Tears from Astana

The campaign to have Leigh Griffiths banned from next week’s Champion League Qualifier has failed. UEFA threw out FC Astana’s complaint and despite the social media campaign they ran, I’ve yet to see this as a red card incident.

Firstly, Igor Shitov deliberately obstructed Leigh’s run into the box, extending his arms backwards. The two entered into a tussle with the Celtic striker ‘winning’ and Shitov going to ground.

Griffiths appears to raise is hands during the tussle but so too does Shitov. At no time is there a punch in the footage that I have seen.

The smart thing to do of course is to keep your hands down but neither player did. Shitov went to ground easily and Griffiths was shown a yellow card.

For a player whose team were happy to dish it out for over 90 minutes, it is somewhat ironic that Astana chose to cry wolf. The whole incident was handbags and the other way to look at it was that Shitov was trying to get Griffiths sent off.

It’s a desperate quest by a the Kazakh Champions and one which will stir things up for the return leg at Celtic Park. Astana make the long journey to Glasgow with the only disadvantage for them being the time difference.

The first leg kicked off at 3pm Celtic Park time but for Astana it will be like playing in the early hours of the morning. Even still, Celtic must be vigilant against the attacking threat posed by Astana and of course, their tough tactics and play acting.

Astana got away with quite a few challenges in Kazakhstan. Most of that was down to the Italian referee so we can only hope the official for the second leg won’t be so lenient.

I don’t expect an easy game despite playing at home and on grass. The job is half done and we have an away goal but we need to be sharp and take our chances.

With the turnaround seen in Kazakhstan, I feel confident in the players and Brendan Rodgers to step things up. Saturday will allow some other players to get a run out but no risks will be taken with injuries and fitness currently affecting the squad.

Barcelona and Celtic meet in Dublin and despite the level of opposition in this International Champions Cup match, Brendan Rodgers won’t be putting too many players at risk. Kolo Toure is said to be remaining in Glasgow to work on his fitness.

Whether that means he won’t be available for Wednesday as well remains to be seen. I can only imagine he would be pitched in against Astana if Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O’Connell or Efe Ambrose get injured.

Should Celtic progress to the Champions League Play Off round on Wednesday night, further moves and changes are likely. Things are moving forward a bit at a time as I expected they might.

We are seeing some progress for the first time in a long time. That has to continue in the games that lie ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Honours even

​So Celtic began this Champions League qualifier away from home the way we’re well accustomed to as supporters. Giving away cheap goals is a European trait for the Hoops and goes hand in hand with calamitous defending. 

The goal scored by FC Astana in the 20th minute was an open invitation from a corner. Up stepped Logvinenko to head home the first goal of the game unmarked and unchallenged.

There are a number of areas you can examine for this error. All of which play a role.

Craig Gordon came for the ball and failed to collect it. This was mainly down to the presence of an opponent between himself and the ball.

In that wide open space there was no Celtic player to speak of either. That was why Gordon came for it in the first place.

If this gap was as a result of zonal marking then it was breached. Much criticism has been levelled at Celtic for deploying such a tactic, but it is widely used in the game and this isn’t the first Celtic manager to utilise it either.

It could also be agrued that Eoghan O’Connell wasn’t doing his zonal job. I’ve much confidence in the youngster and if I am being honest, acquitted himself well for the 90 plus minutes played bar a lapse in concentration late on in game and this goal.

FC Astana played it hard and fast from the start though. Celtic were on occasion showing signs of setting up a shot on goal but were disappointing in the last third.

The linkup play was poor in the first half and the midfield weren’t protecting the defence either. I wasn’t totally surprised to see Brendan Rodgers go with Lustig, Ambrose and O’Connell and overall they did a decent job as one unit.

The big change was reshaping the midfield in the second half. Callum McGregor wasn’t at his best and Stuart Armstrong was equally unimpressive before being replaced.

As the second half unfolded, so too did the changes. Moussa Dembele was replaced by Nir Bitton, James Forrest for Armstrong and Tom Rogic for McGregor.

This made a difference and even Scott Brown was getting forward. This was largely due to Bitton’s presence. 

Forrest was getting some joy down the left and Rogic’s linkup play was filling the void. It would be the superb performance of Patrick Roberts though that would help unlock the Astana defence and provide the one shot on target Celtic managed all afternoon.

Following a mix of determination and skill Roberts robbed his marker before playing in Leigh Griffiths. He took one touch – which at the time I thought was one too many – and with the second found its way calmly into the net.

It was a goal Celtic worked hard for and I felt were capable of getting even in the first half. Astana were stunned and Celtic were on the hunt for  winner but with time ticking away it finished a 1-1 draw.

Brendan Rodgers will be pleased with the attitude of his players, especially after going a goal down. With an away goal, a good away performance and a positive response from his squad, the second leg at Celtic Park is looking good for progression.

The job is far from done though. We saw how quickly Astana got forward and Celtic will need to be alert to that on home territory. 

The expectation will be for Celtic to flex their own muscle at Paradise. The stage is set for players to make a name for themselves.

Moussa Dembele, looking almost uninterested at Celtic’s equaliser whilst sat on the bench, should be aiming to break his duck at Celtic Park next week. There are high hopes for the free scoring youngster and where better to do it than in front of your home crowd and help take your club into the next round?

Celtic have done the hard bit and with a depleted defence. They did a good job, even Efe, though many will have overlooked his failure to deal with the square ball that led to Lustig knocking it out for a corner.

The result of that was of course the free header that produced FC Astana’s goal. For now, we have a good away result and by the time Astana come visiting we could have Kolo Toure available for selection.

All in all, a good repsonse. Saturday will see Celtic head out to Dublin to face Barcelona in the International Champions Cup.

It’s another road trip we could do without but it is an opportunity for some players to get a run out. Toure will be one of those players and will help put him in contention for Wednesday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

Time to tough it out 

As Celtic fans we are all concerned about the injury crisis at the club, no arguments there. Similarly, we are also distraught at the lack of cover there is for central defence.

Celtic are currently is Kazakhstan, preparing to face FC Astana in a Champions League qualifier this afternoon. Alarm bells have been ringing because Brendan Rodgers is short of capable options to play centre half.

Jozo Simunovic, Dedryck Boyata and now Erik Sviatchenko are all injured. Charlie Mulgrew’s failure to sign a new contract has also shortened the list of able candidates.

Recent addition Kolo Toure wasn’t just late to the party, but not fit for duty either. Although he has now been registered in time for the home leg as a wildcard.

So for this long trip to the Middle East (you know the Central Asian country?), Celtic’s second trip there in three years, there are few options. The only regular centre back is Efe Ambrose and we are all aware of the potential risk involved with his inclusion in crucial matches.

That leaves Mikael Lustig, who has played in central defence for Celtic in the past, and the slightly less experienced Eoghan O’Connell. I have no problem playing these two whereas with Efe, I have a huge problem.

My heart says Lustig and O’Connell but my head tells me Brendan may give Efe the nod. The only other option could be that he played all three in a flat back formation, but I doubt even Brendan would be so bold in an away match this early on.

The tie itself will be played on an artificial surface though far superior to the one we saw in Gibraltar. The question for Brendan is will he be planning to go for a goal over there or tough it out for the return leg at Celtic Park?

FC Astana are not to be underestimated and given Celtic’s first leg performance against Lincoln Red Imps, I don’t fancy our chances in Kazakhstan. Neil Lennon lost out there in 2013 to Shakhter Karagandy.

The home leg was hard-fought and saw the Hoops through to the group stage but that was a disastrous campaign and Lennon’s last season. Now we are at the beginning of a new era under another Northern Irishman.

We all have high hopes for Brendan but there has been a debate going on amongst Celtic supporters about a lack of transfer activity this summer. That supporters have been duped by the board and the new manager won’t have much to spend after all.

This is where caution is required. I’m as edgy as the next fan, but I am also a patient person (most of the time).

For some fans, their patience was worn thin during the Ronny Deila reign and I can’t argue about. With Brendan Rodgers, fans want to see signings that match the ambitions and stature of the new manager.

I get that, I really do. We could have done so much more to cover ourselves for these qualifiers.

Our squad is huge though and still requires a short back and sides. Brendan is using this squad as it should be and by doing so, further changes will happen.

We’re all concerned that the club are running the risk of another failed Champions League campaign. I said to my own friends last season that if you were to put the same group of players under new management I would be interesting to see the results.

Right now I think that is where we are at. Reviewing the rather large group of players which has been inherited by Brendan Rodgers.

This doesn’t sort out our predicament of an ailing squad though. Aside from departures and defensive injuries, Kristoffer Ajer and Stefan Johansen didn’t make the trip to Kazakhstan.

There is an ample squad size though for Brendan Rodgers to work with for this leg. I’m not predicting a win for this game, even with FC Astana’s top man out injured.

They proved their worth on home ground last season in the Champions League drawing all three matches to superior teams. Even gaining an away victory in Turkey.

The bottom line here though is that both Brendan Rodgers and his team have an opportunity to improve upon the last away match and against better opposition. With every game that goes by we should get stronger and as the squad is reshaped we will see comings and goings as deemed necessary by Brendan.

A defeat over in Kazakhstan would not be total surprise nor would it be a total disaster. Unless of course it was a significant failure.

Competing at this stage in the football calendar is tough enough without having to travel almost 4000 miles. And that isn’t even taking into consideration the time difference.

Still, I think Celtic are capable of a draw and we will should see a step up in terms of performance since the last round. Every week that goes by, the team will be getting sharper and nearing that phase where their season is really kicking off in terms of fitness.

It is still July and at this stage most European clubs are still enjoying friendlies. Well Celtic are doing the same whilst trying to save themselves for these ridiculous qualifying rounds which are quite frankly a sham for all league winners.

So go out there this afternoon and give it your all Bhoys. We’ll be cheering you on predominantly from our armchairs but you’ll have the hardcore travellers as well.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Imps dispatched, Astana await

Celtic laid to rest their Gibraltar woes at Celtic Park last night by finishing off Lincoln Red Imps with succinct victory. The Hoops continually threatened from the first whistle, but they would have to wait until the 23rd minute to do what the failed to do last week and score a goal.

In fact Celtic helped themselves to three goals in the space of six mintues. That was enough to finish the job and more importantly, exorcise last week’s result.

We saw a total change in passing quality and tempo in this match compared to the first leg. Not just the lineup itself, but the attitude, urgency, formation and of course the surface.

The game was done at half-time and we had hoped to see more goals in the second but we didn’t. Chances were missed though with Celtic still in preseason, the players are not yet functioning at the desired level.

For Brendan Rodgers, the most important factor was getting through to the next phase. Unlike us Cetlic supporters, he remained calm after last weeks result whilst we dealt with the embarassment of losing 1-0 to a semi-professional side.

Our anger was warranted, even if winning the tie overall was never in doubt for the manager. That’s not an unsual difference of opinion but we’ve already seen two failed attempts at entering the Champions League under Ronny Deila so we desperately need Brendan Rodgers to make it first time around.

As for the playing side, we still need investment. The next round is a tougher test with the away leg in a totally different time zone and at quite some distance.

Don’t expect Celtic to win that one. The last trip to Kazakhstan saw Celtic lose 2-0 in August 2013 in the Champions Legaue play off to FC Shakhter Karagandy.

Celtic overturned the scoreline at Celtic Park winning 3-0 in the second leg. That was a test of nerves but as it turned out, a pretty awful experience in the group phase.

The question remains whether we will see additions to the squad for this next round. FC Astana are a new club, having only been founded in 2009 but they reached the group stages of the Champions League last season.

Despite finishing bottom of their group, they proved to all away teams that Kazakhstan wasn’t an easy place to come to. They drew all three home fixtures against Benfica (2-2), Atletico Madrid (0-0) andGalatasaray (2-2).

Even though they managed a 1-1 draw in Turkey, they lost 2-0 in Portugal and 4-0 in Spain.That left them foot of the group but against that opposition in your first group phase it’s not too shabby at all.

So Celtic will have there work cut out for them. Some investment will happen soon but it remains to be seem if that will happen before tonights deadline even if it is just one player to shore up the defence.

Lincoln Red Imps may only have got a goal courtesy of Efe Ambrose’s comedic defending but you can be sure FC Astana will be more threatening to Celtic’s unsettled back line. Erik Sviatchenko needs someone to step in alomgside him and steady the ship.

Mikael Lustig is capable of playing centre half and may be an option should any signings fail to materialise. It wouldn’t be ideal but not a disaster either.

Eoghan O’Connell is another possibility. Even thoughhe lacks experience, he knows the team and always looks steady in that position.

I feel more comfortable after watching last night’s performance but as Chris Davies said it’s about getting the right player on the right deal. There’s no point in just signing anyone – we’ve done that before and it’s a waste of resources.

So let’s see what this evening brings. Consider the Imps dispatched. 

Hail! Hail

Stevie Mac

 

Tonight…

…is the biggest game of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic career. So far anyway.

The negative scoreline that Celtic returned from Gibraltar with wasn’t just a bad result. This was an embarrassment that now requires complete exorcism.

Some said it was like England’s result against Iceland. It wasn’t, it was worse.

Iceland went through two qualifying groups before facing the English and were there on merit. Lincoln Red Imps are a semi-professional side formed the same year I was born.

Sure, they’ve won the last 14 league titles but Gibraltar only became a member of UEFA in 2014. Does this mean Celtic have met their match?

No it bloody well doesn’t. Yes they beat a better side (on paper) in the previous round, but Celtic should be able to dispose of the Gibraltarians at Celtic Park tonight with a strong scoreline.

That is what Celtic fans will be looking for Brendan Rodgers to ensure happens. We can accept that 1-0 away defeat so long as we are convinced by what is on show tonight and not just edging past the Imps.

We know that this Celtic team is still undergoing surgery. The fat is being sucked out of the torso in order to expose the muscle this squad does have so we can invest in the muscle that we do not currently possess.

It will be a process that requires our patience. Something we are not all blessed with as Celtic supporters.

There is pressure to reach the group stage of the Champions League but there is also the expectation to create a functioning football team at the same time. Both of these are working against each other because on the one hand we don’t have the luxury of time with qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition starting so early in the summer, but time is needed to develop a good team.

Could this have been prevented? To some degree yes, but we can’t dwell on that.

Now what we need is to start setting out our stall. Playing the players that are working and in the right position.

Lincoln Red Imps aren’t playing games. They fancy this with their opponents (us) not firing on all cylinders just yet.

This is no time for complacency. Rodgers needs goals, a clean sheet and a good performance.

We demand it. We need it.

Convince us.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Striiiiiike one!

Being right isn’t necessarily a good thing. It can be good or bad and with varying degrees of consequence into the bargain.

However, Efe Ambrose is a player that 99% of the time you are going to make the correct call on. Last night in Gibraltar he was the let down many of us feared but had hoped wouldn’t be.

For all his calamitous efforts, this one wasn’t the worst but it certainly goes into the hall of fame entitled “Efe’s ‘F’ Ups“. He is a catastrophe in a jersey and now under his third Celtic manager, we are still watching him playing a role in vital games.

I read a great many comments on social media and a variety of post-match reports last night. Most of the flak was directed at Efe and his blunder but Bitton and Brown came in for their usual bashing.

What Celtic fans shouldn’t overlook though is that this was a poor performance by the entire team. Even the good players like Tierney, Rogic and Griffiths were garbage.

The surface played a huge part in this but we knew about this days in advance. With that in mind we should have had a plan to adapt to the conditions.

Those of us who have played football at any level will know all too well about turning up for a game and not knowing what the surface is like. Grass, ash, artificial surface…you just got on with it.

Brendan Rodgers has experienced a bad start, but the real deal will be at Celtic Park next Wednesday. If Celtic can’t beat this team convincingly on their own green, green grass then we have a problem.

I can understand the reluctance to dive into the player market when we have a massive squad. However, central defence was an issue with two out injured and thread bare options.

Relying on Efe Ambrose was Brendan’s first mistake. At the very least he should have played O’Connell or McCart.

Young they may be, but incompetent they are not. That wouldn’t alter the fact that we were poor in Gibraltar though.

Brendan played down the result and credited Lincoln Red Imps with their win. We’ll know over the course of the summer if our concerns will be laid to rest or if we are making progress.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Cock of Gibraltar 

I wrote that headline in jest earlier today. I didn’t think I’d be using it in my post match blog.

I’m not going to round on one player though. He doesn’t pick himself – that’s the manager’s job.

The question is why has Efe Ambrose survived three Celtic managers? Why not play O’Connell or McCart tonight?

Better still, sign a defender for the short term whilst we await our injured defenders coming back. No, lets play Efe because it worked so well for Neil and Ronny.

Well Brendan, you’ve made your first mistake. Putting your faith in a calamity. 

We knew the conditions and we knew our opponents beat a better side in the previous round. We also knew about Efe’s ability to fuck things up, but you ignored all of it anyway.

Let’s just be clear on one thing though: Celtic were dire tonight. The surface contributed to that but should still have done much better.

A forgettable start for Brendan, but I’m hopeful we’ll plough through this mob on grass in Glasgow. A sore one nonetheless which will need to be exorcised immediately. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac