LURGAN Celtic looked to put their title challenge back on track on Saturday at Annagh United.
And they took the points in a hard fought encounter which saw the home side unlucky not to get a share of the spoils.
After missing the previous week’s game Paul Donegan and Declan McVeigh returned to the starting back four with Conor McAnallen and Michael Toland on the bench alongside Stefan Campbell and Jonny McAreavey, giving the management some strong options to choose from, with the rest of the side along the normal lines.
The match kicked off with the Hoops playing into bright sunshine which made it difficult to see the ball at height and the home side immediately went on the offensive, forcing a series of throws down the left.
They were trying to put Celtic under pressure from high balls into the box but the Hoops withstood all attempts to breech their defensive wall with McVeigh, Donaghy, Shannon, Drainey and Steven Boyd holding firm against the taller Annagh defenders when they moved upfield for set plays.
After the early onslaught Celtic took the lead against the run of play in their first meaningful attack. They moved up the left side and when the ball was played in Niall Lavery, currently in a rich vein of scoring form, hit a left foot shot past keeper Wright to open the scoring and stun the home team.
Annagh replied with a move downfield and gained a free for a disputed hand ball on the edge of the area but it was hit against the Hoops wall and almost immediately Raymond Fitzpatrick played Daniel Ryan through but as he sent the ball into the net was blown up for offside.
Shortly afterwards McVeigh put Ryan through and the same scenario was repeated to the frustration the forward who felt he was played onside by a defender.
The Hoops kept up the pressure and Ryan went on a run which forced a corner which was cleared by Annagh and for the third time in the game Fitzpatrick this time broke through and netted only to be blown up for offside.
Annagh, after this spell of pressure, came back into the game and midway through the half were awarded a corner which was played into the heart of Celtic’s defence and a shot from no more than six yards looked goalbound until Ciaran Fox in the Hoops goal made a sensational save to turn the ball away for a corner.
After the break Brendan Mackin, who was having a quiet afternoon, burst through on a run and fed Lavery who shot over and Fitzpatrick saw Wright block his effort. But the game had gone flat and after the action of the first half was turning into a non-event with some scrappy play and mistimed passes from both sides. McAnallen was brought on to slot into midfield and the home side forced several corners which the Hoops cleared but couldn’t start any attacks of their own and indeed for a period of around 10 minutes Annagh camped out in the Celtic half as they strived to take something from the game.
Annagh then were awarded a corner on the right and when a header looked goalbound Fox made a fine save touching the ball onto the woodwork. When the rebound was fired back in McAnallen headed off the line to clear the danger and this was a major let off for Celtic after a sustained spell of fierce pressure.
On 75 minutes a tiring Mackin and Boyd made way for McAreavey and Campbell and shortly after this the Hoops seemed to gain a second wind and started taking the game to the home side. Lavery forced a corner and from this there was a scramble in the six yard area. Annagh, with the aid of some desperate defending, just about cleared the danger.
The tempo from both sides stepped up but the substitutions Celtic had made gave them a fresh injection of pace as they put the home team under plenty of pressure. Annagh were still playing in a determined fashion to level the game but they were not getting the chances they had earlier in the half and by this stage it looked like one goal would settle the game.
The match was put beyond Annagh’s reach two minutes into injury time when Celtic got their second goal after being awarded a free kick deep into their own half. Donegan stepped up to deliver the ball upfield and when he saw Ryan calling for the ball out on the left sent a long pass to the striker. He took control and ran towards the defence to hit a fierce drive towards the top left hand corner only to see Wright get his fingertips to the ball but the Annagh keeper could not get enough force on the ball to turn it away for a corner and Campbell, following up, crashed the ball home.
This sealed a hard fought and vital victory for the Hoops and with Armagh drawing they now sit a point behind them in third place .
Probably over the 90 minutes Celtic deserved the win but Annagh were unlucky to find Fox in the Hoops goal in no mood to concede a goal when they had chances of their own.
This week Celtic have a home game against Killymoon Rangers and the kick off is at the earlier time of 2pm and all home matches will have this starting time until February 2013.
Out of the top six in the league only Celtic and Queens are playing this weekend due to cup competitions and this week’s game gives the Hoops a chance to go joint top with Knockbreda, albeit with a game more played.
The reserves had a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Banbridge Rangers Res with the goals coming from Finbarr McCorry, Shane McCabe and Dee McCaughley who scored two.
And to complete a clean sweep the youth team travelled to the Showgrounds and beat Coleraine Colts 2-1 to progress to the next round of the Harry Cavan Youth Cup.