A semi-final initially notable for Hibernian’s curious approach was later typified by the one which sets Celtic apart from the rest in Scotland. Brendan Rodgers is within one match of his fourth trophy success as the Celtic manager from as many attempts.
This victory may have a wider resonance than extending Celtic’s unbeaten domestic run to a staggering 60 matches. Moussa Dembélé’s star had fallen to the extent where the forward, not so long ago linked with every major club in Europe, had just a single goal to his name since March. Fitness rather than form is the key to that, with Rodgers inevitably going to turn once more towards the powerful Frenchman when condition allowed. Albeit the match was already way beyond Celtic’s reach, there was a notable improvement in performance on Wednesday night in Munich from the point where Dembélé was introduced from amongst the substitutes.
Hibs had cause to bemoan the same scenario. No sooner had Anthony Stokes halved a two-goal Celtic advantage than Rodgers turned to Dembélé, a player unquestionably motivated by the injury frustrations of recent months. The 21-year-old duly claimed a double to douse Hibs hopes. “Moussa is probably the only disappointed player in that dressing room,” said Rodgers only partly in jest. “He thinks he should have had a hat-trick.”
A less likely hero had aspirations of the same. Mikael Lustig, the Celtic full-back, had afforded his side what ultimately proved an insurmountable lead by the interval. With plenty assistance from Hibs, it must be said. The Premiership newcomers were strangely tepid in the first period, in thereby failing to ask sufficient questions of a team perhaps feeling the effects of an arduous Champions League outing.
Lustig stole in at the back post in splendid isolation to connect with a Stuart Armstrong cross, the Hibs goalkeeper Ross Laidlaw wrong-footed when seeing to claw away the Swede’s shot. Laidlaw was blatantly culpable for number two, Lustig again at the back post and this time connecting tamely with a Leigh Griffiths corner. “You can’t give a team of this calibre that kind of head start,” was the accurate assessment of the Hibs manager Neil Lennon afterwards.
Still, in displaying the attitude which has typified Lennon’s own career, Hibs did not meekly concede the tie. A bullish second half performance by the Edinburgh side brought hope in controversial fashion as Dedryck Boyata was adjudged to have illegally upended the marauding Martin Boyle inside the penalty area. Celtic complained bitterly about the spot-kick award - and continued to do so at full-time - with their former striker Stokes taking full advantage of it.
At this point, it was legitimate to question what spirit Hibs could have summoned if backed by a sizeable support. There was embarrassment for the club and the Scottish Professional Football League owing to vast swathes of empty Hampden seats in the designated Hibs section. Not only could those tickets have been sold to Celtic supporters if Hibs had not demanded such an allocation but the sale of around 4,000 fewer briefs than register as season tickets at Easter Road presents an anomaly.
A combination of Celtic’s impressive fortitude and Dembélé provided crucial intervention thereafter. It was almost as if Rodgers had pressed home to his players that onlookers would anticipate a collapse.
Dembélé was afforded a tap-in after build-up work from James Forrest and Scott Sinclair to seemingly settle the tie at 3-1. Hibs rallied again, their 19-year-old substitute Oli Shaw producing a fine finish having collected a Steven Whittaker pass. Dembélé was to provide the closing act from a counter-attack.
“I’d rather lose 4-2 going for it than letting it peter out at 3-2,” Lennon added. He may also take a degree of consolation from the identity of the man who sealed Hibs’ fate. There are signs that Dembélé is back.
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