THE BOXING fans among you would, this weekend, have witnessed a talented fighter forcing a more physical opponent to compete at his pace. That’s essentially what Celtic set out to do against Dundee United

United went into the game having scored just three goals in the league but still, thanks to their sturdy defence, with 10 points to their name — one more than the Hoops had managed despite their destructive home goalscoring exploits. 

But while Oleksandr Usyk managed to overcome the brief glimpses of an Anthony Joshua resurgence to claim a dominant victory in a 60,000-seater stadium, there was no such salvation for Ange Postecoglou’s Hoops at their own.

To their credit, Celtic did start with an urgency that had been missing in the previous two games and landed their first real damaging blow when Liel Abada leapt to head home a Jota cross in the 16th minute. 

When United countered with Ian Harkes’ header — the midfielder left unmarked and looking decidedly unflustered as none of the three nearest defenders bothered to pick him up — there was a notable shift in the balance of power.

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Not that the Terrors started wreaking havoc. Celtic continued to have most of the ball but seemed to allow themselves to fall into the trap of enjoying possession for possession’s sake and showed little in the way of attacking penetration through the rest of a frustrating first half. 

James McCarthy’s removal at that stage may have been prompted by his being the victim of a few hard fouls but that his display up to then was largely ineffective probably made the decision easier for Postecoglou anyway.

Indeed, the summer signing is a curious one. He is certainly brave in the challenge — as evidenced by his winning the ball while taking a particularly sore one from Jeando Fuchs — but he has yet to demonstrate much creatively beyond that one pass against Raith. 

His lack of off-ball movement lives in stark contrast to that of Callum McGregor, suggesting if there is a role for the Irishman it is not as a single pivot where it seems likely he could be cruelly exposed at times in a system that places such importance on perpetual motion and the creation of passing angles.

System exposure is not a criticism only relevant to McCarthy, though. Talented creative players though they are, Tom Rogic and David Turnbull both have their pitfalls too, ones exacerbated when they are forced to start together and play full matches as they have been since the recent departure of Ryan Christie.

Celtic Way: Liel Abada puts Celtic ahead against Dundee UnitedLiel Abada puts Celtic ahead against Dundee United

Likewise, an alternative to Albian Ajeti up top would have been a nice option to have but what was more worrying is that he barely stuck his head above the parapet after missing a 20th-minute sitter.

It was not all bad, though, and a word should be reserved for Jota. The Portuguese, more than anyone else, did not deserve to be on anything other than a winning side on Sunday.

It was Jota who crossed for Abada’s goal. It was Jota whose trickery time and time again magicked up some sort of attacking opening. It was Jota who made it seem like Celtic would still get the win when the majority of his team-mates were making little headway in their attempts to breach the Tangerines rearguard.

Credit must also go to Dundee United who, while never truly on top of proceedings, nonetheless forced Celtic to fight at their pace for swathes of the match.

The officials made their presence felt too, though not in a good way; United should have had a penalty when Cameron Carter-Vickers nudged Nicky Clark over in the first half and could have gone down to 10 men had Benjamin Siegrist saw red for kicking Abada on the groin after the break.

Postecoglou absolved his players of responsibility in his post-game interviews but the hope is that, behind closed doors, some home truths will be handed down about how and why two inexperienced young men just in the door emerged as the go-to guys in a tight match.

“The players tried awfully hard but it just wasn’t to be,” Postecoglou said after the match. “Even at the end we were still creating chances… we couldn’t really change it up from the bench but we still threatened going forward.

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“Sometimes, as a manager, you've just got to take the responsibility for the result away from the players.

“We're disappointed with the outcome obviously but in terms of our approach to the game and the way we played, the manner in which we took the game to them, I think it's exactly what our supporters want to see."

Fundamentally, Celtic did once again create enough to win — they hit the crossbar three times and missed a gilt-edged chance too.

And all the caveats that have been laid out ad infinitum still apply: Celtic are a work in progress, have a chronic depth issue, are missing four or five of their main players and are in the aftermath of a boardroom shock.

However, filing this one under ‘should have won’ like the Hearts game rather than a ‘did not deserve to win’ like against Livingston will be of particularly scant consolation to fans as the club’s worst start since 1998-99 continues.