resolved. It had been widely assumed that following the two week ban imposed on the player by Strachan in December that the Irish international would leave the club in the January transfer window.

That punishment, imposed following a blazing dressing room row between the pair, seemed either a brave piece of assertion from the Celtic manager at the time or a foolhardy act of self sabotage with an Old Firm game looming.

As it was, McGeady missed the Christmas game at Ibrox and Celtic ground out a 1-0 win that meant the player's omission was not raked over too vigorously. McGeady returned to the fold chastened and, with the derby victory that put Celtic seven points clear of their old rivals vindicating his decision, Strachan's hand appeared stronger in the wake of the event.

Saturday's reversal of that scoreline sees Celtic now trail Rangers by two points with three games left to play. In truth, Celtic deserved to take something from a match they dominated in large spells but the harsh glare of hindsight will not shine favourably on Strachan in the wake of this defeat.

McGeady replaced Maloney at the hour mark with the diminutive ex-Villa man having shown none of the flashes of brilliance he can produce that would have justified his inclusion. Given his lack of first team action, this should have come as no surprise to anyone.

McGeady, sent on with his side trailing to Steven Davis' goal, was given half an hour to help steer Celtic's title bid back on course and went close with one effort which struck the sidenetting.

Although it would be wrong to say McGeady's abridged appearance was a telling riposte to his manager's decision to leave him out, it is impossible to avoid the question of how Celtic may have fared with their most creative player involved from the start.

McGeady's star turn in the last Old Firm encounter in March, when he capped an excellent display by winning and scoring a penalty at the end of a gruelling 120 minute Co-operative Insurance Cup final, makes Strachan's decision to leave him out even more peculiar and the ageing Christian Dailly would have received an unexpected boost when he realised the tricky winger would be kicking his heels on the Ibrox bench.

Strachan has form when it comes to such unpopular tactical switches as both Neil Lennon (the Celtic skipper bizarrely removed with 20 minutes remaining in 2007's Scottish Cup final) and Scott McDonald (Celtic's top scorer inexplicably dropped from a side chasing a first Champions League away win in Lisbon against Benfica) may testify.

"Im not here to explain every decision I make," Strachan growled in response to a question about his latest team selection and the success the ex-Southampton manager has enjoyed since joining the Parkhead side has, by and large, protected him from the often fierce criticism he has attracted from a section of the Celtic support.

He is the first Celtic manager since Jock Stein to have won three league titles in a row. The Scottish Cup and a couple of League Cup wins have been enjoyed as have two last 16 finishes in the Champions League - not even Martin O'Neill was able to get Celtic out of the group stages in that competition.

If the argument 'show us yer medals' carries any clout then the clatter of Strachan's as they drop to the debating table should drown out plenty of dissenting voices.

Those voices have swelled though this season as Celtic fans, frustrated with the performances of the team at home and in the Champions League (where they finished bottom of a group containing Aalborg) have seen their Christmas advantage at the top of the table whittled carelessly away.

They will know that Saturday's result should have had little bearing on the title. Following December's Old Firm victory, and the lead they carried going into the January transfer window, Celtic should have been able to absorb a defeat on Saturday.

But the £100,000 signing of Willo Flood from Cardiff City represented the sum total of Celtic's transfer activity at the turn of the year and this reluctance to invest in the team has come back to haunt them.

A poor run of results since the new year against other sides let Rangers right back into the race and so Saturday's match, a potential title decider, was the worst possible time to be making daring or controversial team selections.

In the absence of an adequate explanation behind his decision to leave McGeady on the bench, Celtic fans will have drawn their own conclusions as to Gordon Strachan's reasoning.

Saturday's game was only the third time McGeady has been benched since returning to the side in January following his ban. February's draw against Rangers at Parkhead also saw McGeady dropped with Flood preferred.

Either Strachan felt the Celtic team would benefit from the absence of their star player in these hugely important league tussles or he is inflicting a peculiarly self-defeating form of punishment on the player by leaving him out.

Celtic fans will find it hard to forgive if a lingering personal spat has intruded on their hopes of a fourth successive league title.


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