Arrivals & Departures

In preparation for Wednesday’s clash with Malmö FF in the Champions League play-off, Celtic took the initiative against Inverness at home. A 4-2 win was a good victory though shipping two goals later in the game, not so much.

As far as home matches go, Celtic went about their business with reasonable finesse. Chances were plentiful and the Bhoys were ticking along nicely.

Two late goals were a reasonable consolation for Inverness I’m sure. Even though Ronny Deila was not overly concerned given the broader picture, I’m afraid to point out once more than Dedryck Boyata was at the heart of both these mistakes.

After a solid innings away to Qarabağ two weeks ago, I took back all of my criticism of the Belgian centre half. He’d made two poor defensive errors in recent games but I wiped the slate clean after a very good performance in Azerbaijan.

If Celtic are to excel in Europe, these kind of blips need to been wiped out forever. In the bigger games, i.e. the Champions League, these mistake are very costly.

By all means, if these errors can be blotted out in the games that matter, I’ll take the domestic ones on the chin. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned though.

Considering that van Dijk is still a possibility to depart, depending on what you believe, leaving your central defence in the hands of Dedryck and Efe doesn’t make it any easier to fathom.

Should Celtic succeed in making the group phase of the Champions League then Virgil is likely to stick around for that. I don’t think I’d be comfortable without his presence.

So it was refreshing to read online, moments after I finished drafting this current blog, that Jason Denayer could be heading back to Celtic. The Belgian had a superb season at Celtic and would be welcomed back with open arms if another loan is secured.

Whether Virgil stays or goes I’d sleep a lot better with Denayer in the squad. Another rumour doing the rounds is the return of Gary Hooper.

It isn’t the first time his return has cropped up since leaving Celtic. This time there does appear to be some substance.

Despite any interest Celtic still have four strikers on their books. Griffiths and Çiftçi have a future at the club but Stokes and Šćepović are in a different situation.

Whilst Šćepović has failed to make a real breakthrough Stokes has fallen out of the picture. If Hooper was a serious target for Celtic then one or both of these outsiders would likely leave.

Deila’s pursuit of a smaller squad can only be achieved by shipping some players out. Particularly if he wants to keep drafting new blood (or old blood if there is any truth to Denayer and Hooper coming back).

Tomorrow though, Celtic will need to work with the current squad and that includes new Bhoy Scott Allan. In terms of strength Celtic have it in abundance, particularly in midfield, so these matches are about making the right selection and deploying the correct tactics.

By the time tomorrow nights match kicks off, I’ll be descending from the skies over North America for a well deserved break. That means missing out on first leg live, but I’m hopeful of seeing the highlights later on in the evening.

With any luck, I should see the second leg live despite being in the middle of nowhere. Let’s hope both matches are worth waiting for!

All the best for tomorrow. Mon the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

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A week of woe, wonder and welcome.

It has been quite a week for Celtic on and off the park. Enough talking points in fact to release a box set.

After the dust settled on Celtic reaching the Champions League play-offs, there was the draw. Out of the hat for Celtic came Swedish Champions Malmö FF.

I wasn’t the worst draw from the selection but it wasn’t the best either. I’d say of the five possibles Malmö lie somewhere in the middle of my preferences.

Just as we were digesting those two European ties, Celtic returned to domestic duties by dispatching Partick Thistle in the Glasgow derby.

Hot on the heels of that victory, John Collins became the focal point of Celtic Football Club. His comments around Scottish clubs and their inability to be clever enough to beat Celtic didn’t go down that will as I’m sure you can imagine.

On the one hand it is a bit arrogant and disrespectful toward other Scottish clubs. On the other, he was merely saying what most people already know and think.

As Mark Wilson said on Sportscene on Sunday “he was only saying what people are thinking, it’s just that nobody mentions it.”

And he isn’t wrong about that. Did he have to say it though?

Well the subject matter was actually on Celtic in Europe. Upon reflection of last season and this season the topic of how domestic football affected that.

This wasn’t a singular swipe at Scottish clubs. It was more of a case that this is the domestic situation Celtic are in and this is how it affects them in Europe.

Collins’ comment brought mixed reactions though. Players, managers and of course the media all came out either to back or blast the Celtic assistant manager.

It’s a storm in a tea-cup though. If on the opposing side to JC’s comments you would have taken great pleasure in the 2-2 draw at Kilmarnock midweek.

In a game where Celtic ran the Ayrshire side ragged it is hard to believe this one finished a stalemate. There were umpteen chances to put Killie to the sword but a late penalty saved them and shamed the Hoops.

James Forrest had an absolute blinder and Nir Bitton scored a peach of a goal. This game should have been a thrashing of Kilmarnock.

Karma for the Collins outburst? I’m sure many think so.

In the midst of that story came another. This time though on the transfer front.

Celtic are never far away from a transfer rumour be that one of their own players on the move, or bringing someone in. I’d love to see the statistics on these kind of stories because it would make interesting viewing but the one rumour that came from left field was the signing of Hibernian midfielder Scott Allan.

Up until Celtic’s rumoured interest in him, he was in the sports news almost daily about a move to Ibrox. This was on the back of handing in a transfer request and his supposed love of Rangers (though which version has yet to be determined).

This move has caused more of a stir than the John Collins story, ironically a former Hibernian midfielder himself. The pain emanating from the blue half of the divide has been quite palpable.

As you might expect from this kind of scenario, there have been the mandatory bigoted and sectarian chants across social media and beyond. This one must be quite painful for the Ibrox crew to take, particularly as Celtic have sent Liam Henderson in the other direction on loan.

The young midfielder has had a fantastic year under Ronny Deila getting a reasonable amount of game time. That was followed up with a short but productive loan spell at Rosenberg and all of this has been enough for the club to sign him on a new three-year deal.

Now he will have a full year under former Celtic defender Alan Stubbs at Hibs to bolster his experience. A two-way battle with the Ibrox club for the Championship should make these encounters worth a watch alone.

I didn’t take much of the Championship in last season at all. For that reason I can’t even give you my opinion of Scott Allan or what he could achieve potentially.

Like any new player he will get his chance to prove himself. I look forward to seeing what he can achieve.

With the current personnel vying for a place in the Celtic midfield he may find it difficult to obtain a place. I do wonder what Ronny Deila’s take on this signing is.

Are we expecting a departure, is this signing with a long-term view or was it purely just to get it right up the Ibrox crew. I must say one of the best response I saw on Twitter was from @SirBroxiBear “We need to strike back here and hit them where it really hurts and book the Thai Tims for our Christmas party”.

A perfectly weighted response from the blue half of the divide to diffuse any heated moment. I know that isn’t the opinions of all but this one made me grin so well done that man.

Continuing on the contract front, young Kieran Tierney signed a new contract with Celtic. He has impressed in his appearances for Celtic and a four-year deal will see him push Emilio Izaguirre for a place.

And so to today’s match against Inverness. After Wednesday’s slump against Killie, it’s time to get back on the horse and pump the Highlanders at Paradise.

Not sure if Allan will be available to play but at least he will be unveiled at the stadium today. A more clinical end product will be required against John Hughes’ side.

Inverness were more of a threat to Celtic than closest rivals Aberdeen so the warning signs are firmly in place. Let’s get this one ironed out with no mistakes because it’s Malmö on Wednesday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

 

“But shouldn’t you have scored against a team like that?”

Yesterday, someone implied that I must have been disappointed with Celtic’s failure to score a goal in Azerbaijan on Wednesday evening. This was in response to my comment when asked how I felt the game went.

After explaining that Celtic had taken the cautious approach to the game I got the reply: “But shouldn’t you have scored against a team like that?” I didn’t take the bait for this one and let it slide.

This didn’t come from someone with great passion for football. A mere onlooker shall we say whose interest in the sport, or any sport for that matter, is somewhat ‘generic’.

They’ll read the news and the opinions of others whilst ‘supporting’ an English club who may be further up the rankings than Celtic, but are by no means a great team even if they have a superior income. On occasion, this person watches or attends cricket, rugby, football or athletics and talk about it as general news.

That doesn’t make you an expert. It certainly doesn’t make you any more of an expert when you comment on a game you never saw or that the two teams involved you’ve probably never seen on live TV before.

I on the other hand have a personal interst in my team, the game, the competitions and a more rounded and insightful view of the game (I think). I don’t just read what the media are saying then use it as a third person remark as this person did, I actually write about it myself in the first person.

It got me thinking though – should we have scored against this team away from home? Let’s be honest, the comment made tells you just how much of a throwaway remark it was.

Did this person know anything about Qarabağ? No, and even I had to do my research to write about them before a ball was kicked.

Which led me to thinking that we should not underestimate that team. In fairness we were all thinking that and even Ronny demonstrated that with way we set up on Wednesday.

Without a reasonable understanding of the game you could forgive this person for not knowing any teams from Azerbaijan. Because of that it is understandable given their remote interest that they would assume a club like Celtic should dispose of an ‘unknown’ club.

Apart from Celtic’s current ongoing development under Ronny Deila, Qarabağ were no mugs. European football is a journey into the unknown at times, particularly when even as a national champions, you still have to jump through hoops to get to the stage your team should be given direct entry to in the first place.

Qarabağ may be ranked 139th in Europe overall – some 93 places below Celtic – but that’s far superior to any other Scottish club. The Scottish best of the rest are:

211th – Motherwell
212th – Hearts
221th – St Johnstone
257th – Dundee United
258th – Rangers (are these points even valid?)
280th – Aberdeen
305th – Inverness Caledonian Thistle
306th – Hibernian

Whilst not all of these teams are in the Scottish top flight (tee-hee), Celtic have played all of them in the last twelve months. Who would you rather play in Europe – Qarabağ or one of the above?

As it is, of the five possible opponents Celtic could face in the play-offs, most are better off in the UEFA club coefficients than the clubs above:

98th – Maccabi Tel-Aviv
122nd – Malmö FF
138th – Partizan
224th – Skënderbeu Korçë
286th – Astana

After a 0-0 draw in Finland, Astana overcame HJK Helsinki (146th) 4-3 at home. Skënderbeu won 2-0 home and away to win 4-0 on aggregate over Milsami (307th) of Moldova.

Partizan won 5-3 on aggregate after a 1-1 draw against Steau (49th) in Bucharest then taking them down 4-2 in Belgrade. Malmö FF turned around a 2-0 away defeat by Celtic’s opponents from last season, Salzburg (38th), by notching up a 3-0 home victory.

Better still were the efforts of Maccabi Tel-Aviv. After losing their home leg against Plzeň 2-1, they travelled to the Czech Republic and duly despatched them 2-0, winning 3-2 on aggregate.

As Celtic supporters I think we all know well enough not underestimate any team and not to be swayed by the UEFA club coefficient system. The names may not be well known, but some of these ‘minnows’ are well funded, in the midst of their domestic season at during summer time and can spend the same if not more than Celtic can.

The gap in European football is vast but Celtic, despite their respectable standing, are in a domestic pool that is underfunded and badly maintained. Celtic are the standard in Scotland and have achieved that by running a good business and living within their means.

For Scottish football to evolve, there needs to be an improvement with standards and a plan for the future. Until that happens Celtic will continue to fly the flag and not take risks against teams like Qarabağ.

Be it a trip to Israel, Sweden, Serbia, Albania or Kazakhstan….bring on today’s draw!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Patience and discipline pay off for the play-offs

Well, the game played out as expected last night. Even if my nerves were tested at times, this was a case of job done.

Qarabağ played exactly as I imagined they would. The big surprise for me was that Ronny Deila deployed holding tactics.

This was the right move away from home though. Qarabağ’s European results in recent years demonstrated they were not an attacking side home or away.

Although they offered more in attack in Baku last night, Celtic also allowed them more of the game. They were the ones chasing a goal to stay in the tie but their tactic appears to be drawing out their opponents and hit on the break.

Celtic didn’t play ball and both the defence and defensive midfield played a blinder. Our attack was sporadic and largely ineffective but this was not a game we had to win.

As I said from the first leg, Qarabağ make good use of the ball and postion themselves well. It’s a quality they can build on for sure but Celtic played them at their own game and even though I would have felt more comfortable with a goal we came out on top.

Bitton and Brown were fantastic, chasing down the ball, breaking up the play, taking the heat off our defence and even trying to create moves for our attack. The defence were equally effective and played a key role in keeping the goal protected and moving the ball forward and despite Gordon flapping at one cross he pulled off the save of the match.

Lustig and van Dijk were their usual selves, performing how and when it matters. I’ll single out Boyata though as I criticised him in a previous blog.

I thought he stepped up his game last night, stood firm throughout the match and kept his focus. On the left Izaguirre played a more defensive role than he normally plays but be coped well over all.

Sadly our attack was static and once more Ciftci was lacking pace and movement. Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and Johansen didn’t play badly but they didn’t over commit themselves such were the tactics deployed.

Griffiths (67), Commons (79) and Forrest (84) kept things moving as the game moved into the final third. It was hot, it was late and legs were getting tired.

All in all I think this was a test of Celtic’s patience and character. To stay disciplined and organised despite the temptation to attack showed some real maturity for what is a reasonably young team.

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t say something about match referee Martin Strömbergsson. Tbe Swedish official was diabolical.

It’s fair to say I was tense going into this match. His blatant refusal to award stonewall free kicks to Celtic though was astonishing.

I stopped counting after 7 denials. There must have been at least double that amount by the time the final whistle came.

As it was it took until the 76th minute for the Swede to award one if those stonewallers. It wasn’t our first free kick of the game but it was the first given in an attacking area of the park, all of which were previously ignored.

In the end Celtic set out their stall to counter Qarabağ’s counter attacking style of play. Without the referee’s assistance Celtic are in the bowl for Friday’s draw.

Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Partizan (Serbia), Malmö FF (Sweden), Skënderbeu Korçë (Albania) or Astana (Kazakhstan) are Celtic’s potential opponents. At first glance I’d prefer the Israeli side or the Albanian’s not for location, just for our chances.

It will be another step up for Ronny Deila and his players as the expectations become more real. European football is secure until December but the Champions League is where we want to be.

Until Friday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Hot in Baku

In terms of qualifying for the Champions League group phase, it’s half time for Celtic. Tonight they take on Qarabağ in Azerbaijan in the second leg of the third qualifying round.

This will be Celtic’s first ever visit to the country and conditions are said to be hot. The playing surface has been under scrutiny but both teams will have to play under the same conditions.

Playing surfaces have been a topic for Celtic in the past, particulary in European competition. In the last round of qualifying they played on a 4G surface in Iceland which was both fast and slow in places.

This evening will present another challenge but in football you can’t always guarantee a bowling green surface. Playing on red ash for most of my youth, I can’t say I have any sympathy!

The players will have a practice on the park and deal with it as expected. Deila has already iterated that there will be no excuses based on the playing surface.

With only a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Celtic should be seeking an away goal. Though not at the expense of leaving themselves open to the opposition.

Qarabağ will obviously need to score but whether they stick to the style of play seen last week or try something different we can only guess. I figure they will keep it tight but try and hit on the break a little more than they did at Celtic Park.

For that reason alone Celtic must stay organised and disciplined from back to front. No defensive mishaps, no misplaced passes.

Good positioning, patience on the ball and real decisiveness when on the move will be more effective when dealing with Qarabağ. They make use of the ball and their space well so we have to counter that by being just as organised.

I’ve got no idea how Ronny will set up for this but I’m champing at the bit for 5.30pm already.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A case for the defence

There was a controversial debate from Saturday’s league win over Ross County at Celtic Park. The key argument of course being Neil McCann’s application of the rules following Craig Gordon’s foul on former Celt, Jackson Irvine.

However, I’d just like to rewind a bit and leave McCann out of that debate completely. Gordon stayed on the park and yes was probably lucky because quite frankly you just don’t know what an official is going to do these days.

My main concern though was the defending that led to the incident. Despite scoring two goals this season already, Dedryck Boyata was at fault for the error which would eventually allow Jackson Irvine in.

Overall, I’ve been impressed with Boyata’s general play but he failed to track back even after he allowed Craig Curran to latch onto the loose ball following a mistake of his own making. And that isn’t the first time Boyata has done that this season either, it’s the second.

I’m all for him pushing on and going up for corners, particularly when it brings in crucial goals. He’ll have to get his finger out though when it comes to defensive matters.

We already have one defender who has made the odd gaff in his Celtic career in Efe Ambrose. Even then, Efe generally tries to make amends on the back of a self made error.

In actual fact Efe had a really good game at the weekend. I’m not saying I’d put him in first time every time but to know there is someone with his level of athleticism on the bench can be valuable when your team are bit leggy.

So by all means Dedryck, keep banging in the goals. When you stuff up at the back though don’t switch off – track back and win the ball back.

With Virgil van Dijk rarely out of the headlines these days about a move south the spotlight is firmly on the Celtic defence. It’s unlikely Celtic would allow van Dijk to move if they qualify for the Champions League regardless of the price but all the same this defence must tighten up for the big games.

On a more positive defensive note, I thought young Kieran Tierney had a fine 60 minutes at left back on Saturday. He stepped in for the suspended Emilio Izaguirre and never really put a foot wrong.

It remains to be seen whether Ronny Deila will procure another left back to challenge Izzy for his role this season. Should a player fail to transpire, I would be happy to see this Celtic youngster get a chance.

You don’t often get the opportunity to shine as a product of Celtic youth but Tierney has done his chances the world of good.  His focus was good throughout the game.

The player who replaced him on the hour mark was Saidy Janko. The former Manchester United youngster will be vying for a place this season as well and has already shown his aptitude when given the chance.

With Mikael Lustig certain to sit out a good few domestic matches Janko will get a chance to step in. He’ll do battle with Darnell Fisher for the right back role but if fit and an import game, Lustig will be the man to play.

Charlie Mulgrew is another option to fill in at centre half or left back. He came under fire for his performance in a preseason friendly but Mulgrew is a useful player to have in the squad and you don’t judge a man who has served us well.

A blend of youth and experience is always beneficial. Guys like Tierney, Janko, Fisher and even Eoghan O’Connell are the new blood at Celtic who should all be pushing for defensive places.

With much emphasis on Europe, the squad well be tested severely this season. Nobody will want to lose their place but injury, suspension and tactical switches will mean opportunities.

If you have a duff game one week it might be useful to remind that player how important concentration is by dropping them for the next. For one it will keep them on their toes, allow others a chance to fight for that place, whilst ensuring there is no complacency or a guaranteed starting spot.

Ronny wants a smaller tighter group of players but he’ll have to give them all a fair chance if he wants to keep them happy. That’s one more challenge for the coaching team to handle.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A hard graft for Griff

Winning on flag day at Celtic Park is always a good way to start the domestic season. The likelihood of a mishap is extremely slender.

There have been a few draws on the opening day of the season down the years. However, you would have to go back to the 1997-1998 season to find Celtic’s last opening day defeat.

Remarkably, it was one of most pivotal seasons in Celtic’s history for many reasons. Despite the disastrous opening day defeat at Easter Road, you may recall a Celtic debutant by the name of Henrik Larsson.

After replacing Andreas Thom in the 59th minute, the Swede earmarked his debut by supplying a misplaced pass to Chic Charnley who duly drove home a 20 yard winner. I recall watching the game live on TV whilst away for a weekend with friends.

One of those friends (a Rangers man) gleefully laughed his socks off whilst my other friend (a Celtic man) stared at me in disbelief. If any of the three of us sitting watching that knew then what we know now, all the roles would have been reversed quite severely that day.

Winning the league was our priority of course and this would be the season which would see the Celtic put a halt to their old rivals dominance on Scottish football. None of us had a scooby how good Henrik was going to be though, especially after that debut!

Unfortunately we don’t have anyone of his class banging in the goals for the Hoops these days. He was a one-off that served the club very well indeed and almost irreplaceable.

The task that Celtic’s current crop of strikers have is not to fill those shoes. It is merely to do a good job.

Having lost John Guidetti to greed, Celtic’s best striker right now is Leigh Griffiths. His maturity and application these past twelve months have been a central to his recent success.

n he came to the club with a troublesome tag.

Despite coming to the club with a troublesome tag, every man and their dog is fully aware of Griffiths’s ability but he is not an automatic pick for Ronny Deila. Since the arrival of Nadir Çiftçi, Griffiths has found himself playing second fiddle, in Europe anyway.

Much of that of course is be down to the fact that Çiftçi is banned for six Premiership matches. If you’re Griffiths, you would understand his frustration given that he has applied himself, done what was asked of him in training and scored goals.

What is even more impressive is how Leigh has handled all of that. His responses to criticism and disappointment are genuinely a big step up in maturity.

If he continues to deal with the knocks as he has of late he will grow into an even better player. In fact sometimes I think Ronny Deila is being harder on him to mould him into a better player.

I don’t have any evidence of that but we all know what the boy can do. Sure Çiftçi brings something else to the game, like Samaras used to, but the Turk is currently short of fitness, getting used to a new kind of set up and of course a totally different player to Griffiths.

If fit for Wednesday, I’m sure Leigh will be hoping to get chosen. The odds are that Çiftçi will get the nod as he needs games and at this point in the season is the only competition he’ll get them in.

You can expect Griffiths to be disappointment by that outcome but he continues to say and do the right things. His first ever goal in Europe came against Stjarnan in Iceland and his first league goal came against Ross County at the weekend.

Çiftçi can only dream of that right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing Leigh and your chance will come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac