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ANALYSIS: Encouraging disappointment for Dundee United as they impress in defeat against Celtic

Albian Ajeti's winning goal can't be stopped by United's defenders.
Albian Ajeti's winning goal can't be stopped by United's defenders.

Dundee United ventured into oxymoron territory with an encouraging disappointment at Tannadice on Saturday.

It was a positive negative, a loss that offered hope of victories ahead for the Tangerines.

It was a strange experience: no points but optimism aplenty.

That is what happens when a newly-promoted team makes the Premiership champions play keep-ball to see out the final stages of a close match.

It was a compliment of the highest order from Celtic to United.

Normally, carrying a 1-0 lead, the Hoops would still be piling forward looking for more goals.

Instead, manager Neil Lennon was content to have his players run the ball into corners of the pitch as the final few minutes ticked by.

Also, you couldn’t help but overhear complimentary comments from several members of the media posse that follows the Parkhead men around the country.

The Tangerines have found a “real” manager in Micky Mellon, it seems. They are much better than many expected, it seems. They will be hard to beat this season, it seems. And so on.

It was genuine admiration for a performance that pushed and tested Celtic for 90 minutes.

It also wasn’t confined to those watching from the stands.

Just consider this from Parkhead skipper Scott Brown.

“They came for us in the first 30 minutes and we always know it’s going to be hard at Tannadice,” he said.

“They’ve got a great management staff and they pressed us really well, with the wingers coming into the middle of the park.

“It was a good battle – and you’ve got to be up for those battles.”

Then, speaking about the winning goal from Albian Ajeti just seven minutes from time, Brown added: “We have a lot to thank him for because we couldn’t get the ball into the net against a very well-organised Dundee United team.”

Brown may not be everyone’s cup of tea but when he talks about the opposition like that he should be listened to.

Micky Mellon urges the United players on. SNS.

It was significant the Celtic captain mentioned United going for the opposition from kick-off and it was clear that Mellon had told his players to let them know they were in a game.

It wasn’t crazy, out-of-control stuff, more a statement that the Tangerines were going to be in the faces and snapping at the heels of Lennon’s players.

Of course, the Hoops hadn’t played a league game for 13 days due to Boli Bolingoli’s Spanish trip but any rust would have been scraped off in the 6-0 hammering of Icelandic champions KR Reykjavik in the Champions League qualifier last Tuesday.

With that result in mind, some United fans would have feared the worst but, just like every other game they have played this season, you began by feeling anxious before seeing Mellon’s set-up and growing more confident by the minute.

He went with four in defence, with 17-year-old Lewis Neilson staying in the right-back role he filled as a substitute at Ross County the previous Saturday.

Calum Butcher played his usual deep midfield position, while Logan Chalmers on the left and Luke Bolton on the right helped blunt the Celtic threat from the centre of the park by tucking in when required.

There were also some golden chances for United, with the pick of the bunch a first-half shot just over the bar from Bolton as well as Jamie Robson’s strike in the second half.

It was a carbon-copy of how they played against Hibs and, like that match, it worked perfectly until undone by a scrappy goal.

What a shame for goalkeeper Benjamin Siegrist that he never got the clean sheet he deserved, with the Swiss pulling off a string of excellent saves. One came in the build-up to Ajeti’s goal, with Siegrist diving to keep out Ryan Christie’s angled strike only for the ball to bob around the box before being fired home by Ajeti through a ruck of defenders.

The Hoops then indulged in game management, hoping for the clock to tick by quickly.

That wasn’t lost on Mellon, who said: “Celtic took the ball into the corner in the last few minutes against Dundee United.

“We can trouble Celtic so much, that’s how they are trying to get over the line.

“It is a great credit to our players that we retained a threat all the way through the game.

“I’m genuinely gutted that we didn’t get something out of it and that shows you how I believe we performed.

“We knew we were coming up against the Scottish champions but we wanted to make sure we did not sit back like a lot of teams do and get their bellies tickled by Celtic.”

Another sign of United’s feelgood factor is that the continued absence of Lawrence Shankland – his fourth missed match in a row – is almost an after-thought.

The message remains that he is injured but getting closer to a comeback.

Tuesday’s home friendly against Sheffield United would appear to offer the perfect opportunity for a Shankland runout but the United boss would not commit to that.

Mellon said: “It is just an ongoing thing.

“He could be fit as quickly as he became injured, if that makes sense, because there was no trauma in the injury. It was something that came on gradually and something that could disappear as quickly.”

Asked about the meeting with the Blades at Tannadice, Mellon added: “It could be too early for him (Shankland) and we never took the game for that reason.”