This Celtic side is worth sticking around for

After ten years of blogging about Celtic on this site and other places, I’d been giving serious consideration to calling it a day. It was purely a personal decision and nothing to do with Celtic, but then something spectacular happened.

Two weeks ago, Neil Lennon achieved yet another of Celtic’s best European results in modern times. And during those moments of jubilation, I changed my mind.

The result in Rome against SS Lazio was a game changer. It made me reconsider shutting down my blog which I started back in 2012, having written elsewhere online for a few years previous.

A decade of putting my thoughts about football (predominantly Celtic) into words online, seemed like a nice round number to end on. There are plenty of things to write about, but time has been my biggest struggle of late.

With Neil Lennon, now in this second spell as manager, making good progress, I sense this is something I cannot miss. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but what he has done in the Europa League group so far is worth sticking around for.

When the tournament began, I felt we could do well against all of our opponents and so far I have not been let down. I had mixed feelings about the match in Rome prior to kick off though.

Lazio were desperate for a win and on home turf and playing effectively two weeks earlier, my head said a win for Le Aquile. The way that match began, it certainly looked like being the case.

Losing in Italy would have been anything but a disgrace. A draw would have been superb.

I’ve seen Celtic lose early goals so many times in Europe over the years by different managers. I haven’t seen many Celtic teams respond to that, but this one did.

The character of the players in Rome was astounding. They’d endured a torrid first half from Lazio, lost and early goal and still managed to pull level before the interval courtesy of James Forrest.

I’d have been happy just to get in at half time without conceding any more. Instead Celtic had turned this match around in a country where they have never won.

Celtic were much more positive in the second half. Chances were coming, but there was still the threat from home side.

At times there were signs that Lazio were running out of ideas. I’ll mention Celtic’s character again because it won us the game.

Lazio looked baffled by Celtic. Fraser Forster was pulling off saves, Celtic were winning 50/50 balls and even getting decent decisions – the latter of which I often find they don’t get in Europe.

Did I smell a match winner? Not a chance.

Not even when Olivier Ntcham came on. Holding out for a draw was more than enough for me.

So when the man I just mentioned ghosted in from the right to take a pass from Odsonne Edouard the last thing I expected was for him to score. And he did just that.

As I’m sure many Celtic supporting living rooms around the world did, mine exploded with joyous celebration. I could not believe we had just beaten Lazio.

I was slightly dismissive of the team who finished 8th in Serie A last season. They had entered this competition having won the Coppa Italia, but despite having lost both games to Celtic, they created enough chances to have got a better result.

It is for that reason that I think that both Celtic victories deserve such great praise. The determination shown, in spite of the fact that in both matches the Bhoys conceded the first goal and then went on to win, shows a mental strength that comes from the top down.

The mentality in this team isn’t just positive. It is driven by a will to win.

Whilst the quality of the squad is far better than that of Neil Lennon’s first term as manager, his rubber stamp on the team has come through loud and clear. He has been given better backing this time around than the first as well.

When Neil stepped up in February, he managed the team without making any alterations. Training, preparation and indeed the way the team played was very much the same.

Neil endured some stick about the way the team were playing toward the end of last season. Many of his critics within the support ignored the fact that he was not interfering in what was largely a winning formula for his predecessor even if it had become dull.

Now with the job as his own Neil is embossing his vision on how Celtic should play. He has addressed problematic areas of the team in one window, something his predecessor failed to.

Despite exiting the Champions League, he has taken this Europa League group by storm. Had we been better prepared earlier in the summer you have to wonder whether we would have been good enough to play in Europe’s premier club tournament after all?

What’s important is that this team are performing and we have a strong squad. It will only get stronger and I sense Neil Lennon could be presiding over a team that will go further in Europe this season.

We may have lost some big players in the last year or so. The team that he has right now though is oozing with quality.

It is for that reason that I am sticking around a little longer just to see what they can do. Ten years seemed like a good number to end on, but maybe I’ll go all Spinal Tap and go to eleven.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Fans need to think more about the consequences of their actions.

A while back, probably after the last UEFA imposed fine over Celtic fan behaviour, I suggested on one forum that it might not be a bad thing if one of our pyromaniac fans got a taste of their own medicine. These fireworks put people at risk with a total disregard to the safety of everyone in the immediate vicinity.

The other thing that is guaranteed, is punishment by UEFA. It also harms our reputation as a club and a fan base.

Sadly, for some within our support, this is seen to be perfectly acceptable. If you happen to be one of these morons then you are acting irresponsibly and selfishly.

I suggested a wee while ago that the next time some clown does this, it might not be a bad thing if they injured themselves in the process. It was a flippant comment, but behind it there was an element of a lesson learned with my intended statement.

There appears to be no end to this idiotic behaviour. In fact many see nothing wrong with it, even if they aren’t prepared to light one up themselves, just happy to enjoy the show.

So it was my opinion that perhaps it might take a serious injury to get the message across that this was not okay. All that seemed to do was provoke those reading my comments.

UEFA imposed fines don’t seem to be delivering the communication clearly enough. My suggestion was aggressively shot down for wishing harm on one of our own, even akin to the mindset of our rivals across the city and that if I had to say this directly to one of our pyromaniacs, they’d kill me where I stood.

Wow. I was stunned.

If my son was at a match and got injured or blinded by some idiot setting off one of these flares off next to him, I’d probably want to kill the culprit. Of course when I suggested this as an example of what could go wrong I was accused of trying to cover my tracks.

I was obviously missing something here. Either that or those who went on the defensive/offensive have missed the point entirely.

To outline the general consensus from that debate, it seems to be okay for our ‘no pyro, no party’ perpetrators to set off a pyrotechnic. Amongst a crowd who are immediately at risk and without a choice in the matter.

When someone innocent gets blinded or burnt that’s acceptable. If the guilty party gets their comeuppance, that’s seen as wishing harm upon them.

This is the mindset of some folk. Within our own support I might add.

We like to think of ourselves as the best fans in the world. On our day we can be – see Seville.

When our owns fans get our club punished and without showing any remorse, I question that. Seriously, I do.

I got dogs abuse for wishing injury upon a pyromaniac. I’ll bet these are the same folk that levelled abuse at Ryan Christie last weekend.

Yet another example of moronic behaviour. Do people never think of the consequences of their actions?

Christie ended up deactivating his social media account. What about the psychological impact of that?

In the last year we’ve come to learn of the difficulties Leigh Griffiths was facing. We flocked to support him whilst bashing those who chose to poke fun at him or make stuff up.

The impact that over-criticism has can become borderline abusive. I’ve gone slightly off topic now, but on #WorldMentalHealthDay2019 I think it is important to point out the consequences of our actions.

Remember that.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We have the players. Do we have the balls?

I haven’t written for a while, though you may not even have noticed. Still, there’s been plenty going at Celtic since my last post a couple of weeks ago.

After the draw with Stade Rennais, Celtic have beaten Kilmarnock (league) and Partick Thistle (cup) at home whilst dropping their first league points of the season away to Hibernian last Sunday. Attention now turns to a match with much significance.

This evening, CFR Cluj return to Celtic Park for the second time in a matter of weeks. Similar to last season, when Celtic faced Rosenborg in both UEFA club tournaments, they are also facing the Romanian champions in both competitions.

The key difference is the significance of the previous meeting between Neil Lennon and Dan Petrescu’s side’s. Celtic’s one sole loss of the season thus far occurred on that summer evening in Glasgow in August – or afternoon as it was for me in Canada at the time.

Having drawn 1-1 in Romania during the first leg, winning the tie at Celtic Park looked good. Cluj were capable, but not that impressive on their own turf.

However, they were fired up for the tie in Glasgow and played pretty much the same way. Where Celtic came undone was through their own mistakes.

The most noticeable thing prior to kick off in that second leg, was the starting eleven. Neil Lennon chose to play Callum McGregor at left back, stating that he wanted his best technicians playing and this was the only way he could accommodate the Scottish international and his team mate, Olivier Ntcham.

Of course, many believed he had dropped Boli Bolingoli because he had lost faith in the Belgian. In fact, there were rumours that Lennon hadn’t even approved the signing of the left back or his team mate Christopher Jullien.

I never bought into that final part, but it was a contentions issue that he chose to leave both of new signings out of the starting eleven. Especially in such an important home game.

Whilst the blame does not fall entirely upon Callum McGregor, his selection at left back and the absence of two new fit signings was the early concern. Like the first leg, Celtic lost the opening goal to Cluj.

McGregor was out-jumped to a cross ball which was headed in off the post by Ciprian Deac. The entire move was preventable.

If the team selection wasn’t a focal point for everyone, then it was now. McGregor, one of our best midfielders, last played at left back in the defeat at Ibrox in December 2018.

That was a mistake by Brendan Rodgers. This was a mistake by Neil Lennon.

The goal could have been avoided before McGregor lost out to Deac. The opportunity and goal set the tone for a poor first half.

Celtic eventually drew level five minutes after half time courtesy of James Forrest. McGregor provided the assist and Odsonne Edouard dummied it, allowing the winger to fire home.

1-1 on the night, 2-2 over all. All square.

Edouard followed up with a second goal eleven minutes later after receiving a cross from Hatem Elhamed. For the first time over the two legs, Celtic were in the lead.

Game on. It’s fair to say that Celtic were now beginning to tick.

They had had early second half chances cleared off the line. Now they had scored two cracking goals to take lead.

Victory was looking good. Then disaster struck.

A moment of madness from our club captain. Cluj had a corner come in from the left which drifted to the far side of the box which for some bizarre reason Scott Brown chose to throw his hand at.

The resultant penalty was dispatched by Billel Omrani. The tie was level on goals, but now Cluj had the away goals advantage.

Just when it was looking grim Ryan Christie received a pass from Edouard and calmly slid home to make it 3-2 on the night. Celtic were back in the game again within just two minutes.

Could it have been more dramatic? Yes.

Six minutes after Christie looked to have saved his captain’s blushes, Cluj punished Celtic again. This time it was Scott Bain who made an error.

Having parried Constantin Paun’s shot, it fell to the player closest to the ball. That man’s name was Omrani and he tucked it away with ten minutes remaining.

The drama was not over of course. We had hoped that it would be the kind of dramtic ending to a game that would be a happy one.

By this point I was close to heart failure as I watched the Bhoys fight for Champions League qualification. In the end it was Cluj who would have the final say in how the tie unfolded.

George Tucudean scored Cluj’s fourth goal to make it a 3-4 victory on the night and a 4-5 win over the two legs. It was the last kick of the ball.

It truly was one of the craziest matches I’ve watched. The self inflicted wounds hurt us badly, but Cluj showed determination and scored four goals at Celtic Park which is not to be sniffed at.

Were there faults by the manager? Yes.

Were there faults by the players? Yes.

Now there is an opportunity to right those wrongs. I wouldn’t dare underestimate Cluj.

They beat Lazio in Romania on match day one of the Europa League group stage. Lazio may not be the best Italian club these days, but you cannot discount a side who still possess rich talent.

I’d like to think that Celtic can get wins in all three of our home ties. Tonight that there is a chance to exorcise that defeat to Cluj almost two months ago.

We were all bitterly disappointed. At the time, Neil Lennon was very calm about it and felt that hysteria was in full flow.

And we were, quite rightly hysterical. He was also correct though that it was a freak result and since he started putting his own mark on the team we have been moving in the right direction.

I am enjoying the football under Lennon again. I had my reservations and there have been one or two turgid performances, but I like what I am seeing over all.

The big question is will we produce the goods tonight? We have to believe that we will.

I think the task for Neil Lennon to come back to the club and reenergise matters was a huge task. I think so far he has done well.

Tonight will be a test for him and his players. We can’t afford to make mistakes.

In Europe errors are costly. You don’t get any favours from officials either and you are playing against them as much as the elven blokes in different colours.

This is actually one of the best chances Celtic might have to win a group stage. I really mean that.

I just want to see the Bhoys go out there and show their class. We have the players.

Do we have the balls? We’ll find out tonight.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Spanish referee was Celtic’s biggest opponent in France

Last night I saw a Celtic side that gave me a lot of confidence. The 1-1 result in Rennes could’ve been a victory for Neil Lennon, but a point away from home on matchday one is fantastic.

Stade Rennais were heavily tipped to beat Celtic given their second position in Ligue 1, big spending and two wins over the mighty PSG in last season’s French Cup and another in the league this season.

The truth was, Celtic were more than a match for Stade Rennais. The French side drew first blood when Kristoffer Ajer hauled down M’Baye Niang in the penalty box.

It was out of character for the Norwegian youngster. He attempted to slide tackle whilst taking hold of Niang’s arm with one hand and his shirt with the other.

There was only going to be one outcome. It was a stupid mistake.

Celtic needed a response, but they weren’t getting any favours from the Spanish referee. Jose Maria Sanchez Martinez had an appalling match.

His decision making was inconsistent and he lost more and more control of the match as it wore on. He failed to book two Stade Rennais players for similar incidents to the one Odsonne Edouard was booked for.

Eddy was given a yellow for simulation. I had reservations about it having seen him kick the ground.

The two Stade Rennais incidents should have received the same discipline. At the end of the day if it isn’t a foul against the attacking team then surely it’s simulation?

Having been denied a stonewall penalty in the second half, Celtic finally got one when James Forrest was tripped in the box. Ryan Christie, the man who had his foot trampled on in the box earlier on, but denied a clear penalty, stepped up and tucked the ball tightly into the right hand side of the goal.

It was more than Celtic deserved after showing to be more than a match for Stade Rennais on their own turf. Celtic looked like they could even win it.

However, the referee’s increasing loss of control descended into a shambles. He sent off substitue Vakoun Bayo after two quick yellow cards.

It was farcical from the Spanish official and was probably one of the worse pieces of refereeing I’ve seen in European competition. He’d get a job with the SFA with great ease.

Celtic could have won that game. I’d go as far to say they were the better team, but they did nothing wrong with the exception of Ajer gifting Stade Rennais a penalty.

That is the one thing Lennon will need to clamp down on. Individual errors.

The team are playing great as a unit. If individual mistakes are going to trip us up then those players, no matter who they are, need to buck up their ideas.

Mistakes in Europe can be costly. We’ve already felt that at the hands of Cluj.

For now, it’s a great start for Neil and the boys. More of the same please.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

From Hamilton to Rennes: Celtic embark upon Europa journey against familiar opponents

Celtic 0-0 Stade Rennais in July’s freindly in Glasgow

After a dull international break I’d been looking forward to Celtic playing Hamilton Accies last weekend. The match wasn’t glamorous yet the scoreline translated as a Celtic victory.

The important thing was the win. Maintaining a 100% record in all domestic games for the time being.

Having managed that after an international break is to be commended as their was a concern momentum may be lost. Hamilton were stubborn and Celtic didn’t get the second goal that would have eased everyone’s minds and made the result look a little more conclusive.

Yet there was very little wrong with what Celtic did. It wasn’t glossy or polished, but it kept Celtic’s noses in front as they prepared for a European week.

We were introduced to Mohamed Elyounoussi who provided the assist for James Forrest’s goal. The only goal of the game which came in the fourth minute.

The Southampton winger was substituted in the 67th minute for Tom Rogic. Rogic has been out for a while, but his return signifies the depth and quality we possess given that Ryan Christie has practically stolen the number 10 role in his absence.

Odsonne Edouard was also involved in the first goal, providing a nice lay-off for Elyounoussi. The Frenchman was replaced by Vakoun Bayo in the 77th minute with Celtic still in the hunt for the second goal.

With four minutes of the six added on remaining, Jonny Hayes came on for Christie. The aim was most likely to unlock the Hamilton back line as he did at Ibrox the other week.

There was some concern for Christopher Jullien when he got a head knock. He eventually played on, but in the aftermath it transpired he’d blacked out which means he probably should have been taken off.

It wasn’t the best game of football I’ve seen against Hamilton, but the result was important. Straight wins from your opening five league games hasn’t been done since 2010.

With another three points in the bag, Celtic embark upon their Europa League Group Stage campaign this evening. Stade Rennais are a familiar face to Neil Lennon having just played them in a summer friendly.

That tame friendly ended as 0-0, but Lennon’s first encounter with the French club was back in 2011 in the Europa League. After FC Sion were thrown out of the competition, Celtic took their place alongside Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Stade Rennais in the group stages.

Results against the French side were good. A 1-1 draw in Rennes followed by a 3-1 win at Celtic Park meant that Neil Lennon’s side had bested the the French club over all but three draws and one defeated elsewhere meant settling for third place in Group I.

Fast forward eight years and the two clubs find themselves up against one another once again. There are no survivors in the Stade Rennais side from that era but Celtic have James Forrest and Fraser Forster who played in both games.

Club captain Scott Brown was absent for the entire group phase that season. So although he didn’t take part, he was very much part of the squad back then.

Stade Rennais currently sit in second place in Ligue 1 behind PSG who they beat 2-1 last month along with Montpelier and Strasbourg. However, in their last two league matches they lost at home to Nice and drew away to Brest.

Celtic are going strong with five out of five wins in the league, a win in the League Cup and just the one defeat in all European qualifiers. Stade Rennais of course, didn’t have to undertake any qualifiers to make the group stage.

Last season they finished in 10th place with Julien Stephan taking the reins in December last year. He took the team to the French Cup Final and won on penalties against PSG.

That earned them automatic entry into the Europa League group stage. Meantime, Celtic had to slog it out in eight qualifiers, despite having won a domestic treble for the third season in a row.

Whilst the team from Rennes have overcome PSG twice in their last two meetings, Celtic have been playing well. And things are still developing under Neil Lennon.

I think tonight’s match is a hard one to call. Celtic will not be phased by those results their opponents got against PSG – they will be ready.

Neil Lennon has put in a lot of hard work over the summer against European sides, recruiting a mixture of youth and experience, as well as changing the way Celtic play. I don’t think a result is out of the question for Celtic this evening and as Lennon himself has already, “the group is open and every team will be looking to have a say.”

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Former Ibrox favourite loses his six year battle…

Today it was announced that former Rangers and Netherlands footballer Fernando Ricksen passed away. His battle with motor neurone disease (MND) finally came to an end after six years.

After being diagnosed with the disease, also know as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), support came from far and wide including former team mates, former rivals and fellow professionals. He also began a charity in his own name to help find a cure for the disease.

I think it is fair to say that many of us were devastated and saddened to see Fernando’s decline. MND/ALS is a disease that was well known to Celtic fans when it claimed the life of Lisbon Lion, Jimmy Johnstone in 2006 at the age of 61.

Fernando enjoyed success in his career with Fortuna Sittard, AZ, Rangers and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Wherever he played he made a name for himself on and off the field.

The contrast between the player who often courted controversy and the man he became after his diagnosis in 2013, made his health even more of shock to people who knew of him. It put everything in perspective with regards to the petty squabbles that we often see in the game of football.

He fought bravely as many other MND sufferers do and we can only hope that he is now at peace after showing a willingness to battle on. One thing we can say for certain about Fernando Ricksen is that he gave everything throughout his career and we applaud him for his contribution to the game and bringing awareness of this disease to the wider public.

Research into MND, which took him at the age of 43, will continue. If you ever wish to donate to the cause, Fernando’s charity can be found here as well as the MND Scotland charity.

Hail! Hail! Fernando.

Stevie Mac

Scotland humbled, Celtic return this weekend

I had hoped that when Steve Clarke stepped down from doing a fantastic job at Kilmarnock that Scotland would benefit from his coaching skills. With two defeats from his opening three games and a third against Belgium last night, qualifying from Group I is dead.

To be fair, the damage was pretty much done under Alex McLeish thanks to an away defeat to 48th ranked Kazakhstan earlier in the year. A glimpse of hope remained when Clarke was installed before the double header against Belgium and Cyprus in June.

Beating Cyprus in his opening match in charge was much needed, but losing away to Belgium was pretty much guaranteed. That meant a good result against the Russians at Hampden was required, but that did not materialise on Friday evening.

With the Belgian’s firing four past Scotland without reply, Clarke is now focussed on the play-offs in March. Next month Scotland will travel to Russia where a draw is the best hope though defeat is more likely.

The group fixtures will then conclude with San Marino (H), Cyrpus (A) and Kazakhstan (H). Clarke has stated that 12 points are up for grabs, but I think 9 is probably more realistic for Scotland.

Before the qualifiers commenced, the pecking order of this group would most likely have put Scotland in third place behind Belgium and Russia. That is now Clarke’s target in the remaining four games.

The SFA botched matters after Gordon Strachan left. Appointing McLeish was a shocking piece of recruitment.

I like Steve Clarke a lot and were it not for his miserable demeanour I’d love to have seen him at Celtic. Realistically, I don’t think he has what it takes to manage a club like Celtic because it is more than just coaching players, which is why I think the Scotland job is probably good for him.

I’m prepared to see how he fairs in the play offs in March. Between now and then he needs to forge a team that is stronger than the current one.

With the international break almost over we can look forward to having our players return to the domestic fold and for Celtic push on this season. On Saturday, the Bhoys are back in action away to Hamilton.

The game is live at midday and the Lanarkshire club will be looking to get some more points on the board. In all likelihood I can’t see that happening against Celtic.

The Hoops are three points clear at the top after putting two past the Ibrox club just over a week ago. That result and the manner of the performance laid down a marker.

Having taken so much flak from Celtic fans, the media and the pundits, the critics were silenced. It was a measured performance by Celtic on September 1st and was a reminder to all, who the best club in Scotland actually are.

Yes, it was a frantic game and yes, the opposition had more possession. The truth is though, Celtic saw that coming, allowed them space and time to play and dealt with it.

The Ibrox club were always going to come out of the traps for that match. In the end, they did very little with the ball in the final third.

The game was won by better quality players. The next match against them will be very interesting indeed.

However, in the weeks and months ahead we have a treble to defend and Europe to conquer. The season is really just beginning.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac