No penetration

Celtic took the lead in the first leg of their Champions League qualifier against Qarabağ last night. Overall it was a decent performance by the Bhoy’s but clean cut chances were few in numbers despite the home advantage.

This wasn’t a dominating performace by Celtic. In fact most of the stats I found Qarabağ to have had slightly more in the way of possession.

Still, only one of those chances were on target for the Azerbaijan side. Celtic managed four on target from eight, scoring just one but Sehic wasn’t tested enough.

For the third consecutive European tie Ronny opted for Nadir Çiftçi in “attack”. Unfortunately, that meant few chances, less pace and not much movement.

Givent that it was a home tie, I’m fairly certain that Griffiths would have provided more dynamic last night. I’m aware that Çiftçi and Griffiths offer different services in attack but Cifcti isn’t fully incorporated into all things Celtic just yet and looking short of well…everything.

He did have a little flutter in front of goal at one point but he was largely ineffective. Whilst Ronny acknowledged to the media that he opted for Çiftçi over Griffiths due to the latters ‘toothache’ he was still available to play.

It isn’t as though he wasn’t fit and had to omit him from the squad and put Šćepović in instead. In fact, I’m surprised by the absence of the Serb given his goal return in Europe for Celtic.

I am happy with the pressing game Celtic are playing and one or two moves came off last night but the fact is we have zero penetration. Mackay-Steven showed some promise early in the game but then fell out of things.

Brown and Bitton were superb in midfield to begin with but then look tired later on in the game. Ironically it was the Celtic TV commentator who said that Qarabağ were beginning to look ‘leggy’.

I don’t know what game he was watching but I didn’t see any evidence of that. In fact I thought Qarabağ did a good job last night.

They didn’t park the bus as our previous opponents did. They positioned themselves well and made good use of the ball.

That was why they came out on top with possession. Celtic failed to hang onto the ball more in the second half than in the first.

Most of the moves broke down in the last third. It is one thing to persevere with Çiftçi, particularly with a domestic ban hanging over his, but at what cost?

I was more relieved than celebratory when Boyata scored last night. He’s now scored the same amount of goals as Šćepović in Europe, one more than Griffiths and two more than Çiftçi.

To be clear, I am not putting the boot in on the Turkish forward. He needs a little more time but these games are crucial and I don’t think Griffiths should be left out of the equation with so much at stake.

With a slender advantage next week’s return leg will be a nervy one. It was important to keep a clean sheet last night but another goal would have been more settling.

Whether Qarabağ will adopt a more offensive style at home I don’t know. Whatever their approach, Celtic will need to be better than them to protect a 1-0 lead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

 

 

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The stage is set

With all the presesaon dress rehearsals out of the way and the first step on the Champions League staircase done, the next task awaits Ronny Deila. Having seen off Stjarnan on their 4G pitch last week and dealt with a feisty Rennes side at Celtic Park on Saturday, the Hoops are ready for tonight’s third round of qualifying round.

Stjarnan offered Celtic their first and second competitive test of the summer but Qarabağ FK will be a different prospect altogether. With tonight’s first leg at home, Celtic will be aiming to stamp their authority on the tie before they have to travel to Baku for the second leg next week.

It’s a long trip with a time difference of four hours and whilst not nearly as daunting a trip as Karagandy was two years ago, the task is still a tough one. In the meantime Celtic must do their best to suppress Qarabağ FK’s knack of scoring and winning away in Europe.

Over the last three seasons (including the current one) their European stats read as:

HOME: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 3 Lost 3

AWAY: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 4 Lost 2

Having lost less than a quarter of all matches, suggests they might be stubborn and hard to break down. I’ve yet to see whether Ronny Deila is prepared to alter his approach with such teams to draw them out or continue to play the pressing game.

By comparison the last three seasons (including the current one) for Celtic are as follows:

HOME: Played 14 Won 9 Drawn 1 Lost 4 (or W8 L5 if you count the original Legia Warsaw score)

AWAY: Played 14 Won 3 Drawn 4 Lost 7

At some stage in European competition, you have to know when your challenger is more capable than you and adapt. Celtic’s UEFA coefficient ranking is 46th whilst Qarabağ’s is 139th but that still didn’t prevent the Hoops being trumped by Legia Warsaw (76th) and NK Maribor (83rd) last season.

Whilst a club ranked 139th by UEFA may not seem like a threat, Qarabağ could frustrate or even surprise Celtic particulary at this stage of the season. The last thing Celtic want this evening is to lose an away goal and I’m fairly certain that will be one of Qarabağ’s objectives.

It’s fair to say that this time last year Celtic were in a state of transition and playing home ties at Murrayfield but this year everyone will be expecting better from them.That could all come down to sqiad selection and it is anyones guess how Ronny will go.

Çiftçi or Griffiths? Or both?

Janko or Lustig? Forrest or Mackay-Steven?

Mulgrew or Izaguirre? Only Ronny knows.

The stage is set and it is home advantage Bhoy’s. Take it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Third qualifying round in the Qarabağ

Celtic marched into the third qualifying round of the Champions League last night with 4-1 victory. There was an initial scare for Ronny Deila though as the Hoops conceded a sloppy goal in the 7th minute.

I’m sure there were a few fans out there last night who had a bad feeling at the moment that ball pinged past Craig Gordon. It is easy to be drawn into doom when error is made and lets face it this was an ‘error’.

Celtic were dominant throughout the match though. The first half was a little sloppy as Celtic strived to control the ball on the artificial surface.

Stjarnan didn’t really make better use of it to be honest. The ball didn’t zip along the surface as quickly as we are used to seeing on grass.

Equally, the ball appeared to require extra touches to control and move it around. This all contributed to the tacky play we saw last night.

Aside from that 7th minute opener, Celtic were still the team with all the possession though. Then came the equaliser courtesy of a Nir Bitton header.

The corner from Stefan Johansen found the head of Bitton who finished from close range. Stjarnan’s goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen came for it but was impeded by his own team mate who had fallen right in front of him but Bitton was too far in front of him to be beaten anyway.

The timing was good for Celtic who despite going a goal behind continued to press. After half-time Celtic were beginning to look even more in control and it wasn’t long before they took the lead.

Before the match, I think a few fans were questioning the selection of Charlie Mulgrew. Was he a better choice to play the defensive role rather Emilio Izaguirre for this game?

He certainly wasn’t think defensively in the 48th minute when he latched on to a square ball. As the ball arrived at his feet he drilled it low and hard to the goalkeepers far post to give Celtic a 2-1 lead with a superb finish.

The next goal came from Leigh Griffiths who had come on as a substitute in the 62nd minute for Stuart Armstrong who had been having a fine game himself. Johansen slipped the ball through to Gary Mackay-Steven in the box who squared for Griffiths and finished unchallenged from close range

That goal was a first for Griffiths in the European stage. To retain a place he will want to be doing that a lot more.

I had expected him to start last night but Nadir Çiftçi was given the nod. The Turk offers a different style of play to Griffiths but was largely unsuccessful in this match.

For once I actually agree with what Chris Sutton said in the studio. That Çiftçi has more body strength and can be more involved but for me this was a game Griffiths was better suited to.

There was an element to Çiftçi’s game last night that I didn’t enjoy. A series of lightweight dives were visible and even if the referee didn’t see them as I did, I’d prefer that he cuts out the diving or does it more convincingly.

I do think he will be a good player for Celtic, but that will take a bit of time. I can understand Deila utilising him now because of his domestic ban but Griffiths is in the mood right now and should be given that chance.

To wrap things up, Johansen got his name on the score sheet as well. A through ball from substitute Tom Rogić found Mackay-Steven who laid it on for Mulgrew and squared for Johansen who had made a run into the box and a good finish.

The final whistle cam shortly after that and it was job done. That 7th minute scare was a distant memory though I am sure Ronny Deila will bring that up to Dedryck Boyata who was the main offender in that incident.

Celtic have one more friendly before they face their challengers in the next round of the Champions League. French Ligue 1 outfit Rennes come to Celtic Park on Saturday and it will be another opportunity for some players to sharpen up.

Come Wednesday, Qarabağ visit Glasgow in the first leg of the third qualifying round at Celtic Park. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that this encounter will offer a more spirited opponent.

For starters, the Azerbaijani team have far more experience in European competition that the Icelanders did. Only last season, they competed in the Europa League group phase.

They were pipped to second place by eventual finalists Dnipro in group F. Unlike Celtic, that would be the end of their season in Europe.

However, like Celtic they had also gone through qualifying rounds for the Champions League that year beating Valletta 5-0  on aggregate then succumbing to Salzburg 3-2, who would eventually go on to face Celtic in group D of the Europa League.

Both teams will be determined to make the play off round and hopefully the Champions League group stage. Celtic made the play off last year having been handed a second chance thanks to Legia Warsaw’s error.

Despite that they still lost and parachuted into the Europa League. With both Celtic and Qarabağ missing out on the Champions League last season, this will be a hotly contested two legged affair.

Qarabağ appear to have the ability to score away from home though not always convincing at home. Their group F stats from last year are W1 D3 L2 having qualified for the group stage on away goals 1-1 against FC Twente.

There is a stubbornness and unpredictability about this team. They do have good experience in European competition though.

Their squad is mainly composed of Azerbaijani players but they also have three Brazilian’s amongst a few other nationalities. The most significant of these appears to be Reynaldo who scored in last nights away win over FK Rudar.

He will be the one to watch but there are plenty of other candidates in that team willing to make a name for themselves. That is why Celtic will need to be at their best on Wednesday night and take full advantage of playing at home.

It will be a totally different type of game I am sure and certainly a more physical encounter. Not something Celtic are unfamiliar with.

For now it is job done and on with the preparations. Let’s hope to see some other players get a chance against Rennes.

It was good to see Stiliyan Petrov on the studio panel for last nights game. He was one of my favourite Celtic players of the modern day.

Although I was deeply disappointed in him and his decision to leave Celtic in 2006 it is very good to see him in good health and talking about Celtic.

There was also a nice message from Stjarnan about the good experience against against Celtic and the people of Scotland. They excluded the Daily Record from that thank you which is always nice to hear.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Freeze out the Icelanders!

Tonight Celtic return to Iceland for the second year running for a Champions League Qualifier. Last year it was KR Reykyavik who were the opponents and the away leg came first but this year they face Stjarnan and with the second leg being away.

Celtic are 2-0 up from the first leg and as we all know the job should have been finished at Celtic Park. As it stands, Ronny Deila will need to approach this match with just the right amount of caution.

Starjnan parked the bus in Glasgow and relied heavily on their keeper. Celtic on the other hand were short of match sharpness and had they been on a higher percentage of fitness would have put the men from Iceland to the sword.

I’m not being disrespectful to the Icelandic champions, but if you come to Celtic Park and play the way they did, you deserve a hiding. Tonight I would be satisfied with a similar result though with the importance being a clean sheet.

It’s another highly important game because of the impact this competition has on Celtic’s season. To lead the way tonight my preference for the striking role would be Leigh Griffiths.

His performances in pre-season and since joining overal have been a transformation worth watching. When he first signed I questioned it but as I have said umpteen times before on here, he has proven me wrong and I am happy to accept it.

I’m sure Nadir Çiftçi’s time will come even if his domestic ban slows him down though I fancy him to feature at some point. A long suspension isn’t exactly the best start to your career at a new club but Celtic were well aware of what they were getting into before they moved for him.

However, I think this match will suit Griffiths perfectly and I’d be giving him the nod for sure. He will be keen to get off the mark in Europe and after the penalty miss of last week (thanks to Stefan Johansen) it’s a big occasion for him.

On this day last year Celtic ran out 4-0 winners at Murrayfield to KR Reykjavik with goals from van Dijk (2) and Pukki (2). This was following a 1-0 win away with the  goal coming from Callum McGregor.

He misses out tonight as does Kris Commons, both sidelined with injury. Van Dijk returns to the fold though after serving a suspension carried over from last season, but the one man who was sorely missed at this stage last season was Scott Brown.

His presence in the team, though still undervalued by many, is important. Good or bad, he is influential, he is the captain and I’d always have him in the team.

In order to progress this evening, Celtic need to keep things simple, tidy and error free. Stjarnan will no doubt have a go on their own turf but Celtic should be looking to put this tie to bed.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Random comments of a “Scotsman”

I read Craig Fowler of the Scotsman’s comments today about Celtic signing Nadir Ciftci. I was drawn in by the “Celtic get their way as always” remark.

Do they aye? I’m not sure that is the case.

Why would Ciftci, Armstrong and Mackay-Steven come to Celtic? Because they are the only club in Scotland that is capabale of affording them and offering a step up from their current club, with no disrespect to the work done by Dundee United or their staff.

There is no money in Scottish football. Celtic are the only viable move for the best players within Scotland.

Does that constitute Celtic getting their own way? No, it doesn’t because put simply it is the only way.

Yes, these players could have gone south as many do but how many clubs down south can match Celtic’s stature? A few and mostly because of money but none of which would be willing to buy those players.

That is your answer Craig, but like a poor journalist (if that’s what you are) you have instead used the goading tactic which many in your profession have resorted to. You can argue that Celtic have over-raided Dundee United but all is fair in love and war.

Had Celtic’s old rivals been anything other than the walking dead these days you might be writing (in truth or lie) about a bidding war between the two. Unfortunately for you and your colleagues in the media, you can’t write about that kind of scenario these days because it simply isn’t reality.

Personally, I would take it or leave it regarding the signing of any of the three players. If they left now, they would not be irreplacable however, I am glad that they remain in Scotland because they are good players who have my backing as a Celtic fan.

Is that a bad thing that they came to Celtic? No, but you have made it sound as though Celtic are bad guys for stealing another Scottish club’s players.

The fact is that if it weren’t for Celtic, Scottish football would be wiped off the map. Celtic have put a lot of effort into ensuring their future in the game continues to thrive whilst their old rivals squandered the whole lot and got away with it.

The Scotland team continues to do a good job under Gordon Strachan, the first decent national manager for some time. Most of his squad, if not Celtic players, are generally from the English Premier League or Championship.

So I ask you again are Celtic getting their own way as usual? Celtic do business to the point that they are unlikely to make a move unless they pull it off.

That isn’t getting your own way. That is doing your homework before you commit.

They don’t always get what they want. They just don’t advertise everything they do until it is a done deal.

That is why the Scottish media write rumours about players Celtic are ‘supposedly’ interested in when in fact they don’t have the inside track on the story at all. I’m sure Celtic watch more players than currently play full time in Scotland, but not all are going to be drafted.

To be astute in business does not mean getting your own way as usual. It means laying the ground work first and even then, Celtic won’t always get it their own way.

Ciftci, Armstrong and Mackay-Steven make their own decisions. They chose Celtic so deal with it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Pathway to Europe

After Celtic have visited Iceland for the second year running, they will know who they face in the Champions League qualifiers next. Assuming of course that they complete the job against Stjarnan on Wednesday.

If they negotiate that game safely, they will play either Qarabağ of Azerbaijan or FK Rudar of Montenegro. That tie currently stands at 0-0 so no clear winner as yet.

Qarabağ appear to be of better pedigree with more experience in Europe. Rudar on the other hand lack a reasonable history in European competition.

Regardless, both would be tricky. Unknown quantities have tripped Celtic up in the past.

However, finishing off Stjarnan remains the primary objective. It was no disaster on Wednesday night but Celtic could have finished that one-off at home and made a few changes going into this second leg.

So the job at hand is no slip ups in Iceland. Just before that though there is a friendly encounter this evening with La Liga side Eibar.

Ronny Deila and the squad have travelled to the Basque region as part of their summer schedule. Although the competitive season is under way, this meeting offers another chance for players to build up their match fitness.

Tonight’s result isn’t of great importance. Getting into the next round of the Champions League qualifiers on Wednesday is.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Winning and whining

Celtic got off to winning ways in Champions League qualifying with a 2-0 over Stjarnan FC. The score line could have been higher but as the squad continue to shape up it remains a positive result for Ronny Deila.

Throughout the match Celtic were in full control. The Icelandic side offered little in terms of offensive play which to be fair was not a total surprise.

A sharper Celtic team would have put them to the sword and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. They deployed their team to with their best strengths in mind.

Celtic could have had a better game, but they could also had a worse game. It’s only match day 1 of the competitive season though so we’re just getting started.

There were many talking points as early as Ciftci starting ahead of Griffiths and even Mackay-Steven being replaced by Forrest at the warm up stage. Then there was another pedantic penalty incident which shouldn’t even be a talking point but it was.

With new boys Boyata and Ciftci both making their competitive debuts we were all hoping for a thrilling match. There were plenty of opportunities for Celtic and a good one did come from Ciftci early in the first half but he failed to capitalise on it.

After a several chances, it would fall to another debutant to open the scoring. Boyata, lurking at the back post latched on to a cross ball to header home with no challenge to put him off.

The timing was perfect for Celtic with the goal coming just before half-time. It would have been rather frustrating to go in at the interval 0-0.

Although the Hoops weren’t exactly ticking along, there was never really any danger given the stance taken by Stjarnan even though they created decent chances for themselves. Celtic continued to attack in the second half though and came up with a second goal courtesy of Johansen who finished well from a Armstrong pass.

The tie looked to be heading into certainty late on in the match when Celtic won a penalty after Johansen was felled in the box. His goal earlier on was soon forgotten as he declared himself as penalty taker.

Griffiths, who had just come on earlier in the match was making his case as the penalty taker in chief. In the post match interviews, Deila explained who was in the right (Griffiths) and who was in the wrong (Johansen) but could not explain why the spat had occurred.

Given that Johansen has known Deila longer than anyone else in the team, you would think he’d be the first to remember the head coach orders? A wee bit disappointed with such a good player having such a schoolboy whine.

The unfortunate part was that Griffiths missed the penalty. It was bound to happen, given the distraction caused by his team mate.

So the game finished 2-0 and although it wasn’t a crisp performance, no goals were conceded y Celtic. Next week the players should be sharper and looking for a similar result if not a better performance.

By that time, Celtic will know who they could face in the next round provided they don’t mess up the second leg! For now, they need to continue their training and get their match fitness and sharpness back to where it should be.

These qualifiers are now common place in our summer schedule and there is a sense of better preparation for them. I don’t expect any hiccups next week but I’m sure Stjarnan will have a good go regardless.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac