For Neil Lennon this must have felt like déjà vu. Eight years ago three second half goals in Kilmarnock saved the Celtic manager’s skin in a stunning 3-3 draw at Rugby Park.
On an afternoon of relentless drama in Aberdeen there was no elation or relief this time around. No sense of a get out of jail card.
The fact it could have been worse was no consolation. With 14 minutes to play Celtic were staring down the barrel of three straight defeats over 90 minutes for the first time since 1994. Yet again, a bout of defensive toothache from Shane Duffy had gifted the opposition a goal and placed the champions in huge trouble.
Heartbreak for Celtic as Aberdeen’s injury time goal leaves them three points behind Rangers
Lewis Ferguson’s second penalty of the game in injury time sealed a point for the home side
A draw for Celtic allowed Rangers to go six points clear as they beat Livingston at Ibrox
Aberdeen: Lewis, Taylor, Considine, Hoban, McGeouch, McCrorie, Ferguson, Watkins, Hayes, Hedges, Edmondson.
Subs not used: Logan, Leigh, Ojo, McGinn, Cosgrove, McLennan, Wright, Kennedy, Woods.
Goals: Ferguson (43 pen, 90+2 pen), Hedges (65)
Booked: McCrorie, Ferguson
Celtic: Bain, Frimpong, Duffy, Ajer, Laxalt, McGregor, Ntcham, Rogic, Christie, Ajeti, Elyounoussi.
Subs not used: Taylor, Brown, Griffiths, Klimala, Soro, Turnbull, Ralston, Welsh, Hazard.
Goals: McGregor (52), Griffiths (76), Christie (78 pen)
Referee: William Collum (Scotland)
Yet two goals in two minutes from substitute Leigh Griffiths and a penalty from Ryan Christie seemed to have placed them on the cusp of a heroic comeback until referee Willie Collum awarded his third spot-kick of the game in injury time. For the second time in the match Lewis Ferguson slotted home to earn Aberdeen a point they probably deserved.
Where this leaves Celtic’s manager now is anyone’s guess. A goal down to Ferguson’s spot kick before half time a bold decision to bench captain Scott Brown for Tom Rogic paid off with two sublime assists from the Australian for Callum McGregor and then Griffiths in the second half. When Christie slotted home from 12 yards it felt like the climax to the Great Escape.
Give Aberdeen their due, they never gave up. They’ll feel this was the right result. Nevertheless the on-form Dons were helped no end by the daft defensive mistakes from Olivier Ntcham and McGregor – in added on time – which gifted them the two penalties. When Celtic slip up these days the damage is usually self inflicted.
A point allowed Rangers a chance to widen the gap of the Premiership. And probably earned Celtic’s manager a stay of execution for the Europa League trip to Lille and next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-final at Hampden.
Aberdeen hadn’t beaten Celtic in the Granite City since a late Paul Quinn winner in September 2015. They, too, will feel they could have won this.
So often accused of adopting a cautious approach to these games Derek McInnes went with a two man front line in Ryan Edmondson and Marley Watkins but failed to pose an attacking threat to speak of until they earned their first penalty before half-time.
Ferguson put Aberdeen in front early from the spot after he was fouled by Olivier Ntcham
Lewis Ferguson was going nowhere in the Celtic 18 yard box until Olivier Ntcham was caught wrong side and clumsily bundled into the back of the midfielder.
Collum is never a man to pass up the chance of giving a penalty at the best of times and this was a game when he was in his element. Ferguson picked himself up and sent keeper Scott Bain the wrong way as he slammed the ball high into the net.
Making his first start since August, Bain was in for the injured Vasilis Barkas. His only act of the first half was to pick the ball out of the net.
Lennon’s team selection had been geared towards stopping the rot with the eye-raising replacement of captain Brown with Rogic. The Australian played behind Albian Ajeti in a reshaped 4-2-3-1 formation, with 3-5-2 ditched. If the aim was to introduce more creativity and craft to the team it worked eventually.
Not so much in the first half when Ntcham hit the outside of the post with a 30-yard drive and unmarked Mohammed Elyounoussi missed a terrific chance with a header.
Attacking midfielder Tom Rogic (left) started in favour of Celtic skipper Scott Brown
Celtic midfielder Callum McGregor (right) celebrates after equalising for Neil Lennon’s side
When Ntcham’s moment of folly resulted in Ferguson’s converted spot kick it felt a bit smash and grab. In a game they couldn’t afford to lose Celtic now had a second half mountain to climb.
The Champions reached base camp seven minutes into the second half with a lovely equalising goal.
McGregor drove inside from a quick throw in, feeding Rogic on the outside of the area before gathering a sublime pass from the Australian and skipping inside Ash Taylor a little too easily to thump the leveller low past Joe Lewis.
McInnes responded with two changes, one voluntary, one enforced.
Scott Wright replaced Watkins up front. Bundled into the advertising hoardings by Shane Duffy, Edmondson also made way for Sam Cosgrove as the big striker made his first appearance of the season.
Both players made a significant impact when Aberdeen regained the lead against the run of play after 65 minutes.
Ryan Hedges celebrates with fellow goal scorer Ferguson after making it 2-1 at Pittodrie
The goal stemmed yet again from another Duffy error, the Ireland captain dealing calamitously with a meat and drink clearance to allow Scott Wright to skip clear on the left.
Squaring the ball to Cosgrove, the substitute only had one thought in mind as Ajer stood off calamitously. Bain saved his low shot but couldn’t prevent Ryan Hedges bundling the ball low into the net from close range.
Celtic were back at the foot of the incline. Brown and Griffiths were introduced for Ntcham and the ineffectual Ajeti.
Incredibly, the substitutes engineered two goals in two minutes to turn the game on its head.
The equaliser came once more from the creative vision of Rogic. As with Celtic’s first leveller the Wizard of Oz unpicked Aberdeen with a threaded pass to pick out Griffiths in the area. As Aberdeen screamed for offside Sky pictures later showed he was on, working the ball onto his left foot before curling an outstanding finish into the top corner for 2-2.
Celtic striker Leigh Griffiths equalised for Neil Lennon’s side to make it 2-2 in a thrilling game
Aberdeen barely had time to draw breath when they fell behind. Elyounoussi nicked in front of Tommie Hoban to get a toe on an Ajer cross in the area. As in the first half Collum had no hesitation pointing to the spot. Christie went for the same side as Ferguson, but drilled it low. Incredibly, Celtic were ahead.
The lead never felt safe, not even when the fourth official put the board up for three minutes of added time.
Aberdeen screamed for a penalty when McLennan was caught by the trailing leg of McGregor. As Collum allowed advantage Cosgrove shot against the crossbar, the play pulled back for the final act. As Ferguson scored once more Aberdeen left the stage the more satisfied team.