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BREAK AND BLANK BUY FLETCH; Clydesdale Bank PREMIER LEAGUE SPL LATEST... Toothless Celts show why they are so keen to nab Hibs striker.

Byline: By Hugh Keevins



IT'S obvious why Celtic think they need to spend millions of pounds on Stephen Fletcher from Hibs. They were goalless and clueless and must now face the consequences of their inactivity in the title race.

A total lack of threat in front of goal in Inverness has given Rangers the chance to overtake their greatest rivals when they meet at Celtic Park in the next league game on February 15.

The need for a goal threat will have to loosen the purse strings on the final day of the transfer window or else there could be long-term consequences for Gordon Strachan's side.

Georgios Samaras missed good chances to give Celtic a win over the team rooted to bottom of the SPL table on the back of eight defeats in a row before they kicked off against the toothless champions. Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was an ineffective replacement for the Greek at the start of the second half and Scott McDonald went through 90 minutes without getting anything on target.

If it hadn't been for substitute Adam Rooney, on for Andrew Barrowman, and Dougie Imrie getting in each other's way and squandering a late chance that was begging to be converted, Celtic might have dropped all three points.

As it is, their lead over Rangers is now just two points and the derby takes the teams back to the ground where Walter Smith's side scored four times earlier in the season.

Celtic forfeited the right to go into the Old Firm game knowing they could afford to lose and still stay on top. The fault was entirely theirs because the opportunities to score were plentiful.

Cillian Sheridan was thrown on as a lastgasp throw of the dice by Strachan, with McDonald going off at pace to the subs bench with a disgusted look on his face.

But it was Inverness who came closest when full-back Lionel Djebi-Zadi forced Artur Boruc to make a one-handed save at the foot of his left-hand post.

Caley Thistle might remain bottom of the table, four points adrift of Falkirk, but they would have left the field with more to be pleased about than their opponents.

Inverness fans wore blood-splattered headbands in honour of new manager, Terry Butcher, and not, presumably, as a tribute to Glaswegian icon Rab C Nesbitt.

The new arrival then tried to give Celtic a sore head by playing his latest signing, Richie Foran, from the start and hoping for the sight and sound of lightning striking twice on a Spring-like day.

The Irishman had played when Butcher's Motherwell denied Celtic the league championship by beating them at Fir Park on the final day of the season in 2005.

That was before Strachan's time and his attention was fully occupied by present-day considerations anyway.

Foran thought the plan to tempt fate had worked a treat when he had the ball behind Boruc in only four minutes but the goal was chalked off for offside. It was a let-off that relieved a lacklustre side. Rangers' title challenge has been galvanised by John Fleck. Celtic had to avoid the flak that would come their way if a one-time seven-point lead at the top of the league was reduced to only one in the last championship match before the Old Firm derby.

Caley's way of giving their visitors no respite from pressure was to be in their faces at every opportunity. Boruc had made a meal of the first shot directed his way and conceded a corner kick to illustrate Celtic's ongoing problems with defensive laxity encouraging Caley players to smell blood.

The fresh impetus teams always get with a managerial change wasn't initially matched by sufficient vigour from the Celtic players who waited for something to happen in their favour.

Samaras highlighted the problem when Barry Robson's lofted pass gave him the perfect opportunity to score against the run of play in 16 minutes. The Greek elected to pass the ball to McDonald rather than shoot with the goal at his mercy and an interception ended a promising move.

Samaras seemed equally negligent when Aiden McGeady landed an early cross on to his forehead and he contrived to nod a glorious opportunity wide of the post.

The misses were at least indicative of Celtic coming to life but the problem Strachan's side has is the need to score enough goals to compensate for their defence's tendency to give them away at the other end.

Every set-piece Inverness had was a potential source of danger and Boruc had to spread his not inconsiderable frame to prevent Pavels Mihadjuks from heading in an opener from a free-kick by Ian Black.

The strain Celtic were under was reflected in the bookings given out to Stephen McManus and Robson and the defending champions' day out in the Highlands was as problematic as every other that could have been recalled to mind from the past so far as this fixture is concerned.

The uncharacteristically pleasant weather for the time of year seemed to have the effect of making Celtic stroll rather than strive for excellence in the first half. A tepid response from Samaras and McDonald to a beautifully whipped cross from Lee Naylor at the start of the second half had the Celtic fans behind that goal chanting for Vennegoor of Hesselink.

Any urgency being displayed came from the home team and Celtic were crying out for a change in personnel to see if it could do anything to inject life into the team.

The switch that traded the Dutchman for Samaras was duly made after 51 minutes, a sure indication the manager knew his side was directionless and needed instant assistance up front.

McDonald cut a dispirited figure as he was starved of service and his discomfort was added to by a late and reckless tackle from Black that saw the Caley Thistle player earn his fifth yellow card of the season.

The clock had started to tick down on an uneventful game for a Celtic side that wanted to increase their lead in the championship but didn't know how to do it.

Replacing Shunsuke Nakamura, described by Strachan as a genius after the Co-operative Insurance Cup win over Dundee United on Wednesday, with Marc Crosas summed up a lack of inspiration.

There was no aggression in front of Caley's goal as Celtic went meekly towards the loss of two championship points they could yet live to regret - unless they want to pay the price of sending for reinforcements.


Dougie Imrie (Inverness CT)


SAM OLD STORY: Georgios Samaras watches another chance wasted, there is a let-off as an Inverness "goal" is chalked off and it's frustration for Scott McDonald as he fails to hit the target; AGONY: Stephen McManus can't believe it after a chance to win the game for Celtic goes over the bar; MAKING HIS POINT: New boss Butcher hails fans after steering Caley Thistle to a draw
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 2, 2009
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