Stuff of Champions

So Aberdeen. Still lacking that je ne sais quoi I see.

Celtic on the other hand were the opposite. They played like champions.

After Thursday’s disappointment we needed to see a response from Celtic. Brendan Rodgers made two changes from Thursday’s lineup.

Out went Callum McGregor and Eboue Kouassi. In came Scott Sinclair and Tom Rogic.

Both replacements carved and created in what was a team effort. There were still mistakes and missed opportunities on the whole, but Celtic worked hard.

Each team created chances and slugged it out in a rare open match in Scottish football, but it was Celtic who drew first blood. A perfect cross from James Forrest was too inviting for anyone to miss and Moussa Dembele headed it home willingly.

The game continued to see both teams test one another. Matters looked to have taken a turn for the worst when Mikael Lustig received a second yellow on 76 minutes.

At that point anything could have happened. And it did.

Celtic took the incentive and made a forward move with just ten men on the park. Dembele pressed upfield with Aberdeen suddenly looking on the backfoot after their attack broke down.

Instead of taking on a few players himself, Dembele slipped it into the path of the onrushing Kieran Tierney. The left back didn’t waste the opportunity as he unleashed an unstoppable shot between the near post and Freddie Woodman.

Celtic had all but sealed the tie with seven minutes of regulation time left on the clock. It looked unlikely that Aberdeen would be able to stop Celtic from inflicting ten straight defeats now.

What they did do is raise the bar on dishing it out. Scott Brown, trying to bring the ball out of his own defensive area, was double teamed by Aberdeen players.

He survived the simultaneous block and challenge only to be halved in two by one of them a split second later. To add insult to injury, the boy who cried wolf, Shay Logan, followed up by deliberately battering the ball off the prone Celtic captain.

That wasn’t the best bit. It was the reaction of the Celtic captain.

With no hesitation he got up, dusted himeself down and postured his survival to the bating hordes of Pittodrie. It was a moment that has since done the rounds on social media so if you haven’t seen it, get on it, it’s priceless.

This was a resolute performance and superb victory. I do question Aberdeen’s credentials though.

In the absence of Rangers (1872 or 2012), they’ve failed to overthrow Celtic. Now it looks like they’ve been overthrown by Glasgow’s newest club as well.

It shouldn’t be ignored that Celtic played a fine 96 minutes. Even with ten men and getting goal number two with one player fewer than Aberdeen at the time.

Lustig will be torn apart mentally at what could have potentially been a game changing moment when he saw red. To their testament, Celtic plugged away like Champions do.

The woodwork was cracked twice and Dorus de Vries only had two saves to make. It was a good performance and battle but in the end Aberdeen showed their true colours when Sam Cosgrove saw red less than ten minutes after he’d entered the field of play on a forgetable debut.

Broony endured the hatchet job with ease. The Dons couldn’t overthrow Ronny’s Rockets so what chance did they have with Brendan’s Bhoys?

Finally, it is worth noting Bobby Madden’s refusal to stop the game when Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer clashed heads. The young Celt remained down after the clash, but Madden allowed play to go in Aberdeen’s favour until the move broke down.

I don’t know what the rule book says, but play should have been stopped. Ajer played the rest of the match with a bandage and deserves credit for doing so.

As I said before kick off, everyone is out to stop Celtic. Whatever challenges are in front of us, we’re on our own.

Well done Bhoys. Great result.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Domesticity is our bread and butter…

Let me get to the point. Celtic didn’t turn up last Thursday.

I’m not going to bother breakng it down. European football has gone now.

Everyone is culpable. Players and coaches.

There is more work to be done. Especially for next season’s campaign.

For now it’s all about the current domestic season. Today it’s about beating Aberdeen.

Our closest challengers these past five years have been leapfrogged by Glasgow’s newest club. Today’s match could hold the key to the final order of the league standings.

Will Aberdeen succumb to Celtic once again and finally lose their second spot for good? Or will they rally against a Celtic side yet to recapture last season’s form?

We could have a more interesting finish to the season than we thought. With Europe now off the fixture list, Celtic must forge ahead in the league.

A trip to Pittodrie will either make or break Celtic today. No other team in Scotland has had to contend with European and domestic football as consistently as the Scottish Champions have in recent years.

With the focus purely on the domestic scene for the first time this season it is time for Brendan and the Bhoys to dust themselves down. To shrug off the shackles of European disappointment.

Europe will require further surgery for Celtic. Winning the Scottish Premiership and possibly even another Scottish Cup are the remaning goals.

They’ll have to dig deeper. Endure everything that is thrown at them from players and officials.

Everyone wants to beat Celtic. So far two have managed that in Scotland this season.

More want to join that fraternity. What are you going to do about it Bhoys?

You already have the fans. You have to do the business on the park.

Starting today, Celtic should be focussing on maintaining a healthy gap in the league. Until they’re back to full strength, they’ll need it.

Stay the course until season’s end. You have to be in it to win it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Zenit are odds on: what do we have to lose?

The weekend’s draw with St Johnstone was an obvious disappointment among the Celtic support. Especially after the elation of their 1-0 victory over Zenit St Peterburg a week ago.

I was at the European encounter and enjoyed the performance and the atmosphere immensely. It felt a lot like the FC Astana game I attended some seven months previous, minus the goal-fest of course.

During Sunday’s league tie I was flying back home so never saw the game. It wasn’t the follow-up performance at home many were hoping for.

Was this necessarily a bad thing though? I don’t think so.

Before you shoot me down, humour me a little. By no means do I think it was good thing, but I think psychologically it puts the Bhoys in the right frame of mind for tonight’s game in Russia.

We never lost to the Perthshire side on Sunday so it’s not all doom and gloom. Perhaps it keeps Celtic hungry for the Europa League away leg tonight.

If Brendan Rodgers and his players can edge past Roberto Mancini’s, it would be a modern milestone for everyone at Celtic. There is no reason to believe progression is out with our grasp.

I’m not totally convinced Zenit got it 100% wrong in Glasgow. So I expect to see a response from our Russian hosts.

There was a fine line over the outcome of the match. Did Celtic get it right or did Zenit get it wrong though?

It may not be quite as black or white as that. There were a lot of factors involved.

Many of these were in Celtic’s favour. I still feel that’s the case going into this match.

Celtic were dominant in the first leg. Zenit were dormant.

Tonight it’s all about character. We’ve seen that away from home with Celtic before in Europe.

Forget results against the top teams. That’s another level altogether.

We can score in Russia. I also expect Zenit to score as well, but it’s a different match.

Right now we concentrate on what’s in front of us. If we’re successful we move forward and if not we learn and move on.

Tonight could be a another step on the ladder. Or it could just be another lesson.

The Krestovsky Stadium will be jumping. Just as Celtic Park was.

Zenit are odds on. What have we got to lose?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Flawless

Celtic were magnificent last night. Every player, the starting eleven and those who entered from the bench, put in a shift that deserves the utmost praise.

Despite the injuries, despite the over all performances we’ve seen this season, the team were relentless against Zenit. Either the visitors were overwhelmed by Celtic or they were saving themselves for the home tie.

They didn’t offer much in this, their first competitive match since early December. I expect more from them in Russia for the second leg, but I also expect more of the same from Celtic.

Thursday night in Paradise was all about Celtic. The set-up was slightly different to lineups we’ve seen under Brendan Rodgers.

A big question mark over the central defence was answered with the inclusion of Jozo Simunovic and Kristoffer Ajer, the latter being there on merit. The midfield was the real surprise though.

Scott Brown captained us as ever and the unplayable Olivier Ntcham was along side him. Perhaps it was the inclusion of Eboue Kouassi and the responsibility handed to Callum McGregor which had us all wondering how this might pan out?

They didn’t disappoint either. The movement and passing had good rhythm.

There was a constant supply forward. James Forrest was heavily marked but he was still able to interact with his team mates.

On the left flank the almost ever present Scott Sinclair was confined to the bench. With that gap being filled by a combination of Ntcham and Kieran Tierney, the bad news for Scotty was that he wasn’t missed.

Up top was a hard working Moussa Dembele. He never found the net but he was tireless in his efforts before being replaced by Odsonne Edouard.

Such was the level of performance, Celtic bossed this match. As others have observed, this could be a glimpse of things to come.

We may even have come to a point of realisation. That we can push on to the next level.

I found it tough to choose a man-of-the-match. Everyone played so well.

It’s the best home performance Celtic have had in Europe since beating FC Astana in August. Coincidentally, the last match I attended before this one.

The fans were in good voice. Paradise was jumping.

The only thing that wasn’t coming off was finding the net. When we did it was a moment of brilliance.

Charly Musonda, on for Kouassi, collected a ball from Dembele out on the left. With some nifty footwork he picked out McGregor in space whose chest control allowed him to lash the ball with his right foot, high and past the Zenit keeper.

Euphoria! To say we deserved a goal would be an understatement.

Brendan Rodgers’ reaction summed up the moment as he exploded with joy down the touchline in front of the jubilant home fans. Who could contain themselves after such a long wait for a goal?

This kind of performance should be used as a marker. A benchmark for how we can play when we put our minds to it.

We won’t be able to play every game or opponent like this. We can play like this though.

Well done Bhoys. More of the same next week.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A Europa response

On Thursday night Celtic welcome Zenit St. Petersburg to Paradise for a Europa League tie. It is the first time the two teams have met in European competition.

Both clubs come into this encounter with varying statistics. The disparity makes this match anything but predictable.

Celtic have of course parachuted into the this competition from the Champions League. Following a dismal campaign that yielded 1 win and 5 defeats they still managed to secure third spot in Group B.

By contrast, Zenit had an excellent Europa League campaign winning their group on 16 points. That was the highest points tally of any of the twelve groups involved in the competition.

They are also undefeated in the group phase winning 5 and drawing 1. And with 17 goals for and 5 goals against they are probably the best team to emerge from that round.

Or are they? Well Celtic will have their work cut out that’s for sure because Zenit are a vastly experienced European side with good financial backing.

There are other factors to consider of course. Such as the opposition each team faced in Europe this season and where they find themselves in the UEFA rankings.

Picking up on the latter point first, Celtic are currently ranked 48th whilst Zenit sit in 19th position. So there is no doubt the Russians are a team to be respected.

In terms of group phase campaigns though there is great contrast. This is when you need to give Celtic a bit of a break.

With reference to UEFA rankings, Celtic played Bayern Munich (2nd), PSG (6th) and Anderlecht (32nd). Zenit played Real Sociedad (79th), Rosenburg (138th) and FK Vardar (255th).

Who had the tougher campaign? I think you can work that one out for yourselves.

Then there is the question of current form. This might be harder to gauge as Zenit haven’t kicked a competitive ball in over two months.

Celtic have been back from their three-week winter break for a few weeks now and played 6 competitive matches. That resulted in 5 wins and 1 defeat since their return to duty.

Zenit played eight friendlies during their winter shut down. 6 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat was the overall outcome.

They played some recognisable names including FC Copenhagen, Maribor, Slovan Bratislava, Slavia Prague and Red Star Belgrade but again all friendlies. Their last six competitive games returned 4 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat across all competitions during November/December.

Some Hoops fans might be concerned about Celtic’s overall European form though. The European fortress that Celtic Park once was is no longer.

The fans are always in good voice but the performances and indeed the results on home soil have fallen short of what we were seeing during the Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan eras. You could argue that much of that comes down to the financial gulf between clubs like Celtic and the cream of Europe these days.

There is very little that Celtic can do about that though. That is in the hands of UEFA.

Celtic must work within their means to procure the best players they can and use the best coaches they can hire to make things work. Right now I would say that there is still plenty of room for improvement at the club before we say “this is the best we can do”.

PSG wiped the floor with Celtic this season. Realistically, it doesn’t come much better than them right now.

What Brendan Rodgers needs to do is continue toward closing that gap. I still believe that with this team and some future improvements that gap can be narrowed.

Despite results and performances, Celtic have still made progress from last season by reaching this stage in Europe. Even if Zenit St. Petersburg turns out to be Celtic’s last stop in Europe this season we can identify where things went wrong and where we must improve for season three.

Getting to the Champions League was a priority for Brendan Rodgers in his first season. Qualifying from it was on the agenda for season two.

From this point on it is about sustaining that. Only by doing this will Celtic make inroads in Europe and constant investment will be required to keep up the fight.

Dropping out will only set the club back. We’ve already lost enough ground over the last ten years as it is.

This season has been a real contrast from last in terms of performances. There is plenty of time to remedy that – even this season.

So both teams are coming into this match with mixed stats and form. Match odds aren’t too dissimilar for each team either – I think that tells you all you need to know.

The dugouts will recognise each other, at least from a managerial perspective. Brendan Rodgers almost became Roberto Mancini’s assistant at Manchester City before he was offered the Swansea City job.

Between Swansea and later in the Liverpool job, both managers have faced each other enough times to be familiar opponents. What once could have been a double act at Manchester City continues as a face-off.

Brendan and Roberto will also be familiar with each other’s current clubs. Albeit with contrasting memories.

Whilst at Liverpool, Brendan lost to Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit St. Petersburg on away goals at this very stage in the same competition in 2013. During the winter break of 2014, Mancini saw his Galatasary side lift the Antalya Winter Cup after beating Neil Lennon’s Celtic on penalties.

Another interesting stat is from last seasons Europa League. Zenit made it to the round of 32 last season as well only to be undone by the away goals rule.

Their conquerors? Anderlecht.

Whilst Celtic may be injury ravaged right now, there should be plenty of appetite for this match. Home territory hasn’t served us well on the big stage so much, with some of our best European matches under Brendan Rodgers being played away from home.

It is high time that was turned around. And there is no time like the present.

On my last visit to Celtic Park, we annihilated FC Astana 5-0. What a night that was.

To witness that atmosphere again on Thursday night as I make my way to Glasgow today would be fantastic. The players and the fans need to start performing for each other now.

Everyone seems out of sorts on the pitch and in the stands. This isn’t Celtic.

What I saw back in August was Celtic. I want to see it again tomorrow night.

Let us allow our players to get into their stride. We haven’t enjoyed much of what we’ve seen this season, but if we get on their backs too soon then it will aid nobody but the opposition.

I can’t argue that I’ve been there every other week to watch Celtic. I live 400 miles away and just isn’t possible.

This game is huge for us though. It could change our season and set up our next.

When I think of these nights, I think of some of the greatest in our recent history. Juventus, AC Milan, Porto, Barcelona, Manchester United to name but a few.

In almost a week since the passing of Liam Miller, I think back to one of those nights when against Lyon he starred in one of those spectacular home performances. Thursday could be another one of those nights if the players and the fans respond to each other.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Liam

Many of you will be waking up this morning to the news of Liam Miller’s passing. The Irish footballer died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

His death has left many in shock particularly as he was only 36 years old. One thing we have learned about cancer is that there are no barriers to its devastation including age and fitness.

Liam, a youth player at Celtic since the age of 16 made a handful of appearances in his early years at the club. He also had injury problems which the club stuck by him with.

A loan spell in Denmark with AGF Aarhus allowed him time to gain some experience and match fitness. He not would emerge as a regular in the Celtic first team until the 2003-2004 season.

He burst onto the scene like a fresh signing. Full of energy and prowess.

What a talent. By this time we knew Henrik Larssson was leaving, but we had this young kid who was already taking the game by storm.

With his explosive form and contract ending that season he was offered a new deal by Martin O’Neill. Much to everyone’s disappointment, Liam turned it down.

Instead he signed a pre-contract with Manchester United in January that season. As attractive as the offer may have been many Celtic fans, myself included, felt betrayed.

The club had stuck by Liam through his injury woes and upon a state of readiness in a team full of stars he was given his chance. Deciding to leave after a mere six months as a first team regular was like having a gift thrown back at you.

I recall never wishing to see him don the Celtic jersey for the rest of that season. He would leave Celtic under a cloud.

His career at United never really took off, playing a total of just 22 games in two seasons. He played part of that period out on loan at Leeds United before making a permanent move to relegated Sunderland.

After two-and-a-half years there, he moved to QPR on a six month deal. He was released after that and in the wilderness.

Then the Irish international returned to Scotland. Hibs came calling and enjoyed two seasons in Edinburgh.

From there he would move to Australia. In a four year spell he played for three different clubs before returning to his home city of Cork in 2015.

He played for Cork City that year before moving to America the year after. Liam also represented his country at various levels even at times when he was without a club.

Many Celtic fans were left wondering what could have been when he left for what turned out to be a nosedive in his a career at Manchester United. It won’t be anywhere near the emotional pain his family and friends will be feeling now.

Gone too soon. Always a Bhoy.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The SFA don’t need a new Chief Executive.

Stewart Regan’s departure from the SFA this month was welcomed by many of us. As chief executive for seven-and-a-half years, he presided over some of the most turbulent times in the Scottish game, yet did nothing to resolve them.

We’ve seen the true colours of the SFA long before Regan arrived but he can count himself as one of the many who failed us. They are a scandalous organisation that do our game no favours at all.

With the hot seat vacant, as well as the Scotland managers job, there has never been a better time to evaluate and change. The entire game in Scotland stutters and trundles along, but it remains a very poor product.

In the last couple of decades we’ve seen very minor alterations. Re-branding and reshuffling, but in truth no fundamental changes.

We all thought big changes might happen round about the time Henry McLeish got involved. That amounted to nothing.

When the refereeing strike occurred it looked as though the game could implode for the better. Still, nothing changed.

When Rangers 1872 went down the tubes, Regan was at the helm and being questioned about the SFA’s handling of the matter. He, along with many others in Scottish football, deflected any blame, but we all know how culpable the SFA were in this case, proven or not proven.

With Regan gone, I believe this is the time for Scottish football’s clubs to invoke change. There will never be a better time.

We have to have change throughout the game. Scotland is a small country and will always struggle to compete with bigger nations.

Our situation is not unique though. There are plenty of other footballing countries like Scotland.

What needs to be done is for a thorough review of our strengths and weaknesses. Once identified we can apply the correct strategy which will allow us to move forward.

We’ve already suffered enough by the mishandling of our biggest sport with no thanks to the SFA. I say it is time to disband the association for good and take the game forward.

The fans and the clubs are the lifeblood. We need a better infrastructure.

Reorganisation of the leagues. Better TV deals.

Marketing football not just to the world audience, but to our own local punters. We need a vast improvement on every level.

There is no point appointing another chief executive to come in a redecorate. We’ve been doing that for decades.

It’s time over an overhaul. The clubs need to get knee-deep in this.

Hail! Hail!