The European Hangover

Yesterday’s home defeat to Inverness was a timley reminder of just how much it can cost a club to chase the European dream. Celtic have struggled in post-Europe matches, but this is nothing new to us.

Some theorise there is no other club to challenge Celtic for the league. I feel there is an argument for and against this.

The demise of our old rivals left Celtic without a potential running ‘mate’. If say the non-existent Rangers were still alive and in the SPL, but without European distraction it may have widened the gap with the rest of the league as seen historically.

This may have pushed Celtic to get those results that have so far slipped through their fingers. As I said though, there is a case to counter that.

With one club less occupying first and second place and stealing points from the rest of the league, the margin has narrowed this season. I see nothing wrong with this.

As I’ve said in the past one half of Glasgow playing in the SPL (Celtic) instead of both has reduced the points deficit. A club propping up leaguw might have lost 24 points againat Celtic and Rangers but they can only lose 12 against one club.

However, I digress. Celtic must look at the motivaton of players after midweek exertion and get the answers because it is a requirement if you are going to play in Europe every season.

The club must also look at general fitness, even the coaching for it. The body count for injuries must beat last seasons hands down.

The club are a battle-worn team who have seldom (if at all) had a full squad to choose from this season, particularly for important matches. How many players have we fielded that were carrying an injury or far from optimum playing level?

I know this is not uncommon in football but you can only afford to do so with so many players. Fortunately, Celtic have had some brilliant performers to rely on throughout the campaigns and they will be in the running for personal reward come award time.

So far these guys have formed the backbone of the team. Forster, Wilson, Wanyama and Commons have enabled the squad to cling on to a degree of cosistency.

Additional players such as Ambrose, and Lustig have bolstered the back line. The trouble lies with the constant damage to the midfield.

Last season we were spoiled for choice in the engine room. Injuries to one man meant a run in the team for another.

Unfortunately, we’ve had more than one player out for one role. And as I said earlier, some of those players who have played were unlikely to have been properly fit or carrying an injury.

There are some fringe players who perhaps lack experience or big match ability. Often though managers seem to risk the fitness of key players than gamble with a fringe player.

Neil Lennon will hope that the answers and the luck to his squads fitness are just around the corner. A disagreement with some fans yesterday brought about his declaration that he’d go if the fans wanted him to.

A tad dramatic I’m sure most will agree – on both sides. We supporters should remember how far we have come since Mowbray went.

That was low. This isn’t.

There is a problem with fitness and a constant European hangover. At least we have Europe and number one spot in the SPL.

Be thankful, not fickle. We’re getting there.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie.

A proud day…

After the demands of Champions League duty, Celtic return to the domestic scene. Today they take on Inverness Caley Thistle at Celtic Park but the day will have an added bonus for myself.

Today my young nephew, Samuel,  will walk through the tunnel as part of a team of mascots for Celtic’s Ability Counts programme. It’s a proud day for me and wish I could be there to see it.

The priviledge to accompany the wee man today is a three way split. I still don’t know who got the nod but it was either mum, dad or brother Nicholas.

All have passed late fitness tests.

They will all play a part today no matter what and I hope it is a memorable day for Samuel. I know it will be for my sister, brother-in-law and nephew.

I’m sure my nieces won’t be there, they will be equally proud. Neil

Lennon made my sisters day with a mere retweet yeaterday.

I can’t imagine how she’ll react the day!

Hail! Hail! Samuel Cannon

Stevie Mac

The Celtic Formula

Tomorrow night Celtic will undertake their penultimate Champions League group phase match in Estádio da Luz, Lisbon. Their opponents, Benfica will be looking to acquire all three points in the hope of leapfrogging their opponents in Group G on points on between the two clubs.

Benfica are odds on to win this match but I’m not much of a betting man. This match is a blank canvas though statistical history between the two clubs left things on a level pegging after six matches.

The draw at Celtic Park in September, a match which seemed to come too early for the Hoops, was the seventh competitive fixture. That result will surely give Benfica the motivation they want for tomorrow night.

It’s fair to say that Benfica did not look awe inspiring that night in Glasgow, but it was more of a wasted chance for Celtic. Winning your home games has almost become a must in the Champions League, particularly for Celtic.

Victory and points on the road in the Champions League eluded Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. It is the player who they mentored that obtained both.

Celtic came close away from home in the past but it had always been just that. When describing Celtic’s performances, Martin O’Neill coined the phrase ‘punching above their weight.

He said that with one of the most enviable forward lines in Europe. To have such menace in your ranks would leave you feeling confident about facing any opponent.

Celtic have cut their cloth accordingly and £6m players are a thing of the past. These days the value is found in scouting for the Hoops, not in large transfer fees.

Those days were brief and entertaining, even emotional though ultimate unsustainable. The formula that has been written by Lennon and the club has already produced entertainment and emotion but they will not be brief.

On Tuesday night Celtic may not be odds on for victory but I wouldn’t be against a draw. As CQN wrote recently, treat Benfica as though they were Barca.

That might not be a bad way to approach the game and even if Celtic do so, it’s likely there will be more possession up for grabs than in the last two group matches. If there is Lennon will be looking to exploit where he can.

Neil knows Celtic had a good chance to win against Benfica in the first match. It is also very likely that whilst he will be wary of being away from home, he will be looking closely at his attacking options.

He has moulded a team of believers at the highest level of football and so far Lennon has got the formula right. Are we up for another spectacle tomorrow night?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie, Celts from the South

Oh what a night!

Two weeks ago, in a little ground in Barcelona, a team of hopefuls narrowly lost to the best team in the world. In the space between that result and kick off last night, it was evident that Celtic hadn’t thought about anything else.

On match day I would have to say that I had no retaining negative thoughts. My heart wasn’t about to give in to defeat after what I had seen from my seat in Camp Nou.

In Barcelona, I found myself believing in Celtic more than ever. I recall finding victory in the moments after the final whistle, but it didn’t end there.

The feeling of being pegged back by a superior team and still finding the net against them was a plus. Stifling the advances of their mercurial attacks was another bonus.

To stop this team in their tracks though is impossible. You don’t stop Barcelona, you just divert them.

If you can prevent yourself from being hypnotised by their passing, you are doing well. As a supporter, I rarely find myself captivated by the opposition but when it comes to Barcelona you cannot help yourself.

So consider what Celtic did two weeks ago and how spirited they must have felt in staving off wave after wave of attack. Losing at the death of that match would have hurt, but the players must have felt it within themselves that they could get something at Celtic Park after being that close to a draw.

One defeat, one win and one draw later it was time to face the Catalan club again. Injury ravaged and battle weary there was no doubt that supporter power from the stands would be essential.

The fans did not let anyone down. They sang like I had never heard them before.

A display of green and white celebrating “125 unbroken years” brought a tear to the eye. As the game kicked off so did the continual chants from the Celtic fans.

On the field Barcelona were already beginning to work their magic as the weaved their way amongst Celtic. Possession was conceded before kick off.

You cannot beat this kind of execution of football at its own game. To counter it you must fill the holes left behind by the your opponent.

Celtic’s tight back line resisted the multi-pronged attack of Barcelona. The full backs kept their shape only abandoning their central defenders when the ball was with an opposition wide man.

The centre pairing kept close to the Goliath-like Fraser Forster throughout the game, like guards at the gates of Paradise. On the perimeter, the midfield provided a second wave of defence and counter attack, ready to intercept and move forward.

This concentrated psychological goes beyond tactics. Mental strength and awareness can win in sport even against the odds.

Celtic found slight relief in attack but the unfitness of Greek goal hunter Samaras was evident. Still, he would slow the game down and draw one or two Barcelona players with him.

On this night it was the Venezuelan hit-man Miku who gave the opposition the real trouble though. His contribution in Celtic matches has been fairly unremarkable but after opening his account at the weekend, he looked more positive.

Even though he made good runs forward, he didn’t get on the score sheet. That would fall to the ever impressive youth element of the Celtic ranks.

The Hoops would take the lead around the same time they did in Barcelona. A well flighted ball from a corner and was superbly met by the head of Victor Wanyama and past Valdes.

There would be no sucker punch before the interval in this match – job half done. Some half-time oranges and a pep talk and it was back to work for the Bhoy’s.

To my amazement, I felt things were beginning to ease up on Celtic as the second half progressed. Not so much a foothold for Celtic, more of a frustration to Barcelona that we were refusing to quit.

The word’s “anti-football” have been banded about for the last fortnight when discussing Celtic’s performance against Barcelona. What the hell are you supposed to do against Barcelona?

I guess you’re supposed to throw your men forward when Barcelona have the ball for 80% of the time? No prizes for guessing what sort of result you’d get there.

This is a young side, learning their trade in the big arena’s, much like their young manager. That youth would provide a winner as well.

Tony Watt, a substitution for a bruised and battered Mikael Lustig had heads turning. No words were uttered in the living room.

Eighteen minutes to go, plus stoppages. It felt like quiet prayers were being said on the sofa.

Ten minutes later Fraser Forster collected a Messi free kick and punted the ball high and long up field. A nothing ball if ever there was one.

As it dropped, the ever impressive Xavi looked to calmly collect, but he never got the touch. Instead it bounced at his feet continued on its way forward and into the path Tony Watt.

He left Mascherano for dead and headed into the box. The 18-year-old striker slotted the ball past Valdes with the kind of finish any striker would be proud of.

If I thought the stadium was bouncing at 1-0 then reverberations for the second could easily be felt in that Sussex living room. Six minutes plus stoppages left!

Just inside injury time, Barcelona were pinging the ball about inside our box and a got shot on goal. It brought out a low one-handed save from Forster but the rebound fell to Messi and finally he beat his adversary of 180 minutes.

When that whistle blew, so to did our minds. A famous victory at Celtic Park.

Group G now sees Barcelona on nine points, Celtic on seven points, Benfica on four and Spartak Moscow on three. The last two matches will be tough and require further mental strength.

Neither match will be a walk in the park. Benfica will be looking to capitalise against Celtic whilst Spartak will look to revive their hopes with a home tie against Barcelona.

The final group stage fixtures will see Celtic at home against Spartak and Benfica against Barcelona at Camp Nou. How will

And just remember, Alex Song should have been sent off and we were denied a penalty. Most of all, when your team beat the best team in the world in a competitive match, does that make your team the best team in the world?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

P.S. check out my CQN article “125 Unbroken Years” in issue eleven here:

http://en.calameo.com/read/0003901717b03ef5e64cb