Strange things happen

Celtic were beaten fair and square at Celtic Park last night. I wasn’t overly confident going into the match though if I’m being honest, I didn’t see a smash and grab opening by Salzburg coming either.

They got lucky with a deflection to set up their opener. It would have been hard to miss and it had already beaten the defence so I can’t complain too much about that one.

After that Salzburg didn’t let up and Celtic were punished again. This time the players were still rattled from the first goal and in that mindset sloppiness set in.

I won’t take anything away from Salzburg though. They went on the offensive at Celtic Park just as Celtic did at Stadion Salzburg in September.

In last nights match though Salzburg looked like they had been drinking too much of their sponsored product. They settled quicker, played at the kind of tempo Ronny Deila wants for his team and had some nice movement of the ball.

Celtic on the other hand failed to stamp their authority on the game and the midfield should have imposed themselves more. They failed to take the pressure off the defence and didn’t get into any sort of rhythm.

When Stefan Johansen pulled a goal back Celtic began to play with more purpose. As the second half wore on the equaliser never materialised and Salzburg killed the game dead with a third.

But as I said yesterday, your luck can change in European football very quickly. After Celtic handed FC Astra their first group point a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that it wouldn’t surprise me if they beat Dinamo Zagreb last night.

As it turned out, they did and by doing so handed Celtic a last sixteen place. I wasn’t confident of a win in Zagreb so beating Salzburg was paramount to Celtic’s progress in this tournament.

Even in the face of defeat, Celtic have succeeded. It’s becoming a bit of a habit but in this game sometimes you need a rub of the green.

Whilst Ronny Deila will be disappointed with the home defeat he will be pleased he has a last sixteen spot in the Europa League. Its a credible achievement to do this in his first season.

By the time that fixture comes around, Celtic may have bedded in some new players. If John Guidetti hasn’t had his head turned he will also be included in an updated European squad.

Looking at the teams already through in top spot, Celtic will have their work cut for them. Let’s just hope that when the draw is made it isn’t Legia Warsaw.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

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The Winning Combination

In a season which has left many Celtic supporters shaking their heads and venting their spleen, tonight could see the club secure a last sixteen place in the Europa League. It’s been a bumpy ride for Ronny Deila but there has also been some recent progress as well.

When you consider that a large portion of fans were calling for the head of the Norwegian coach between September and October, you would think that all was lost. In reality, all Ronny Deila is guilty of is trying to forge a team of his own during a period of transition which to date sees Celtic playing in four competitions.

The club exited the Champions League qualifier’s twice but secured a group stage place in Europe’s second string club competition. As much of a disappointment as that may have been on an entertainment and financial level for all concerned, Celtic escaped what might have been a potential six game slaughter.

Instead, the Europa League has offered a “safe haven” of sorts for Ronny Deila and some of his players to cut their teeth in a group phase without losing too much face. The lower profile has drawn less attention, but provides a sufficient challenge to test your squad.

Celtic have faired well against opposition who at this moment in time are no better or worse. Astra Giurgiu have turned out to be the group’s whipping boys though it didn’t prevent  Celtic from handing them their first point in the group phase.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got something off Dinamo Zagreb tonight. European football is a funny game and your luck can change very quickly.

Tonight Celtic and FC Salzburg go head to head at Celtic Park. Both teams have seen their domestic fortunes change since their last meeting so this evenings result will not only help decide who is favourite to win the group, but who has improved since mid September.

In that last tie it was 2-2 and I was pretty pleased with the result. Celtic weren’t top of their game or the league and the same can be said of FC Salzburg at the time.

Celtic are far from the finished article but have improved as have Salzburg. Both teams go into tonights match as domestic league leaders.

The main worry Ronny Deila might have tonight is team selection. With some players out and some doubts, getting the right blend from the start must allow room for change later in the match.

Primary hitman John Guidetti is ineligible and by far Deila’s most potent goal threat. Stefan Scepovic and Leigh Griffiths are the alternatives though both have a combined lack of appearances, form and goals.

So it could well be fans favourite Kris Commons to provide for Celtic this evening. Despite his uncertain future at the club he’s remains a key goal threat.

His European goal tally may pale in comparison to his domestic one for Celtic (5 European, 53 domestic) but he can conjur something out of nothing. In game like tonight’s, it could be his particular ability that could decide this match and indeed Celtic’s European destiny.

As much as goals scored are important, Celtic will also need to be vigilant in defence. Doubt remains over Jason Denayer and with Mikael Lustig already out, that could mean playing Efe Ambrose.

I don’t have to say how much that scares me. Ronny could decide to play Charlie Mulgrew in defence but he hasn’t played their regularly for a long time.

So for this bhoy I’d pack that midfield to protect the defence and allow Commons or Johansen to make those forward runs.

Anthony Stokes on the left and James Forrest on the right would be my preference. In the middle of the park it will all come down to who is available come kick off.

Deila has Scott Brown, Stefan Johansen, Kris Commons and Beram Kayal to choose from. If he doesn’t have to use Charlie Mulgrew at the back he will also be in contention.

Stefan Scepovic may get the nod over Griffiths but for me the latter is the bigger goal threat. Whoever he goes with they will need service and in these games that can be in short supply.

Its a huge game for Celtic, Ronny Deila and player’s like Commons and Scepovic. Let’s hope its a memorable one.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Top spot is the incentive (preview and line-up)

There is a huge incentive for Celtic to win today. Today they are in the north to play Aberdeen in a game which could see them head to the top of the league.

Celtic sit one point ahead of Aberdeen having played one game less but there is little between the two teams. Both clubs suffered defeats to Hamilton in October and now both have an opportunity to go above the Lanarkshire club.

This is a huge game and for Ronny Deila he will be looking for his players to maintain a winning streak. In their last three league games Celtic have beaten Ross County, Kilmarnock and current league leaders Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

League form has been patchy overall but recent weeks have seen improvement. Celtic are also unbeaten in the Europa League and remain in both domestic cups.

So there is a sense of stability within the team’s development. The good news for Celtic is that some players will be back in contention today.

John Guidetti is the form man for Celtic and will be the main danger man. Anthony Stokes, Kris Commons and James Forrest are also back in the fold so Ronny Deila has options.

With Callum McGregor having gone back into his shell, Forrest gets the nod and hopefully he is over these recurring injuries. Kris Commons’s absence of late has seen Stefan Johansen propelled into that attacking role so he will have to settle for the subs bench today.

Anthony Stokes will start on the left wing after missing out through illness in Europa League match against FC Astra on Thursday. He has found some form in that area of the field and has been very effective in creating opportunities.

It should be a highly competitive match today with the opportunity to move into a better league position the incentive for both teams.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

The Line-up: Zaluska, Matthews, Denayer, Van Dijk, Izaguirre, Brown, Johansen, Forrest, Mulgrew, Guidetti.

The madness of WGS

Over the last week there have been some interesting football headlines. Top of my list has to be Gordon Strachan’s ‘manipulation’ comments.

Now not all Celtic fans appreciated him as a Celtic manager. I on the other hand was a firm supporter of his.

I enjoyed his dry, sarcastic character whilst others did not. His football style was equally as arid but also effective in getting results, particularly in the Champions League.

A friend of mine interviewed him not so long after he quit the Celtic job. He spoke relatively openly about Scottish football in general.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that his thoughts on the Scottish game were similar to those within my own circle. This was why when he was appointed Scotland manager I felt he could influence accordingly.

On the field of play, I was encouraged by the early efforts of his Scotland teams as the curtain came down on the World Cup qualifiers. The tournament was already beyond reach but Strachan went about each game with the future in mind.

Since the European Qualifiers have begun, its been a fairly positive start. With a touch of luck, perhaps Scotland could have done even better but I have to say I like what I’ve been watching.

When you consider that Strachan has put Scotland fixtures back in my diary it shows you the difference he has made. So why on Earth would he taint what he has done on the international scene by making such an ludicrous statement to propel three Scottish Championship clubs into the Scottish Premiership?

On first hearing, I was almost certain it was a joke. Strachan’s humour can be so dry it can leave you wondering.

Now I think we all realise what he’s getting at but this kind of talk can be your undoing. I personally wish he could take it back but he can’t.

Then I think about the interview he did with my friend. They talked about how poor Scottish football as a whole looked and that as a product it was difficult to sell.

Poor stadiums, low attendances, even amateur TV presenters and substandard coverage were amongst the debate. Scottish football looks bad so how can you promote something with such little appeal?

I agree to the extent that its good to have big teams playing in the top flight. Regardless of the crowds each of these three Championship clubs have, this is anything but a sane suggestion to solving Scottish footballs domestic issues.

There has been a lot of turmoil within the Scottish game in recent years. Though it remains a failure of those who govern our game that they didn’t take the opportunity to make the changes required to improve Scottish football.

I am still a firm believer in having a bigger league with more teams. More variety of competition where you play each team twice as seen everywhere else in world.

For me this is the first step to invoke change. I also believe that home and away fixtures would have more significance by playing each team twice.

The SFA are a dinosaur in the game. They have this old boys club mentality which think that a lick of paint is all that is required.

Re-branding seems to be the only solution they have in their locker at Hampden. What is really needed is a complete overhaul of league structure and negotiating sponsorship and TV revenue.

If Strachan’s suggestion was that the league should be bigger and create wider competition then I’d get where he was coming from. There was no mention of that in his ‘manipulation’ statement though.

Still, this season has witnessed a tighter competition in the Scottish Premiership. There are only six points separating seventh placed Kilmarnock and current league leaders Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

You could argue that this competitiveness is partly down to Celtic’s ‘transitional period’. At the same time though, clubs such as Hamilton and Inverness have both beaten Celtic this season and remain above them in the league.

Some may complain about Celtic ‘downsizing’ and not playing well enough, but don’t we want a competitive league? Of course I want Celtic to be a success, but Scottish football’s biggest problem is the lack of competition.

This seasons challenge is healthy and if it is in part due to Celtic’s inconsistency and rebuilding then so be it. However, I do still think that the league trophy will end up at Celtic Park.

What remains to be seen is how Celtic progress as a team as the season moves on. As the half way point in league campaign approaches seven teams are still in contention, but the question is how many will still be challenging for the title come May?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Celtic must keep it simple.

Tonight’s match in Romania will be a tough test for Celtic. FC Astra have yet to score a point in Group D of the Europa League, but with key players out for Celtic, Ronny Deila will have to dig deep for a draw, let alone a win.

Take nothing away from Celtic these past couple of weeks they have found some form. Last Saturday they exorcised the demon of winning more than three games in a row by beating Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Celtic took full advantage of home fixtures by winning four matches in a row at Celtic Park. It is a good period for the players as they are beginning to gel but tonight, some of those players are unavailable.

John Guidetti is of course ineligible for this phase of the tournament. Kris Commons is on the sidelines as is long term injury concern, Jams Forrest.

As late as leaving Glasgow Airport, Anthony Stokes was left behind due to illness. He like most of his team mates have found a bit of form of late, his being out on the left flank.

In terms of goal keeping, defence and midfield, Celtic should be okay. The concern for me is where the goals are going to come from.

Leigh Griffiths weighed in recently with a double against Partick Thistle. His only issue is whether he gets picked or not.

The main responsibility comes from Stefan Šćepović. He got off the mark recently and has looked hungrier, but he didn’t start at the weekend.

It may well be Ronny Deila was resting him and keeping him focussed on this match in Romania. With a further two games to follow in the group stage, this group is far from over but it is a good opportunity to notch up an away win.

After half of the games played, FC Astra are currently the whipping boys of Group D and Celtic will not want to be the first opponent to give them points. This group is still wide open so picking up maximum points in Romania tonight will go a long way to helping Celtic qualify for the last sixteen.

This is only FC Astra’s second home tie in the round. Having been narrowly beaten 2-1 by Salzburg in their first home match, they will be looking for something out of this game.

Celtic won the first game over the Romanians 2-1 at Celtic Park. They received a scare late in the game when Enache scored in the 81st minute, but Celtic held on.

Tonight Celtic must be more clinical in attack and switched on in defence, particularly towards the end of the game. Celtic have not won an away game in Europe since they beat KR Reykjavik and tonight may be their best chance in this group.

The line-up for this game is important so it will be interesting to see how Ronny Deila sets up this evening. Celtic don’t need to do anything radical for this match, just keep it simple.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Four in a row?

After the midweek high of winning 6-0 in the League Cup it’s back to Premiership matters for Ronny Deila. He will be pleased with the way his players despatched of Partick Thistle on Wednesday night and now they must roll over that form to the match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle this afternoon.

The League Cup tie witnessed John Guidetti tear Partick Thistle apart. He was fouled continually by several players with one such opponent earning himself a red card.

Take nothing away from Guidetti, he harassed the visitors cleanly all night and bagging a hat-trick was the icing on the cake. The best bit about his goals though was the fact they were all dead ball scenarios, executed with precision.

If that wasn’t good enough, then Emilio Izaguirre scoring only his second goal for Celtic was. He’s worked hard this season and scoring with his weaker right foot will be one for the memory banks.

Then there is Leigh Griffiths, the forgotten man. Overlooked for much of this season, his appearance was as much of a surprise as it was welcome.

I’m no fan of his off the field lifestyle but he knows where the goal is. He got the nod to come off the bench ahead of Stefan Šćepović and didn’t disappoint either.

With a bullet header from a corner ball and a lucky deflection from an attacking challenge, two goals is a nice return for a substitute appearance. To be fair to him, Griffiths also did a lot of support work as well.

By the time Šćepović did appear, Griffiths was trying to help him get on the score sheet, a noble gesture from a player who rarely gets a game. Šćepović came close on a few occasions but it was not to be though the Serbian is looking more confident.

The question for Deila is who does he play and who does he drop? With form still firmly in focus, the manager will be looking to retain balance and consistency without the kind of tinkering witnessed earlier in the season.

He has so many options, particularly when everyone is fit. Its a real test for any team when they lose influential players through injury or suspension and Ronny Deila has had to contend with that from the beginning of his reign.

In early July club captain Scott Brown picked up a preseason injury in a friendly and subsequently sat out for three months. Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig have both had injury woes an and barely been available for selection until now.

Long term doubt James Forrest, so good for Celtic when injury free, continues to battle constant injury. A fully fit version can do the damage in any match but Celtic must find a long term solution to his recurring injuries.

Kris Commons, one of Celtic’s best performers has been sidelined more recently. He will be back soon as well just to make that selection headache somewhat greater.

With less key players on the treatment table and new players finding their feet, it seems Celtic are beginning to flourish. This is just the start though and there is still work to be done as I’m sure Ronny Deila will tell you.

That work must continue today at Celtic Park when Inverness Caledonian Thistle provide the opposition. A victory will not only keep Celtic moving toward top spot but it would be the first time this season they’ve managed four consecutive competitive wins.

In terms of league position, a victory could put Celtic in first, second or third place depending on other Premiership results. The top six is tight right now with only four points separating sixth placed Aberdeen from joint top Hamilton and Inverness.

You can take nothing away from this group of teams because they are all there on merit. Celtic have lost to each of the top two so far and and it is those victories that separate the them in terms of points.

Whilst those defeats have yet to be exorcised, Celtic still have one game at hand. Inverness may come looking for a draw, perhaps they might feel they can get more but Celtic have to be clinical no matter what.

A strong crowd would be good today, particularly as the attendance’s have been so low of recent. With a 3pm kick off and no live TV coverage that may just be possible.

Top spot is now within reaching distance and a vein of good form is in flow so perhaps more fans who can afford the day out will go along to support that. No doubts, players and fans both compliment each other and hopefully we’ll see the stands filling up again and the team’s consistency growing.

Nothing less than three points will do today. Be it win pretty or win ugly.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie