Meddling or Meandering?

What did we learn from Saturday’s defeat at Ibrox? Something and nothing.

We already knew our squad was smaller than it’s been in a long time, but it doesn’t lack quality. So what went wrong at Ibrox other than the result?

A case for the defence

Now you won’t hear me making excuses for the individual errors. There are one or two persistent offenders in our defence.

That said, when your midfield is malfunctioning, your defence has to deal with the onset issues. And if your midfield is still not responding, who do you feed the ball out to?

A lot of Celtic’s defensive errors came from poor passing. Simple passes at that and by all of the back four.

The defence were under constant pressure. The midfield did very little to ease that.

The home side pressed, kept a high line and closed down quickly. We’ve seen this before when Celtic have not been allowed time on the ball in Europe and even in sone domestic fixtures such aa Hearts, Hibs and Kilmarnock.

Brendan Rodgers doesn’t appear to have found an answer to this. He certainly doesn’t appear to have made any progress either.

Misplaced midfield

Brendan setup his midfield with possibly the strongest selection with one key omission. His best midfielder.

Scott Brown has had his critics over the years. He’s also had them this season.

His absence from the team suited the way the team were playing at the time. When he was reintroduced, the fans were displeased with his square ball antics.

Broony still has a place in the team, but not every game. He had poor game on Saturday, but so did Olivier Ntcham.

Ryan Christie did the best he could, but the one player missing from the middle of the park was Callum McGregor. Being stuck at left back was bizarre.

Not because he hasn’t played there before – he has. It was baffling because he is our best midfielder right now and he was repositioned.

Yes, someone needed to play left back, but did it have to be CalMac? No, I don’t think so, Brendan, and that’s on you.

Narrow

Celtic’s usual outlets are in the wide areas. Scott Sinclair and James Forrest were largely ineffective.

Forrest has been in good form since last season and been even better this season. Sinclair has enjoyed a hat trick recently but his performances have never matched his first season at the club.

Nothing went down the channels. Once more, our players were closed down quickly.

Firing blanks

Mikey Johnston was given the strikers role. A huge risk and a big ask in an important game.

I was buzzing about his goals recently, but would I have given him the lone strikers role at Ibrox? Not a chance.

If Mikey does all the right things, he can have a bright future at Celtic. Playing him up front was foolish of Brendan and put a tremendous amount of pressure on the player.

Bad day, bad choices and questions are being asked

There’s no hiding the fact that what Brendan Rodgers did at Ibrox was a managerial faux pas. Kieran Tierney was ruled out giving many the impression that the role would be filled by another suitable candidate.

In the previous four games, Emilio Izaguirre had played left back. It was the reason he was brought back in the summer

He was hooked during the games at Easter Road and Pittodrie and replaced by Jonny Hayes on each of those occasions. That led many to think that either could be a contender for the Ibrox game.

It turned out neither played. Instead he put our best midfielder in there throwing the shape of our midfield into disarray.

We knew we were losing Tom Rogic for international duty. We knew Kieran Tierney was probably going to be missing too.

Odsonne Edouard, though out injured briefly, had returned as a sub against Aberdeen. With all of these known factors, why did Brendan make such bizarre choices for such a big game?

Tierney must have had some level of fitness to have him on the bench. Certainly enough to displace the only other natural left back, Izaguirre.

To play McGregor in front of the three players to have filled that role is beyond comprehension. Or is it, as many of us believe, yet another message being sent to the board of directors with the transfer window here that money must be spent?

It’s a dangerous game to play. Decisions like that put you in close proximity to career suicide if it backfires.

And let’s face it, the only way this has any meaning is if you get your wish. Carte blanche in January.

Is that certified? No.

Was your team selection a wild gamble? Yes.

Even with Odsonne Edouard left on the bench, after coming off it against Aberdeen and scoring a goal, you have to wonder. Why didn’t he play from the start?

To rest him for future games? It’s the last game before the winter break and there are no games for three weeks!

Don’t tell me it would’ve been risky. This risky set up against a team on your heels was foolish.

If this wasn’t a message to the board then it is an alarming move for the Celtic manager. You’ve either misjudged your opponent or you’re past caring about your job.

I don’t know what the preferred choice would be. Brendan must shoulder the blame for this.

Can you imagine if Ronny Deila had made the same choices? He got the bullet just for losing on penalties to the same team.

The winners

Steven Gerrard will be jubilant at the result. As will the fans of the Ibrox club.

They are now level pegging with Celtic, albeit having played one more game. Some have dimissed this as being a title race and yet it is one.

Can you really dismiss the fact that the other teams in the league have made it so? Credit where it is due and to say otherwise is nothing short of sticking your head in the sand.

And perhaps that is where Brendan is going with this or trying to do. Show that the gap has narrowed.

I can’t take anything away from Rangers. They worked their socks off for the entire match.

Even if Celtic had scored an equaliser it would’ve been undeserved daylight robbery. The home side’s fully deserved their win on Saturday.

The question for Celtic is this. Was Brendan’s deliberate meddling too obvious that it puts his job in jeopardy or will the board accept the team needs strengthening now?

We’ll find out in January. That’s tomorrow.

Hail! Hail! and a Happy New Year!

Stevie Mac

Youth blossoms

Celtic bounced back from their double defeat by Salzburg and Hibs with a solid home victory over Motherwell last night. Three goals in the first half was enough to see off the visitors and there were some notable performances into the bargain.

Scott Brown made his 500th appearance for the Hoops in what could be his final season at the club. He joins an elite batch of players in Celtic’s history having already secured the most European appearances by a Celtic player.

Brendan Rodgers made one change for this match installing Anthony Ralston at right back. It is the young player’s first appearance of the season and also since September last year.

Since then, he has penned a new deal for the club and been out on loan at Dundee United. Last night he was given a chance and he took it with both hands.

He didn’t just show his defensive capabilities. We saw what he had to offer in the attacking sense too.

The first goal came from the defender after he’d been played in by Odsonne Edouard. It was a fine finish under a challenge and with an onrushing goalkeeper.

Prior to that, Ralston had got in a fine cross but there were no takers. The player did not waste his opportunity.

The next goal came from the penalty spot. As James Forrest sped into the box, Charles Dunne chopped him down with a poorly timed challenge.

Scott Sinclair converted the penalty with a well placed effort. Surprisingly, Dunne didnt’ even receive a booking for the offence.

I guess with Bobby Madden you just never know what way he is swinging in a match. He set out his stall by not taking any action on this one.

Sadly, Celtic lost Edouard to injury shortly before the interval and will be assessed in the coming days. With no other recognisable striker currently available, the transfer window cannot come quick enough for Celtic.

However, the French player’s replacement didn’t spurn his opportunity either. Like Ralston, Mikey Johnston stepped in and took his chance.

The young attacker received a short pass from Forrest, side-stepped a wall of Motherwell players and sent a looping effort over the keeper and into the net from the edge of the box. This was a real touch of class from Johnston.

He has had game time this season but recently found himself on the periphery in recent matches. With competition for places fierce, he has thrown his hat into the ring.

This was a game that was decided in the first half. The second produced further efforts from Celtic with no goals but over the entire game Motherwell did not produce a single shot on target.

Celtic now have a relatively straightforward home tie against Dundee on Saturday. The bottom side have managed to pick up four out of a possible twelve points this month including a draw at home to Rangers.

It hasn’t got them off the bottom of the table but they are level on points with St Mirren now. For Celtic, this should be a formality.

The likelihood of Odsonne Edouard making it will depend on the outcome of his injury. Even if he is fit, I doubt he would be risked against Dundee with two huge matches against Aberdeen on Boxing Day and Rangers just before New Year.

We could see the same team assembled this Saturday with Mikey Johnston thrown in again. I’d certainly like to see more of Ralston too as he has lost a year through injury and getting back to his best.

There is high expectations of a flurry in the transfer market by Celtic. It is also encouraging to see more talent looking hungry and taking their chances.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We need new blood or there will be blood.

After the strange celebrations of Thursday night’s Europa League progression, Celtic travelled to Easter Road on Sunday to face Hibs. And for the third time this season, Celtic lost a league match in the aftermath of a European tie.

I didn’t catch Sunday’s game on this occasion, but there were a number of changes. Injuries or not, Celtic appear to have been beaten my a hungrier side.

And you know what, I’m not really going to complain. Because the way this season is turning out it is anything but dull in the Scottish Premiership.

Celtic walked that last two seasons. The first a formidable clean sweep, the second drab clean sweep.

The current campaign has seen a fantastic effort by a number of teams in the league. So much so that a mere 8 points separates 1st place from 8th place right now.

It is a phenomenal statistic to think that two-thirds of the league is still in the race. Yes, they may not all be there as the season wears on, but with the half way mark almost reached by every clubs,this is panning out to be a rare spectacle in Scotland.

The 2-0 win for Hibs on Sunday allowed them to close the gap at the top from 10 points to 8 points with Rangers back at the summit after their 1-0 win over Hamilton. Kilmarnock beat Dundee 3-1 to put them above Celtic.

St Johnstone lost ground after a home defeat by Motherwell whilst Aberdeen got a crucial away win at St Mirren. And after Livingston mauled Hearts 5-0 on Friday night, the Scottish Premiership looks very different.

Celtic have four games before the end of the year and the winter break. After that most Celtic fans are expecting a flurry in the transfer market.

A number of players are unavailable right now and there is potential risk that some may move on permanently or on loan come January. The weakened areas will need to be looked at now with a view to bolstering for now and in the future.

Brendan Rodgers stated that he has earmarked attack as his main area of focus having lost Moussa Dembele right a the end of the summer transfer window and Leigh Griffiths taking a break from the game in the last week. He will also need to think about defensive and midfield replacements though.

With Dedryck Boyata and Filip Benkovic both certain to leave, the central defence does not have any solidity beyond May or possibly even January if either were to leave then. And it doesn’t stop there because new contract offer or not, Mikael Lustig will need to be replaced at some point in the future.

So far Brendan has shown little faith in Cristian Gamboa or Anthony Ralston and has stuck by the vice-captain. The former is out of contract this summer and Ralston hasn’t featured despite signing a new contract a year ago.

Scott Brown is rumoured to be thinking over a move to Australia when his contract runs out. I personally thought he’d stick around for a couple more years but if there is any truth in the story then it would be a difficult offer to turn down.

That would leave a huge hole in this squad in terms of leadership, influence and experience. Who would replace Broony within the current squad?

Callum McGregor has been great, but is he the natural successor? Eboue Kouassi was said to be Broony’s replacement but we’ve seen very little of him.

We do have a healthy supply of midfielders right now. Some of which, like Kouassi, can barely get a game.

Yousouff Mulumbu is backup and Nir Bitton injured, but Celtic will need someone to fill the shoes of Broony. That may well emerge as the months continue to roll past or we may have to seek someone out.

Even in the goal keeping department, Celtic will need to think ahead. Craig Gordon has been a mainstay for nearly five years now, but he has one year left of his contract after this season.

There’s nothing to suggest that he cannot continue for a couple more years. At 35 he probably will but realistically, a long-term replacement has to be sought as he’ll be 37 by the time his contract runs out.

Scott Bain came in on loan and eventually signed a permanent deal in the summer. We would need to see him more regularly to know whether he is the long-term replacement for Gordon though.

Celtic have to be proactive in January and June. We’ve already seen the squad decimated, this season through injury, suspension and players moving on.

We will lose more players between now and the summer. We need to plan for the future and for the tough games that lie ahead.

This league will be hotly contested if the season so far is anything to go by. And today Celtic will also find discover their European fate.

The draws for the Champions and Europa League take place today. Whoever Celtic get will be a huge challenge.

Let’s hope the board are prepared to back the manager. We need new blood or there will be blood.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A negative night, but the table doesn’t lie

The starting line-up was predictable, but the performance was ineffective. Salzburg outclassed Celtic in the first 45 minutes of last night’s crucial match at Celtic Park and even an improved second half performnace wasn’t enough to earn the point we were seeking.

However, as it turned out, Rosenborg did the unthinkable and stole their first point in this group in their final match. The outcome of that unlikely result allowed Celtic to progress despite suffering defeat in Glasgow.

Thats because we won three, lost three. Leipzig won two, drew one, lost two.

I’m not going to excuse anyone for last night’s poor effort. We should have changed tactics much sooner than we did as it clearly wasn’t working.

Salzburg enjoyed themselves so much, they looked like Barcelona. Wave after wave of attacking, free flowing football.

Nobody would have argued with our starting line-up. It has brought us recent success on the park.

It was evident early on though that it wasn’t going to work against Salzburg. So obvious, you knew we’d have a different shape at half time.

We should have instigated that change no later than the half hour mark. So why didn’t we do that?

We were hanging on by the skin of our teeth in the first half. How we didn’t concede is a miracle.

I think most of us were satisfied with the team Brendan put out and wouldn’t have disrupted that. As it turned out it yielded nothing.

When Brown and Olivier Ntcham entered the fray we looked a different team. But we were gutless on the left wing with Scott Sinclair and James Forrest never really got the service until the second half.

Kris Ajer had a terrible time at right back filling in for Mikael Lustig who went off with a head knock. I’m not even sure Cristian Gamboa would’ve been the answer either had he even been on the bench.

Kieran Tierney was getting rinsed in the first half and was even a culpable at the first goal. Overall I thought Jozo Simunovic and Filip Benkovic didn’t do too badly, but they had no protection and made some poor decisions under pressure.

Tom Rogic looked way off the boil, even when he did get the ball. Callum McGregor didn’t impose himself enough and Ryan Christie never saw much of the ball before eventuallygoing off injured.

I thought Odsonne Edouard did okay considering the pressure on the young striker. In fact he worked harder in the first half defensively than in an attacking sense.

Overall this was a game to forget. And yet Brendan Rodgers must learn from this.

It was a tactical error and he should hand changed things sooner. You could argue that had Craig Gordon, who was keeping us in it, not made a second half blunder we’d have got the draw.

The fact is we got it totally wrong and must learn from it and move on. We’re in the last 32 because we got more points than Leipzig and Rosenborg.

Many have focussed on the fact that ‘Rosenborg did us a favour’ and I’ll be sure to buy a pint for the first of their supporters I meet. However, if Rosenborg had got a draw in Trondheim against Leipzig earlier in the tournament and lost last night it would have been the same outcome with Celtic going through.

So I’m not going to start saying we got lucky. It’s about six games over a period of three months.

The permutations can vary. What Celtic must do now is invest in our squad.

We have to buy players to plug the gaps now and for the ones that will appear come the end of the season. There is also a need to inject further quality into this team.

If Lewis Morgan is to be the replacement for Sinclair then I want to see him now. Edouard will need support, especially with Leigh Griffiths on a sabbatical.

Our defence needs surgery particularly at right back. The centre of defence will be without Benkovic and probably even Dedryck Boyata by January or June.

We have the makings of a good team, but it requires an upgrade to progress. Success doesn’t come cheap, but we don’t have to break the bank either.

European football is secure for another two games. On Monday we will find out who we face in the Europa League draw.

Last night was in our hands and we blew it. Fate played its part and gave us a helping hand.

We won’t always get a rub of the green. We must make our own luck.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

It’s all in your hands, Celtic.

If you’d told me a couple of months ago that we were going to go into Matchday 6 of the Europa League with qualification in our own hands I wouldn’t have believed you. However, the turn around in Celtic’s fortunes since that time has been fabulous.

The issues of the summer, though not completely forgotten, now seem like a bit of a distant memory. Such is Celtic’s level of performance right now it is hard to look back.

Celtic have got themselves out of a rut and playing some tremendous football into the bargain. They have been focussed on what lies ahead instead of dwelling on the past.

To watch the team evolve in the last couple of months has been thrilling. Player after player has stood up to be counted.

During a hectic winter run in, Celtic have put themselves back at the top of the league, won the League Cup and got their European mojo back. Tonight they welcome RB Salzburg to Celtic Park in a match that the Hoops cannot afford to lose.

Now to be honest, had Salzburg not beaten Leipzig two weeks ago, the game would probably have been a bogey. That said it also required Celtic to beat Rosenborg in Trondheim and Leipzig in Glasgow prior to tonight’s game.

Celtic have done their bit and Salzburg have done theirs. The Austrians have won 5 out of 5 games in this group and they will want to make it 6 despite having won the group already.

They’ve also bagged three times the amount of goals that Celtic have and conceded one less. Brendan Rodgers will not be underestimating Salzburg.

The Austrians have a good record against Celtic and competing in last seasons Europa League. I’m not going with the Red Bull collusion storyline.

I don’t expect anything but a victory from Leipzig who entertain Rosenborg at the same time. The Norwegians haven’t got a single point to show and I don’t expect that to change this evening.

The ball is in entirely Celtic’s court. A win would be fantastic, but a draw is more than sufficient and possibly the best we can hope for given how well Salzburg have done in this tournament in the past 18 months.

The only modicum for Celtic is that with qualification and top spot already secured by Salzburg, the visitors may not be quite as up for it as the hosts. And when you consider Celtic are on playing well right now, these combining factors could be well-timed for our European hopes.

Our form is good, our attitude is balanced and player availability strong for the most part. For a squad that has been criticised for being smaller than previous seasons, each player has their own unique value.

With a few exceptions, every single first team player has a key role to play be it in the starting eleven or from the bench. The headache for Brendan Rodgers is how does he play it tonight?

Celtic’s last two Europa League matches have been without Scott Brown in the starting lineup. With fluidity playing a key part in Celtic’s form right now would Brendan even dare displace anyone to allow the club captain back in?

There is a balance to be struck in these games. To remain strong, retain your form and not upset the flow.

At this moment in time I would suggest that Broony coming back in could go either way. With Celtic’s scoring opportunities greatly enhanced without his inclusion of late it is a tough call whether you want to disrupt that in place of a no holds barred midfield spoiler.

My feeling is that we start with Broony on the bench as we have since he returned from injury. The only exception being that he started against Motherwell.

As much as he can offer in physical games, we also have to flex our muscles on the attacking front. We have to take the game to Salzburg and that might be more successful with a bit more verve in the midfield.

Callum McGregor has covered every blade of grass since he filled in for his skipper. You could argue that he even has a good shout as captain.

Ryan Christie’s continued rise this season has been nothing short of impressive. You can’t leave him out of any midfield selection right now.

Tom Rogic, is still getting back to his best but he can always produce something magical in a game. Tonight could be just one of those matches for him.

James Forrest has been unplayable since last season. He has goals, assists and route one football in his locker and a strong contender for Player of the Year.

Those are the guys that have to play tonight. The question for Brendan Rodgers is who does he throw in as his fifth midfielder/attacker?

With the exception of the match away to Motherwell, Scott Sinclair has started every game since Celtic since the 0-5 demolition of Dundee at the end of October. Therefore it is likely that he will get the nod ahead of Olivier Ntcham or Scott Brown.

Sinclair has yet to rediscover his first season form of 25 goals and 13 assists in 50 games. That earned him the SPFA Player of the Year, SFWA Player of the Year, Celtic Supporters’ Player of the Year and the Celtic Players’ Player of the Year awards.

Last season both his and Celtic’s performances were lacklustre yet the stats tell a different story. 18 goals and 17 assists in 55 games is not to be sniffed at as it played a huge part in securing the double treble for the us.

This season he’s way off the pace with 5 goals and 5 assists from 27 games, but there have been moments of confidence creeping back into his game albeit with no real consistency. A continued run in the team will perhaps help him get back to his best because if he doesn’t, Lewis Morgan will be knocking on the door.

For now the spotlight is off Sinclair as fans and the media focus on the top performers in this team such as Forrest, McGregor, Tierney, Christie and Benkovic. Tonight though I expect to see Sinclair on the left and he must focus on getting back to the player he can be.

It’s all in your hands boys. It’s all in your hands.

I end today’s blog in acknowledgement of Leigh Griffiths. Yesterday, Brendan addressed the media and informed them that the striker would be taking a break from the game to obtain some help and support with issues that have been affecting him.

I’m not going to speculate on what those issues may be. The only thing I want is for Leigh to seek the assistance he needs and that he gets back to a good place on and off the field.

He’s an important player for the club and the fans, who has overcome every obstacle to be a Celtic star. Whatever is affecting him right now, we all want to see him back in the Hoops as soon as he physically and mentally can.

Let’s hope we can give you some good news after tonight. All the best Leigh.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

First silverware in a captivating season awaits

Celtic’s story so far this season has been eventful. There have been highs, there have been lows.

On Thursday night they put in a professional performance against Rosenborg in Trondheim. Coupled with Salzburg’s home win over Leipzig, Celtic’s Europa League fate is now in their own hands.

I’m not sure that was a situation I envisaged given how this season unfolded in those early months. Celtic’s change in form in the past couple of months has been nothing short of formidable.

They’ve taken top spot in the Scottish Premiership and kept their Europa League campaign alive going into the last group stage game. On Sunday they face Aberdeen in the League Cup Final to decide who takes that first piece of domestic silverware.

Aberdeen will looking to exorcise recent cup final defeats by Celtic. They last faced each other in this final two years ago.

Celtic were 3-0 victors in that one which put them on the road to their first treble since the Martin O’Neill era. Tom Rogic, James Forrest and Moussa Dembele were all on the score sheet that day.

In the same season, Celtic cemented that treble with another win over Aberdeen. They ran out 2-1 winners in the Scottish Cup Final by which time Aberdeen must have been sick of the sight of us.

In fact I’d imagine that most of Scottish football are sick of us winning everything. Should Aberdeen fail to halt Brendan Rodgers’ domestic superiority at Hampden tomorrow you can only imagine what will happen in the weeks and months ahead.

Celtic have suffered the loss of key players, injuries, poor form and even personnel infractions. The transfer market wasn’t exactly fruitful either, but look at us now.

A smaller squad we may be compared to previous seasons, but practically every player is playing a key role these days. Only a few are either out of the picture or injured.

I’d suggest that this close knit squad are functioning more effectively. There’s certainly another wave of belief sweeping through the squad.

That might just be enough to win another treble. First though, we must win on Sunday.

Derek McInnes’ side aren’t having their best season in the league. Then again only ten points separate the top eight teams.

That’s remarkable for Scottish football. We’re so used to a greater gap by now.

I’d say this has been one of the most interesting campaigns in a long time. So Sunday could be a classic given the possible implications should Celtic win.

There’s generally a bit of a physical tussle between both clubs these days. That goes back to the days of Neil Lennon, through Ronny Deila and now with Brendan Rodgers.

Aberdeen have been the second best team in Scotland the last four seasons. This season they may have to relinquish that to one of the other teams currently performing better.

Sunday will be a different situation though. I fully expect a serious challenge from the Dons.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac