Once more unto the breach…

Forget about the origin of this blog’s title. This is quote is all about Celtic.

Last night Celtic were drafted into todays draw for the Champions League Group Stage. It is the second sucessive time Neil Lennon has achieved this during his management at the club.

I never got to see the first leg in Kazakhstan due to being in the Canadian wilderness for two weeks, but it was a shock to discover the score a day later in a local newspaper. I don’t think for one minute that Karagandy were underestimated but the defensive pairing from that match appeared to have supporters asking questions.

The job would have to be done at Celtic Park instead and whilst it was never a foregone conclusion that Celtic would overturn the deficit last night, they were dominant in their approach to do just that. If any Celtic supporter was like me, there would be a fair amount of prematch anxiety about the biggest game of the season to date.

The set up seemed just about right though initially I felt Mulgrew may have been better placed in the middle of defence. That opinion was proved wrong as his personal performance, as well as the whole of the defence, stood firm.

The only issue that had our hearts in our mouths was that Karagandy throw which nobody dealt with and crashed off the bar when the tie was level. From what I hear, long throws were an issue in the first leg for Celtic.

The team selection was pretty much spot on last night. The only two below par performances were those of James Forrest and Joe Ledley in the first half.

Forrest was getting no joy on the left, mainly down to his first touch. Late on in the first half, Lennon moved him to the opposite wing.

That proved fortuitous as he gave the Karagandy defence a tough time. For Ledley, it was merely a case of ‘get your act together’ which he eventually did.

He’s usually Mr Reliable for Celtic but it took him 45 minutes to wake up. I’m more than happy as supporter that he did because right now Lennon lacks midfield steel.

A goal minutes before half time and a minutes after were timely, something which Pat Bonner accurately highlighted on SSN last night. Its always good to end the first half on a high and start the second with the same reward.

It has to be said though, I had more lager in the fridge for extra time. Thankfully, my jet lag was saved in the minutes before the final whistle.

After a stunning goal by Kris Commons and a deserved goal by Georgios Samaras, time was ticking. The timing of the winning goal could not have been better.

James Forrest, whose first half performance was now a distant memory, got the goal which sealed the deal. It was a finish that had the support going mental but it was the footwork of Anthony Stokes that was mesmerising.

The match may not have been over at that point but the celebrations were reminiscent of those in 2007 when Celtic beat Spartak Moscow in penalties to qualify for the same stage of the Champions League. A spine tingling celebration memorable for the late Tommy Burns’ aerial dive onto the pile of Celtic players on the turf.

Regardless of how this tie was viewed beforehand, it has to be said that Karagandy set themselves up well enough to cause an upset. They were tight at the back and good on the break but I will save my main assement for their goalkeeper.

Some of Aleksandr Mokin’s saves were frustrating for the support. The most notable of his characteristics were the acrobatics involved.

Its been some time since I’ve seen a flamboyant goalkeeper perform over the top saves. These are usually confined to goalkeepers in previous decades (or if you’re an Italian keeper).

Despite all that, he kept Karagandy in the match based on those saves. He did his job, albeit with a desire for the flair.

In a couple of hours from now, Celtic will be drawn against three teams all seeded above them. It will be a tough ask whoever they get.

Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are potentisl opponentd currently on the lips of the Celtic supporters. Other than these clubs, I would love to see one of the English clubs in there as well.

Neil Lennon is rebuilding his squad and will be looking to secure a couple of players ahead of the transfer deadline. Celtic will need to be better equipped for this phase, especially if they aim to make it to the last sixteen or even parachute into the Europa Cup.

An influential midfielder and a dedicated hitman are important. Since the departure of Hooper and Wanyama, their positions have more often than not, been referred to by their names and not by the position.

That just goes to show how important those roles are for Lennon. Despite the income from those transfers, Celtic will remain prudent in their approach to sign replacements.

One player awaits a medical and another still top of the list. If these guys are the men to fill the spaces vacated the. We can only hope their signatures are secured before the transfer deadline.

Well done Bhoys for giving us another memorbale night. Passports at the ready.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Dublin Heart

Celtic took on Liverpool yesterday for an early evening friendly encounter at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Most friendly ties are either pre-season warm-up’s or PR matches, but when you put two giants like this up against each other its more than just that.

This was the seventh and final friendly of the summer for each club, but Celtic have had to play five competitive matches amongst this pre-season schedule. It was no surprise then that Neil Lennon would make significant changes to freshen things up after some important fixtures of recent.

To see some of Celtic’s young talent get their chance was brilliant and it’s something I would like to see more of. I didn’t expect to see so many fresh faces, but I don’t think anyone watching would be disappointed with effort shown.

There is much praise to be offered to these young lads against an experienced and expensive Liverpool team. Its clubs like Liverpool that can afford to steal players away from Celtic so it was even sweeter to beat them 1-0.

So when I watched these young guys play their heart out in Dublin yesterday evening, it was encouraging to see the potential on show. There were some notable performances from elsewhere in the ranks as well.

Senior players such as Lukasz Zaluska put in a tireless 45 minutes in goal. He has become a forgotten man at Celtic since Fraser Forster became number one.

After his first half performance yesterday though, I would have no doubts about him stepping in because he looked more confident than he has done for some time. Fair enough, it’s a friendly encounter and Liverpool have had no competitive matches so far, but Celtic’s number two goalkeeper plays about as many first team matches as the young players do.

For a team who could possibly have wiped the floor with Celtic then over the ninety plus minutes I would have to say that Celtic can be most pleased with that performance despite over and above scoring the only goal of the game.

The line-up saw Stokes as captain with Lustig, Kayal and Izaguirre as the only real regulars of late. Adam Matthews has barely kicked a ball recently and Tony Watt has been seen playing on the left flank but they played their part as first team players.

Steven Mouyokolo put in a tight performance at the back and will be in contention based on that game alone. Amido Balde kept the Liverpool defence busy and got a goal under his belt as well.

The smallest guy on the park, Dylan McGeouch, showed some promise. After being recaptured after a spell down the Clyde, he demonstrated some of the ability that Lennon felt was worth bringing back to the club.

I am saving all of my praise for the young guys though. They proved themselves against giants as far as I am concerned.

Jackson Irvine looked strong yesterday and his movement and passing was excellent. He did not look out of place amongst the big guys.

His fellow development squad comrades Darnell Fisher, Stuart Findlay and Bahrudin Atajic came on and did not appeared to be phased by the opposition. Paul George and Liam Henderson were late additions but they too can take heart for their inclusion.

All in all, Neil Lennon can be encouraged by what he saw. There is not doubt that what Celtic continues to nurture has the potential to challenge, especially in these prudent times in Scottish Football.

With all of the pre-season now firmly behind Celtic, the next two matches are away from home. By the time they return to Celtic Park, they will have played in Sweden, Ireland, Aberdeen (well, it’s like another country) and Kazakhstan.

In two out of four matches played so far, Celtic have not conceded any goals. They’ll be looking to do the same against Aberdeen on Saturday and Shakhter Karagandy the following Tuesday.

Playing Aberdeen is usually a good watch but Karagandy is new territory for Celtic. Entering into the unknown is something you can expect in Europe these days particularly in these qualifying rounds.

It is still hard to believe that in the “Champions Cup”, the champions are not automatically entered to the he play off round let alone the group phase. This is why the rich clubs get richer and those less financially sound struggle.

Celtic should be proud of what they can do these days though. They are a huge club with a huge heart and a fantastic support around the world.

It was pleasing to hear the BT Sport studio team praise Celtic’s performance yesterday. I cannot say the same for Michael Owen in co-commentary though.

As much as he was a good footballer, his droning summarising was as on a par with David Coulthard’s in Formula One. If he wants to make it in this current role he will need to learn to be impartial as well.

Owen showed slight bias toward Liverpool as one might expect from a former player. That didn’t stop him occasionally take the shine off anything Celtic did, though he did wind his neck in second half.

Well played Celtic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A difference of opinion

I started writing this on my way to work yesterday. Once I got there, I read a few Celtic headlines and decided to postpone writing the blog.

When I read Neil Lennon’s post match praise of the team I thought I had been watching a different game altogether. Either that or I must have been more drunk than the hangover suggested.

To confuse matters further, Johan Mjallby was later quoted as saying the team were “utterly abysmal”. He did reserve some praise for the central defence though.

With Kelvin Wilson’s suggested departure, perhaps neither coach wanted to jinx the transfer. That deal has now gone through of course and this will all become confined to history.

The fact is that I, amongst others, felt that this was a poor Celtic performance. We may have progressed but it was a far from convincing ninety-plus minutes.

There was a time when progression in Europe was a distant memory for Celtic. Nowadays, the club find themselves in a situation where Europe is the lifeblood of every season.

Wednesday nights 0-0 against Elfsborg took us into this mornings draw for a play off spot. Now Celtic will face Kazakh side Shakhter Karagandy for a place in the Champions League group stage.

I am pleased that Celtic have made it through to the play offs. The match that finally got us there was anything but pretty though.

Samaras had a golden opportunity early on and Ledley even looked like scoring. At no time did I ever think the team looked comfortable though.

The Celtic midfield were ‘passing’ the ball like a hot potato. Misplaced passes are Celtic of old, not today.

As much as Johan and Neil praised the defence I only felt that one of these players deserved it. Mikael Lustig turned in a great performance in defence and attack down the right flank.

Elsewhere in defence it appeared that the players were all over the place. So it was anything but assured at the back.

Elfsborg were nothing special, but anytime they attacked the Celtic Iooked like they had never played together. That was my major concern.

I’m certain that Neil was trying to keep his comments positive given that the team had just progressed to the next phase. It is the managers job at the end of the day.

As I say though, I am just glad Celtic are through. It may not be the group phase, but I expect more players to come in now that we’re in a safety zone.

We’ve just seen off Wilson, our most improved player last season, so there will need to be a replacement for him now. With any luck Celtic will go for that much awaited striker as well.

Regardless of the coaching staff’s mixed opinions, it would be ridiculous to ignore the performance in Borås. Elfsborg remain unbeaten at home in two years but it is Celtic who are in the Champions League play offs.

The Europa League is guaranteed for the loser. Some may think Celtic will see this one out no problem but I like to keep things realistic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Next stop: Elfsborg Fortress

Whilst one Glasgow club tears itself apart, another prepares for a crucial European tie. Celtic, currently competing in Europe, face Swedish club Elfsborg tomorrow night in the city of Borås, the return leg for Champions League qualification.

The second leg of this tie will be a tense affair for Celtic supporters. I have first hand knowledge.

A slender 1-0 lead means Celtic will need to be on their game. No mess ups, just 100% focus and application.

Without an out and out striker, the team will need to be patient where goals are concerend. There are goal scorers available though and Celtic will be looking to captilise when the ball breaks and opportunities come to bear.

With Samaras travelling and fit, he is likely to start. He is one player that can carve out goals in Europe and away from home.

Its hard to believe sometimes where his Celtic career was a few years back. “Languid” was one word a friend and fellow supporter would use to describe his form of that time – an in-joke that continues to this day within my circle.

Samaras would wander around the field of play with the ball stuck to his feet. The only thing missing back then was where the hell he was going on the park.

Lennon saw something though and remained on his side, regularly stating that he hoped the player would not let him down. You could see Samaras with flashes of ability and Lennon has helped him achieve the status he now has.

Samaras will not be relied upon to do it all himself of course. This is a team game and there will be a concerted effort to defend an attacking Efsborg side looking for that first goal.

Kelvin Wilson is fit and likely to partner Efe Ambrose in central defence. Charlie Mulgrew is also in the frame but unless Ambrose or Wilson are left out, Charlie could find himself on the bench or even deployed in midfield.

It is hard to guess how Lennon will set up though. Flood the midfield and use the channels, or keep it even from back to front?

Your guess is as good as mine. Though the former of the two has worked well in the past.

Rogic, Van Dijk and Boerrigter did not travel so it will be the usual suspects. This squad know each other and know what is at stake.

Elfsborg will feel confident though. A 1-0 deficit, playing the second leg at the Borås Arena and on an artificial surfice they are unbeaten on since September 2011 is positive in them.

However, Celtic have been here before. Few goals, away fixture, Champions League at stake and a  plastic pitch – the Hoops are every bit as capable.

We’ll all be on the edge of our seats. I may find it hard to focus on anything else for the next 24 hours.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A stuttery start…

Celtic unfurled the league flag on Saturday to mark their 44th Scottish title. A symbol of the club’s most recent achievment in their 125 unbroken years.

The team lineup for the visit of Ross County was very much as you would expect. New boy Derk Boerrigter started on the left flank and looked keen.

In fact there were a number of occasions where he could have and should have scored but I’ll let him off for now. However, it would be County that drew blood first in this match

Celtic look a little unsettled at the back. Securing your central pairing at the heart of defence is important for a team so it is imperative that this is addressed, particularly for European matches.

Also on that list of tasks for Neil Lennon will be the procurement of a target man. Whilst there is a plethora of attacking options for the head coach, Celtic need a striker like Willo Flood needs a tan.

Lennon has mentioned that a striker will be found. Whoever that player is may depend on European progression for the club.

This single factor could seal the deal for the right player. Until then, the rest of the squad will need to carve out the results without a Gary Hooper replacement.

The team looked sharp enough to win the game against County and there were some decent moves. Creator-in-chief, Kris Commons, looked a bit of the pace after an impressive match in the Elfsborg game, which was probably why he was not as sharp.

His touch let him down so it was the new boy Boerrigter that would get things going in the first half down the left channel. Though injury would shorten his debut, he did look promising.

I am concerned about his nickname “sicknote”. Or as they say in the Netherlands “shicknote” – Steve McLaren take note.

Boerrigters replacement, Tony Watt, gave the County defence problems down the left wing. This is not his position though, I’m sure you would agree.

Elsewhere in the team, Stokes put in another tireless performance. Forrest didn’t do too badly but not as effective as he can be.

I had no complaints about man of the match Scott Brown. Not everyones favourite but always a first pick for me just like Ledley and its a position Kayal is competing for once more.

As I said earlier, its a different story at the back. We have good players but something is not clicking.

Lustig is a fine player. He could play in any European club in my opinion.

Matthews is another talent. He brings another dimension to the team.

Izzy is look better these days. More like himself before his long term injury.

Sometimes though there are sone real brain-farts happening in central defence. Wilson and more notably, Ambrose are capable of errors.

Wilson has found the form he needed at the club. I would still like him to play a role despite transfer speculation.

Ambrose can play the game of his life at times. He also likes to test the opposition by gifting them goal scoring opportunities.

He needs to cut that out soon. As much as I admire his Mjallby like ‘do or die’ attitude he needs to make better decisions.

Mulgrew is fairly steady at the back. New arrival Van Dijk will shake things up and hopefully create the competition for places the defence sorely needs.

With County out the way, following a late show we look forward to Elfsborg. Actually, I take that back – I’m bricking it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Moving ahead.

I think most people would agree that Celtic turned in a good performance last night. The goal tally could have been greater, but the team put in a decent shift for this stage of pre-season.

Usually the main talking points are about player performance. However, the dirty tackling and poor refereeing are on my mind today.

The number of blatant fouls commited by Elfsborg was ridiculous. In Europe, referees are supposed to be tough on this sort of thing but last night they were weak.

I wouldn’t say that Celtic went out looking for these fouls. As the match wore on and Elfsborg continued to get away with their repeated fouling, Celtic did move in that direction.

That was mainly down to the lack of goals. On the other hand, Celtic players were being continually cut down on the attack.

An impressive Kris Commons had the beating of everyone last night and was surprisingly yellow carded whilst on the attack. So I felt it was a harsh booking when he was through on goal especially when the referee was somewhat lenient with the opposition.

Despite my previous blog on this subject, I cannot continue without mentioning Mo Bangura. Regardless of his presence in an opposing role to Celtic last night, his conduct was disappointing.

Any chance he had to return to Celtic, however unlikely, came to an end last night. Foul or no foul his face holding antics alone were enough to disgust the support, myself included but he’ll never wear the jersey again.

All that aside the team played well for most of the game. There were a few misunderstandings at the back but the midfield played well.

Kayal tired as the match wore on but Ledley’s arrival in the second half gave the team a lift. His presence in the midfield gave the team a dimension that allowed them to press forward.

Creativity was not lacking but where we were lacking was a cutting edge in attack. Just that one player to create room for himself and give defenders problems.

New additions Balde, Van Dijk, Mouyokolo and Boerrigter will hopefully add quality as well as depth to the squad. It could be that crucial fifth signing though that provides us with a target man.

Names have been mooted as Hooper’s replacement. A good striker will come soon I am sure, but until such a deal is made, Celtic will work with the players they do have.

With flag day at Celtic Park this Saturday, my first match at Paradise in couple of years, it is back to domestic business but only for one fixture. Our following game will be away to Elfsborg.

Celtic must take that slender lead of 1-0 and keep it tight. Not only have the team shown they can score away from home in Europe, but that they can win away from home in Europe.

Away goals and wins eluded the club for long periods. Lennon’s mentors O’Neill and Strachan got the ball rolling in Europe for Celtic once more but the current manager has built upon that.

Despite last seasons convincing home and away form in Europe, Lennon should not and will not take anything for granted. A bigger stage awaits the club and its what we all live for but it doesn’t come easily.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie