Erik has gone, but the defensive drama has not

The departure of Erik Sviatchenko wasn’t an unexpected one. It is another head scratcher though.

When he signed for Celtic in January 2016, he was an instant hit as he brought some stability to Celtic’s back line. It was a troublesome area for then manager, Ronny Deila.

In the Dane’s first full season, this time under Brendan Rodgers, he managed 43 appearances. However, it was this season just gone where his place became uncertain.

After suffering an injury and subsequent three-month lay-off between August and November, he fell down the pecking order. He wasn’t the only central defender to fall foul of injury though.

Celtic lost Jozo Simunovic for almost two months between September and November. Before either of these players were on the injury list, Dedryck Boyata had already been on the treatment table since July, not returning until mid-September.

So Celtic had their defensive issues, calling on the likes of midfielder Nir Bitton and defender in the making, Kristoffer Ajer. Neither of these players you would expect to have been lining up against the giants of Europe or even the bigger challengers in Scotland but they did.

By the time Sviatchenko returned to the first team fully fit you could forgive him for failing to understand why he wasn’t back in the fold immediately. Yes, the makeshift defensive choices had gotten Celtic through some of their challenges, but they needed someone who knew the job as Rodgers took chance after chance.

In the Dane’s own words, Rodgers said to him that he couldn’t guarantee him first team football. With the World Cup looming and possibly hoping to get himself in the candidate pool, he made a loan move to former club FC Midtjylland.

Whilst there he helped secure the Danish Superliga but failed to make the Danish World Cup Squad. Now he has made the return to Denmark permanent, but why?

I don’t blame the guy for returning to his homeland and former club, but when Celtic’s back line remains so unstable, was it really necessary to offload the guy? By no means do I think that he is irreplaceable, but given some of the bomb scare performances by Boyata, continual injuries to himself and Simunovic and the relative inexperience of central defending by Bitton and Ajer it is another weird one.

Had Celtic moved Boyata or Simunovic on, the latter not for the first time, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Celtic need stability at the back and we’ve not seen that since the partnership of Virgil van Dijk and Jason Denayer – three seasons ago.

With Erik gone and the remainder of the Celtic back line unreliable or work in progress, this is most certainly an area the club need to invest in. If we come unstuck once more in Europe due to this then questions will be asked.

Celtic were threadbare at the back last season. Yes, largely due to injury but that is one of our key issues to those left.

Ajer looks like a good prospect and Jack Hendry might fit the bill in time, but that means Celtic need Boyata and Simunovic to be injury free and on their game. That might be beyond both of their capabilities and Brendan Rodgers needs to be alive to that especially with expectations in the Champions League still great, despite the obvious financial disparity between Celtic and the European elite.

For now, we wish you all the best in your next venture, Erik. Good luck.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Bring it home Bhoys…

And so, the end of the season is here. The Scottish Cup Final is the last date* on the domestic football calendar.

It is a repeat of this season’s League Cup Final. Celtic and Motherwell go head-to-head at Hampden for the 145 year old trophy.

Celtic have won the Scottish Cup a record 37 times and this will be the club’s 57th final appearance. Motherwell have won the trophy twice and appeared in 7 finals.

The stats are against the Lanarkshire club but in these games it’s a one-off scenario. It all depends on who turns up on the day.

A red card for Cedric Kipre ruined the League Cup Final Motherwell. For the good of the game let’s hope 22 men stay on the park today,

For Brendan Rodgers, the team picks itself. He knows his form players right now and has his best eleven ready and able.

Gordon, Lustig, Tierney, Boyata, Ajer, Brown, Ntcham, McGregor, Forrest, Rogic and Dembele are the likely starting eleven. These boys have been great in the build up to the final and in the league run in.

Appearances from the bench could see Griffiths, Sinclair and possibly a farewell for Paddy Roberts. However, that is all dependent on how the game pans out.

There is nothing else for me to say other than go out and enjoy the occasion Bhoys. You are here on merit and can write a piece of history if you handle the occasion correctly.

Motherwell will be fiercely competitive and physical. Celtic just need to keep their head and go about their business.

Oh Hampden in the sun…

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

*As pointed to me by a fellow reader, the last game of the season is actually Partick Thistle v Livingston in Sunday’s play-off final.

Season’s end: Can Celtic write another piece of history at Hampden?

So Celtic lost to Aberdeen, Hibs drew with Rangers and Kilmarnock broke Hearts on the last day of the Scottish Premiership 2017-2018. There are lots of talking points about this season, but firstly let’s revel in the fact Celtic are Champions once more.

The Hoops scooped their 7th title in a row with little difficulty. Though let’s be honest, this hasn’t exactly been a season of scintillating performances.

It may sound to some as though I’m being fickle, but you can’t really argue because most of us are thinking the same. Enough was done to win, but on many an occasion only just.

Brendan managed to keep most of the band together from the invincible season. Or at least, those of whom he wanted to keep including Kolo Toure as a coach.

That wasn’t the issue for Celtic though. Between injuries, individual and team performances, the Hoops misfired far too often.

“This is all part of the game”, I hear you say. Well yes, but most of us have been concerned by what we’ve seen or rather haven’t seen lately.

In quite a lot of games, Celtic played in low gear and at times been punished. And yet, in amongst all of that there have been some excellent individual performances.

Craig Gordon has been good even though he suffered an injury setback in January. Dodgy de Vries stepped in so I was pleased when we acquired Scott Bain on loan and recently signed a permanent deal.

Kieran Tierney put in another assured season despite looking a bit tired at times. He even managed 4 goals, 11 assists and wore the captain’s armband – not bad for a 20-year-old left back.

Kristoffer Ajer took his chance this season at the heart of defence after a short loan spell at Kilmarnock last year in the same role. He has stood out among the more experienced central defenders at the club and announced a new four-year deal with the club on Monday.

Scott Brown has been fantastic and scooped all the awards without a goal to his name but he did manage 3 assists according to one football statistical source despite him suggesting that he hadn’t. His presence in the team has been essential and as ever a tireless performer for Brendan Rodgers with more years left in that engine as well.

Callum McGregor has proven himself again, putting to bed all of his critics once and for all hopefully. Since Ronny Deila handed him his first team debut four years ago against KR Reykjavik, he has had his detractors but he has delivered the goods this season weighing in with 11 goals and 8 assists, coming close to his debut season in first team football with Notts County.

Last summer’s new signing, Olivier Ntcham also proved some early critics wrong. After his £4.5M move from Manchester City great expectations were made of the 22-year-old midfielder.

There may have been one or two wonky performances at most, but he has been an excellent acquisition. His range of passing has been top drawer and he’s even provided 8 goals and 6 assists.

Also with 8 goals from the midfield is Tom Rogic. Although in a more advanced position he hasn’t had the game time others have had.

Yet he has still produced the goods at key times. His timing, first touch and close control are perfection which is why he has also provided 9 assists for his team mates.

And he is the latest to pen a new contract with the club. This five-year deal is like a new signing and firmly bats away the speculation around his future.

The Wizard of Aus will be around for some time yet. Great news for us, but bad news for the opposition.

This season’s surprise performer was James Forrest. Not because he isn’t capable, but because we’re so used to him missing half a season through form or injury.

Not only did he start the season well, but he was consistent throughout the entire campaign and avoided injury. He has been in devastating form.

With 17 goals and 10 assists, he has been a key player for Brendan Rodgers this season. Given the long-term injury to Paddy Roberts and his expected return to Manchester City this summer, it’s just as well Forrest is on fire – no pun intended.

Up front Celtic had three strikers to choose from though rarely ever at the same time. However, they still amassed a glut of goals and assists despite none of them holding down the position for entire season.

Leigh Griffiths produced 13 goals and 8 assists, whilst Odsonne Edouard came up with 11 goals and 4 assists. Moussa Dembele rediscovered some of last seasons form and just edged Griffiths on the stats with 16 goals and 8 assists.

Amazingly, Scott Sinclair has topped Celtic’s stat charts this season with 18 goals and 17 assists. Not bad for a guy who has practically been an empty jersey.

Whether it is confidence, itchy feet or personal issues he needs to have a look at his performances this season. Let’s hope he gets back to the form we witnessed in the invincible season.

That isn’t the whole story of course. We’ve had another very long and tiring campaign.

The unbeaten domestic run from last season continued until December last year which at the time I said was like a millstone around everyone’s neck. Up until then Celtic looked leggy and uninspiring.

We also endured another early start to the season with Champions League qualifying beginning back in 14th July 2017. By the time the domestic campaign had started, Celtic had already played six friendlies and four Champions League qualifiers.

Europe wasn’t exactly the hunting ground we had hoped for. It was tough getting to the group phase and when we did we faced the group of death.

And yet we did progress past the group phase and parachuted into the last 32 of the Europa League. That may not seem like progress, but it was further than the season before. so that has to count for something right?

Next season Celtic will now have to navigate four rounds before they even get near the group phase of the Champions League though. I’ve got my own thoughts on just how unbalanced that passage is for a team that actually won their league, but I’ll save that subject for another time.

So perhaps not a glorious run, but we tasted European football once again after Christmas. It had been three years since Celtic played at that stage in the competition, ironically suffering at the hands of the same opposition manager.

Roberto Mancini presided over the defeat to Celtic in 2015 with Inter Milan. This year he did the same with Zenit St Petersburg.

Much to think about for Brendan Rodgers and his players, but an invaluable experience for this squad which they can only learn from. We must be stronger next season in personnel and in tactical deployment.

And that isn’t far away because the First Qualifying Round is less than two months away. At that time the World Cup will only be at the semi-final stages though hopefully Celtic won’t have too many away on duty.

Cristian Gamboa and Mikael Lustig are both confirmed in their respective countries World Cup squads. Tom Rogic is in the preliminary squad for Australia but is likely to be in the final squad.

In all honesty, Celtic can cope without those players for that cross over period and will have to. The fact is Lustig and Rogic are the only two I rate.

Boyata has missed out on the Belgium squad which for me is all you need to know. He fueled speculation of a move recently when questioned on his contract expiry.

These things are often taken of context though. So who knows where he’ll be – most likely with us!

Gamboa on the other hand is a total waste. He’s barely seen the light of day so hopefully somebody will buy the poor sod after the World Cup.

I’d happily move him on along with a few others such as Dorus de Vries, Jozo Simunovic, Scott Allan, Kundai Benyu and Nadir Ciftci – they are clearly not in the plans. There’s still many who think Stuart Armstrong, Erik Sviatchenko, Nir Bitton, Marvin Compper and even Ryan Christie should go but I’m not so certain their Celtic careers are over yet.

The one name that is always on the lips of the media is Moussa Dembele. Ever since he started banging in the goals he’s been linked with every club south of the border.

He is still here though and will probably still be here next season. Had he been a part of the France senior team by now it’s possible he’d get snapped up but he has yet to advance from the under 21 side.

On the loan front, Charly Musonda has returned to Chelsea one year early. Shame we couldn’t have seen more of him, but it frees up funds for someone else.

Paddy Roberts is unlikely to be that man. His loan is up and after an injury hampered season, a permanent deal does not look likely now.

If any loan is likely to become permanent it is Odsonne Edouard’s. He’s has proven himself worthy of a deal.

With Dembele likely to go in the next six to twelve months this guy would be a sound investment. Let’s hope we can make that happen.

Now with one game left some Celtic players will want to add to their season tally or put themselves in the shop window. A piece of personal glory in the Scottish Cup Final is always a huge motivator.

Will one of our free scoring midfield men be looking toward goal? Or will one of our attacking players be on their toes?

Rogic is a big game player and will have something to say I’m sure. Then there’s Forrest who might want to pip Sinclair to being top scorer.

Similarly, Dembele is almost as close and more likely to succeed if he’s on form. Let’s not forget about Griffiths though and his ambition to score his 99th and 100th Celtic goal before the season comes to a close.

Whoever takes to the field of play for Celtic, history could be made. Motherwell won’t allow Celtic to have it all their way though.

They’ll want to exorcise their defeat by us at the League Cup Final so we will need to work hard. I’ve been impressed by Motherwell this season along with Kilmarnock and Hibernian.

The real shame is that these teams haven’t always replicated their performances against Celtic when playing any other team in Scotland. If they had, they might have pushed Aberdeen and Rangers even further.

So our day in the Hampden sun awaits. Seize the moment Celtic and savour every passing minute.

Come Saturday, we may be writing another record in the history books.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

League Showdown

The final league matchday is upon us. Two of the twelve Scottish Premiership clubs battled for relegation yesterday, today three slug it out for European places.

At the foot of the table are Partick Thistle and Ross County. Thistle won at Dundee to retain their relegation play-off spot whilst County drew at St Johnstone and now go down to the Championship.

It was always going to be tough one for both of those clubs, beating survival away from home in their final match of the season. Thistle only needed a draw, but County required a win and for Thistle to lose.

Motherwell warmed for their Scottish Cup Final match with a 3-0 win over fellow Lanarkshire club, Hamilton. On-loan Celt, Nadir Ciftci, notched a double in that game.

Meantime up at the top half of the Premiership, there is a three way battle going on today. Aberdeen, Rangers and Hibernian are grapling for European places.

Hibs didn’t help themselves midweek with a draw at Tynecastle. Neil Lennon was unhappy at the result and the position it has left the Easter Road club in.

He is said to be considering his position at the end of the season as well. Personally, I think he needs to have another go regardless of his reasons.

There is a very slender chance that Hibs could pip Rangers to third spot though. It would mean winning 6-0 against Rangers at Easter Road today.

It isn’t an impossible task however, it is very unlikely. So you can understand Lennon’s frustration.

Hibs have been great this season. Too many draws have held them back though.

They have only lost 7 games in total. That’s better than any other Premiership club with the exception of 7-in-a-row Champions, Celtic.

I think Hibs have to be upbeat about this last match and go for it. Lennon may be considering his position, but in all honesty, he’s got a much better side than Rangers and possibly even Aberdeen in my opinion.

Some reports have suggested Lennon hadn’t been at training in the aftermath of the Hearts defeat. He has also been vocal about next seasons expectations and his own ambitions.

That doesn’t bode well going into this match. On the other hand, it may just get the reaction he is looking for.

His opponents on Sunday have their own battle though. They too can finish 3rd and possiby 2nd if results at Easter Road and Celtic Park go their way.

A Celtic, victory and the minimum of a draw at Easter Road would see Rangers into 2nd place. A betting man would take that any day of the week.

Aberdeen won’t want to give up 2nd place so easily though. They’d have to spoil Celtic’s title party to make Rangers’ result meaningless.

So it’s going to be a very interesting lunchtime showdown in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Killie v Hearts is a dead rubber.

We are the Champions.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The game is afoot

Celtic play their penultimate league tie of the season tonight at Celtic Park. Kilmarnock are the visitors and a bit of squad rotation is likely.

Brendan Rodgers has two games to prepare for the Scottish Cup Final against Motherwell. After fielding a strong side away to Hearts at the weekend, he’ll now want to assess those on the sidelines.

With the title wrapped up and home advantage Brendan will feel more willing to make changes. Kilmarnock still pose a threat to a victory, but Steve Clarke isn’t chasing a league position with 5th place already secured.

In the top half of the league it is all about 2nd, 3rd and 4th place. And with last night’s draw between Aberdeen and Rangers at Pittodrie, the game is afoot.

What interest is this to us, I hear you ask? Well let’s be clear here – there’s only one team we want to see in 4th!

Tonight Hibs need a draw at the very least for Sunday’s show down with Rangers at Easter Road to have any meaning. Hearts can’t finish any better than 6th place.

In an Edinburgh derby you don’t want to lose to your rival, especially at home. So this game is one to watch.

Should Hibs get a draw or a win then Sunday will be huge. It’s no wonder Steven Gerrard is letting someone else take the reins for the run in.

If this all goes tits up for the Ibrox club the incoming manager won’t have any European fixtures or money. That will all go to Aberdeen and Hibs – not to mention us.

This three-way scrap will be really interesting. Probably only the second time in its existence that the split has actually proved to be worth while in my opinion.

In other news, Steven Naismith has been handed a two match ban by the SFA. It’s unclear whether this was just for the foul on Scott Brown or if it includes the foul on James Forrest, both occurring from the weekends match.

Either way, Hearts are set to appeal and Naismith will be free to play in tonight’s Edinburgh derby. Hopefully someone will put the boot in on him tonight.

So, a nice combination of two interesting games tonight. Let’s hope it’s green and white victories in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Scum of Midlothian

Their fans we already knew about and their manager has been in need of anger management for a long time now. After yesterday’s match at Swinecastle, we’ve now seen how dirty their players are as well.

Dirty tactics deployed by Craig Levein and carried out by his footsoldiers were on full display yesterday. And he played to tune Hearts’ vile fans in the stands.

Two challenges come to mind in particular. The groin stamp on Scott Brown and the ankle stamp on James Forrest.

Both of these were carried out by Steven Naismith. What a wee scumbag he is.

Neither challenge saw Naismith receive a card. It was shocking.

BT Sport’s summarisers, Stephen Craigan and Ally McCoist, made light of both tackles. They laughed and joked about an ensuing battle following late stamp on Brown by Naismith.

McCoist even stated that Naismith could handle himself and we shouldn’t worry. Not exactly what you would call a responsible piece of commentary for live TV coverage.

When the replay of the stamp on Forrest’s ankle was shown, both men said there was very little in it. I mean, what part of that potentially career ending stamp did they miss?

You could sense the glee in their voices every time Hearts put the wind up Celtic. Be it with their only goal of the game or a meaty challenge by one of their hatchet men.

I like a physical game as much as the next football fan. What I don’t enjoy are dirty tactics by so called professionals and putting fellow professionals in danger.

This seems to be Levein’s new style of football given how shit a manager he has proven to be over the years. And we already know what he thinks of Scotland’s player of the year, Scott Brown.

His hatred for Broony is evident, not just by his vocal condemning of the player earlier in the season, but by the direct assault he instructed his players to carry out on him. The Hearts fans were loving every minute of it as well.

Every time a ball went out of play I was disgusted by the anger being vented at Celtic players. That level hate cannot be healthy for you and it certainly isn’t necessary.

I said yesterday on my Facebook page that it was possible that I disliked Hearts more than the new Ibrox club. I guess that isn’t difficult when I probably feel more pity for the Glasgow club than anything else.

You can’t change football supporters though. Some of them are bred that way.

Rivalry is one thing but what I saw was more than that. So to beat Hearts on their own turf after the blip back in November was pretty sweet.

Any kind of setback for Levein and his crew makes me happy. Now we’ll wait and see if our incompetent governing bodies take any retrospective action but I won’t hold my breath.

Well done in killing off the Huns without the bus fare, Brendan. Natural order restored right Craig?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Final away trip of the season…then home to roost before Hampden

Having wrapped up 7-in-a-row last Sunday in Paradise, there’s only three fixtures left on the league calendar this season for Celtic. Today, the Hoops visit Tynecastle to play Hearts.

It is a return to the scene of the crime for the Champions. Where Hearts inflicted a 4-0 defeat over Celtic to end their unbeaten run.

Craig Levein is still dining off that win. If ever there was a reason for Brendan Rodgers to field a strong side it’s to remind the Huns without the bus fare that our last visit here was a blip.

Celtic have an array of talent desperate for game time. I wouldn’t expect wholesale changes for this one, but Brendan will likely want to freshen things up.

With a cup final coming up in a couple of weeks, places are being contended for. Some players might even be looking to put themselves in the shop window this summer.

At this stage Brendan will know who has a future in his squad, should they want one. He probably has a fair idea who is already a cert to leave as well.

In order for him to make this ‘his team’ further changes must take place. I’m really happy with the evolution of this team under Brendan, particularly the Scottish talent.

I’m excited to see what happens to this team in the next season. Until then, let’s enjoy these last few games before the cup final against Motherwell.

And let’s remind Levein of the natural order he loves to talk about. Mon the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac