Europa Report

When you get paired with a team from Europe who, last time around got the better of you, there’s often a feeling of dread that history may repeat itself. For Celtic though, this is a chance for retribution after the Europa League draw was made on Friday lunch time.

Celtic were plucked from pot two and placed into Group E but it was pot four that had folk rolling their eyes. Because the team drawn from pot four was none other than CFR Cluj.

For all the misery that the second leg at Celtic Park delivered for Celtic fans, the Romanian champions were not an unbeatable side or indeed a very good one. On the contrary, Celtic pretty much handed the second leg at Celtic Park to Cluj on a plate.

Transfer and injuries aside, Neil Lennon had more than enough to overcome Dan Petrescu’s side. Tactical errors and mishaps by Scotts Bain and Brown cost us a play off spot in the Champions League against Slavia Prague.

We may or may not have got past the Czech champions, but we’ll never know. What we do know is where we are now and that is in Group E of the Europa League with Lazio, Stade Rennais and of course Cluj who failed to overcome the Slavia Prague themselves.

Group E is not a bad draw to be honest and we stand a good chance of making the last 32. In the next couple of days though we need to ensure we have plenty of cover to assist us with the challenges ahead before the transfer window closes on Monday.

Lazio and Celtic have never faced each other competitively, but Neil Lennon and Celtic are very familiar with Stade Rennais and CFR Cluj. Celtic seem destined to play the same teams in Europe over and over again.

The first encounter with the French side was back in 2011, ironically in the Europa League group stage. It was Neil Lennon’s first season in charge and he won 3-1 at Celtic Park and drew 1-1 in Rennes.

Fast forward to 2015 and Ronny Deila took them on in a pre-season friendly, winning 2-0 at Celtic Park. This summer they were back in Glasgow for a feisty friendly which resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Cluj we know all about from this summer of course, but Lennon and Celtic faced them in a preseason friendly back in 2013 as well. That was in Austria when Celtic were at their pre season summer camp, losing the game 2-1.

Now they will go face-to-face again. We can only hope that the mistakes from the game at Celtic Park do not rear their ugly head once more.

Lazio will be a tougher encounter, but they are by no means an unbeatable side. They claimed a place in the Europa League by winning the Coppa Italia, but they finished 8th in Serie A last season.

Like Celtic, they finished second in their Europa League group stage last year and also exited in the last 32, with Sevilla – prolific winner of the trophy – being their conquerors.

These are the confirmed dates and times:

So with the odds very good, there is more reason to feel optimistic. That being the case, the club must capture the players required to make this team fully functional.

Last night Mohamed Elyounoussi signed on a one year loan from Southampton. The left winger wears the number 11 jersey for the Premier League club, but at Celtic that shirt is currently worn by Scott Sinclair.

Sinclair, has been practically frozen out despite the club extending his contract by another year at the end of last season. Most assumed that was to allow the club to consider their options and possibly still make a profit from a summer sale, but with the English transfer window shut a move to any other country looks unlikely.

So now Neil Lennon has a lot of midfield and attacking options. Defensively though we are all still hopeful of one or two additions.

It doesn’t have to be a stupid amount of cash. We just need some quality to provide depth and cover.

Left back remains a key area of concern as currently we have one player in Boli Bolingoli for that role. There is no backup or challenger for the position vacated by Emilio Izaguirre and Kieran Tierney this summer.

You could also question that the central defence options are also low if any injuries and suspensions occur. I have a feeling though that Bitton and Elhamed will be included in those numbers along with Jullien, Ajer and Simunovic with Hendry a possible candidate to go out on loan.

We could also still see some other Celtic players go out on loan, but time is running out. January will give us another chance to buy and sell if we are still in the Europa League, but we need to ensure the squad is strong on all fronts now.

The gap was closed on Celtic last season, but despite that yet another treble was achieved. I don’t think that’ll happen again this season, though that’s what I said last summer and look what happened!

Critically, our neighbours across the city will be occupied on Thursday evenings until Christmas as well. Their late winner at home to Legia Warsaw saw them through to pot four of Friday’s draw and face a group that includes Porto, Young Boys of Berne and Feyenoord – good luck with that one.

Knowing that they will have the same amount of breathing space that Celtic do for domestic games, you can be sure there is no advantage across the city. That could turn out to be crucial in this seasons campaign if Celtic are also fighting the cause in Europe.

Speaking of our neighbours, we are set to face them for the first time this season on Sunday. Neither Glasgow club has dropped points this season, the only clubs in the Scottish Premiership still with maximum points.

Right now, the bookies odds favour the Ibrox club. Last season, both clubs won their home ties against each other which is probably how they’ve sorted those odds.

Gerrard and Lennon have each strengthened their teams. We’ll see who wins this one tomorrow lunchtime if indeed there is one!

Then we’ll just have to wait and see if Celtic do any more business over the next few days. Do use proud on Sunday, Bhoys!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Stockholm or bust!

Celtic gave their European campaign a shot in the arm with a 2-0 win over AIK last Thursday at Celtic Park. The performance and scoreline was positive and though it didn’t kill off the tie, it was a decent first leg.

Having brushed aside Hearts at the weekend (with the aid of two own goals) Neil Lennon has maintained a 100% domestic record before taking his players to Stockholm for the final hurdle that can secure European football until Christmas. The Europa League play off tie is far from over and it is merely half time between both clubs.

The stakes are high because whilst the Europa League may not be as prestigious as the Champions League, European football is what we live for every season. I’ll take Thursday night European ties over no European football at all.

Reaching the group stage will allow Celtic to pit themselves against better opposition than they play most weekends. Last season they faced Salzburg, Leipzig and Rosenborg in the group phase of the same tournament and finished second.

That allowed them to make the last 32 and if we get passed AIK on Thursday that has to be the minimum we are aiming for. Celtic lost out to Valencia in the knock out stage 3-0 on aggregate but it would be good if we could get beyond that stage.

However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We need only think about the game in Stockholm.

AIK have played more than twenty games so far in their domestic season. They are at peak fitness and even though this is Celtic’s twelfth competitive game of the season, they are still way behind their Swedish counterparts who have played around thirty competitive games in their current season.

Celtic will be looking to score in Sweden, but knowing that AIK have to score themselves, they may allow the Swedish Champions to play a bit and hit them on the counter. AIK certainly parked the bus last week, but they will have to be more adventurous if they hope to claw themselves back into this tie.

That could play in to Celtic’s hands who have plenty of runners who can open up a defence that may be more keen to break than sit back. Unless of course AIK go for the long ball game seen last week which also played into Celtic’s hands.

Celtic don’t have home advantage but it is advantage Celtic. As I said after the second leg against Cluj, mistakes are costly at the highest level.

The Europa League may be the second string European tournament, but it is our last throw of the dice. Let’s not throw that away.

Should Celtic avoid any catastrophe’s this evening, we stand a better chance of further signings before the transfer windows shuts. Yesterday we signed Moritz Bauer on loan from Stoke City.

Some fans have baulked at this as he is out of favour with the Championship side. However, he impressed when he arrived at the then Premier League club in a six month spell and earned a five year contract despite the club being relegated.

It is understood we have an option to buy should this loan work out. I would imagine the same could occur for Fraser Forster if has a successful loan spell.

The second time Celt is about five years younger than Craig Gordon and both keepers will have a decision to make at the end of this season. Gordon’s contract will expire at the end of May and Forster’s loan will expire at the end of June.

Last season, Scott Bain shared the space between the sticks with Craig Gordon. Bain played in 32 matches whilst Gordon played in 31.

Neil Lennon is still in pursuit of other players though. Another left back is a priority and whilst rumours continue about midfielders and attackers coming on board, Celtic will also need to off load a few on loan or for sale if they are not going to get near the first team.

Once this AIK match has been settled I would imagine we’ll have a better idea of where things are going. Stockholm or bust!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We need to back the team…right now

Like the first leg of the UCL third round qualifier against Cluj, I will most likely be in the air when the first leg of the UEL playoff is under way. The stakes are just as high in this match if not even more so.

As supporters, we’re still analysing every move made or not made by Celtic. What we need to do though is lay off for now and stand by the players and coaching staff.

Not because they don’t deserve to be criticised or scrutinised. But because right now they need us.

Whatever we think of Lawwell, Lennon or even the players, mistakes have been made. Whilst all of that needs to be resolved, rectified and redressed, empty seats, boos and banners won’t necessarily have the desired effect.

On the one hand a message is going to the board or whoever the blame is being directed at. Whilst on the other, if you consider that perhaps Neil Lennon is trying his hardest to recruit, rebuild and repair the squad, we aren’t helping matters by levelling continual berating.

We’re all angry and Neil Lennon used the word ‘hysteria’ in his pre-match press conference yesterday, but he wasn’t wrong. I was as hysterical and angry as the next supporter after Cluj and to a certain extent Dunfermline also.

If there is to be a huge breakdown in the club then it will come in the shape of not making the Europa League group stage. Or worse still, not achieving 9INAROW and if it comes to that then we can have our say once more, but we can’t prevent it.

I’m not pinning my hopes on a treble. We’ve already created history with a treble treble.

What I want to see is this club develop their home grown talent with the additional youth procured. Let that blossom whilst Neil Lennon gets the first team moving forward with additional players in the next two weeks.

Were it not for the mistakes against Cluj we wouldn’t be complaining. As I said in the aftermath of that match, mistakes are costly at the highest level and it cost us UCL cash and the glamour.

Let’s focus on what can be done now. Not what cannot.

Back the Bhoys. All the way.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Our season is not over…it is hopefully just beginning.

A week on from Celtic’s Champions League failure, and a few days since the slender extra time win over Dunfermline in the League Cup, the focus now turns to the Europa League. Thursday marks a final throw of the dice for Neil Lennon to secure European football until Christmas.

It’s been a helluva week with blame thrown around the Celtic community like a shitty stick. Fans, pundits, media and ex-players wading in from all angles on topics from transfers to tactics.

Even Tom Boyd has managed to become the subject of an inquiry following his comments live on Celtic TV regarding SFA official, John Beaton. We’ve yet to hear the outcome about that, but it is yet another negative storyline for the club to deal with.

If you are a Celtic supporter then you are no doubt feeling as though the wheels have come off. 10INAROW has been on the lips of the Celtic support for a long time, but right now people are more concerned about 9INAROW being in jepoardy.

There’s a lot of things going on at the club though not necessarily as quickly as we’d like to see. Despite that, Celtic have been active.

The club in general are getting stick from supporters for the lack of horizon scanning. I hate to use phrases straight out of the business handbook, but given that Celtic pride themselves as having a good financial business model, it seems apt to use a business term to describe how other areas of our business have been mismanaged or neglected by those ever present at the club.

Whatever stage of progress we are at right now under Neil Lennon, it seems we will have to be patient and wait to see how the recovery from this recent spate of disappointment pans out. Recruitment is said to be undergoing a rebuild even though it should have been ready to go before the end of last season.

That issue aside, Celtic have signed three defenders. An area that required some surgery with the departure of seven defenders.

Two of these three signings already have many questioning their abilities whilst some have suggested that neither were bought by Neil Lennon. Time will tell whether these players add any value to the team other than financial.

The club have also signed a handful of youngsters to compliment the youth contingent at the club. We won’t know how big an impact that will have until we’re further down the line.

Likewise, everyone working behind the scenes as well as on the park can only be judged once the season is over or we’re out of a competition. We’re all severely disappointed about last week’s defeat, but we must now allow everyone involved to repair the damage as best as possible.

The Cluj defeat was a major disappointment. The narrow extra time win over Dunfermline was a sign that we were still suffering.

The Europa League may not carry the same buzz as the Champions League, but it’s still a tough European competition. We need this tournament if not for the smaller amount of income, then for the midweek winter nights at the very least.

We’ve dissected the club’s failings for the last week or so be it the players, the manager, our CEO or even the SFA and their officials. Now everyone has to pull together and the hard work starts again tomorrow against AIK.

It’s another home fixture for Celtic and it will be followed by another one on Sunday against Hearts. The return leg against AIK will take place a week on Thursday in Stockholm and then it’s off to Ibrox a week on Sunday.

Four tough games ahead so now is the time for everyone to repsond and pull together. Fans, players, coachimg staff and the club as a whole.

We’re pulling ourselves apart and it is unhealthy. We can keep on levelling blame, but it won’t help our cause.

It is absolutely correct to question those responsible when the proverbial hits the fan, but we must allow the club to put things right. Stay in Europe, stay in the cups and keep blazing a trail in the league.

Our season is not over. It is hopefully just beginning.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Are we heading for another summer of discontent?

Another summer, another Champions League exit. Celtic are fast becoming a club who can no longer compete in Europe’s premier club competition.

Since the competition introduced the group phase in 1992, Celtic have reached the group stage on ten occasions. All of them in this century.

Martin O’Neill (3), Gordon Strachan (3), Neil Lennon (2) and Brendan Rodgers (2) have all taken us there. Each manager has had varied results, but as time goes by we seem to be losing more and more ground.

The task of getting into Europe is harder and the qualifying period is like a tournament all of it’s own. Even though we are aware well in advance of the path we must take, it never seems to get any easier.

Our previous season is barely finished and we’re back at it again. “Champions League you’re having a laugh” indeed.

Champions are eliminating one another before the tournament proper and just so we can play against teams who finished second, third and fourth in their respective leagues with a handful of actual “champions” involved. It is beyond farcical.

Our most recent exit has been met with outrage from our fans. And who can blame them?

Brendan Rodgers, who left in February in an unforgivable manner, had a disastrous time last summer. This was a huge catalyst in his exit earlier this year.

We exited the Champions League in the playoff stage at the hands of AEK Athens amidst a terrible transfer window and want away players. This year, we didn’t even make the playoffs and now have a Europa League playoff to contend with as a last resort to secure European football until Christmas.

I don’t blame this squarely on transfer failings. We bought three defenders, a bunch of youngsters and even had a couple of signings from the January transfer window awaiting a chance.

Yes, we have positions yet to be filled, but our ranks are not depleted. What we’ve failed to do is impose ourselves as a home side in a crucial match and that comes down to the manager.

Over the past month Neil Lennon had built up a bit of belief and respect. It put many of the support, myself included, in a positive frame of mind for ever doubting his appointment as full time manager in the first place.

The 1-1 draw in Romania was good, especially having initially fallen behind. The return leg was anything but a formality so what the hell went wrong?

A bizarre lineup was the first error. A deployment akin to the Brendan Rodgers mistake at Ibrox in December 2018 was utter madness by Neil Lennon.

Callum McGregor, one of our best midfielders, dropped in at left back/wing back. I meam what was he thinking?

We had £10m worth of defensive signings sitting on the bench. Neither of which were rolled out for this one.

Instead we opted to play some half-arsed set up in a crucial tie. Total madness.

Boli Bolingoli may still be finding his feet, but dropping him to play one of our best midfielders out of position is unforgivable. We bought these guys for the very reason that they needed to play, not as backup.

You can’t blame the board for this one. They spent the money and Neil Lennon hasn’t used the players he wanted.

So because of this monumental bloomer by a manager we had reservations about, though were beginning to warm tlll, we’re now all questioning his ability once again. I haven’t heard him take responsibility for his actions and that is something he has done since the day he took over from Tony Mowbray.

The cost of this could be great. Not only are we out of the running in the big money competition, but we’ve killed any chance of further serious additions to rebuild.

Neil Lennon stated prior to this match that we needed to offload before we could buy more players. That was probably based on squad size and player salaries.

Now we’re in a situation where we may need to stick with players who were earmarked for an exit. Worst still, off load those players and replace with inferior quality ones.

Even if the Europa League group stage was reached, there’s nowhere near the same amount of money to convince the board to cough up the same funds, had we reached the Champions League group stage. This ‘plan’ has backfired badly.

At this point I do not know what the best way forward is. It seems certain we’re likely to sell players like Scott Sinclair who have been frozen out, but the replacements are unlikely to achieve the same kind of stats.

If this is the way we are headed then the club should just put us out of our misery and do it. Keep selling the crown jewels and do whatever it is you want to do with the money.

We are giving our rivals a serious incentive to topple our crown. Is that our goal?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Mistakes are costly at the highest level

When are you vying for a place in the group stage of the Champions League you have to make good decisions. The second leg between Celtic and Cluj was riddled with bad ones.

Without trying to deflect from Celtic’s many errors, I want to mention the match official. The referee had a shocker and failed to clamp down on Cluj’s continual fouling whilst happy to dish out punishment to Celtic with great ease.

This kind of handling of the game allowed Cluj to carry on unpunished for a long spell. Despite not playing the same way, Celtic suffered cautions without the same leeway.

Celtic’s biggest problem though was themselves. The set up from the outset was all wrong.

Neil Lennon obviously didn’t see the game at Ibrox last December. If he had he’d have known Callum McGregor shouldn’t play left back.

Our midfield was all over the place and had to endure a first half of errors. Half time saw a much more positive approach but up until then Celtic had failed to impose themselves as the home side.

Even with the glut of goals that followed Celtic kept shooting themselves in the foot. I won’t catalogue them, it’s still a raw wound.

Shipping four goals at home though is reckless. The blame goes squarely on Neil Lennon and his players.

Everyone is at fault. It isn’t our transfer activity or anything else.

We had more than enough to deal with Cluj. There is nobody to blame but ourselves.

Now we have one last throw of the dice to stay in Europe until Chrismas. AIK are 2-1 up from their away leg against Sheriff Tiraspol and play the second leg on Thursday.

We will play the winners. At this stage you’d have to say AIK are favourites.

With the Champions League cash now gone we can forget about strengthening the team the way we’d have hoped. Expect bigger exits than entrances.

You got this one spectacularly wrong Bhoys. I’m off to drown my sorrows in the Canadian wilderness.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Reasons to be cheerful

Celtic have sold a number of players for substantial money over the years. A trend we have learned to familiarise ourselves with as supporters of our club.

So now, when a player reaches a certain point in their Celtic career, we know it is inevitable that they will likely move on. It is the reality of the situation that a club as big as Celtic find themselves in due to constraints of the domestic setup they exist within.

Even with that expectation, Celtic can offer more to a prospective talent than other Scottish clubs. They can also do this whilst operating within their financial means.

Be it nurtured talent or the kind procured from other teams, leagues and countries, there is a platform of opportunity, progression and success at Celtic. Our club has served as a career path that has satisfied guys like Scott Brown and James Forrest, but we accept that some will utilise us as a conduit to England and beyond.

We can’t hold players against their will however much we provide them with. However, some have jumped ship when the timing or opportunity hasn’t been right for them like Liam Miller or Gary Hooper.

That is not to say that Celtic haven’t cashed in when it suited them more than it did the player, such as Aiden McGeady. We must be mindful of that, but it is also very much part of the game.

There’s a lot to be positive about despite the players the club could lose in any of the two transfer windows each year. With Kieran Tierney being a huge loss this summer, there are plenty of examples of why we have a good future to enjoy.

On the whole, Celtic have a very good squad. We’ve recruited some senior and junior players.

To allow the team to evolve, some players will depart. We can speculate about Scott Sinclair, Olivier Ntcham or even Jozo Simunovic but the reality is we do not know how things will shape up in these remaining weeks of the transfer window.

What we do know is that there will be further movement. I don’t expect we’ll get everything right, but I think we’ll get a few more changes before the end of August.

Even though many of us weren’t overly keen on Neil Lennon taking the permanent role again, I’ve been pleased by what he’s done thus far. I’ve never stopped liking Neil and when he was at Hibs, I even discussed in my own circles that I’d like to see him back at Celtic one day.

Like Neil, I never thought it would be this soon, but there you go. Perhaps this is the right time.

He’s beginning to put his own emphasis on the gameplay unlike when he took over in February. An obvious factor that many fans overlooked and gave him pelters for.

His style is very different to his predecessor’s and he has an interest in developing young talent and a genuine love for the club. We have some exciting young players already making their way in the senior team and some increasing their game time under Neil.

Others will follow, but I think it is incredibly significant that I can get just as excited about our youth players as I do those who we bought from elsehwere. I recall an era when Celtic just weren’t producing the goods from our younger ranks.

I think our talent flow has be pretty steady and is beginning to create a system of belief because the opportunity to play is realistic. James Forrest was unleashed by Neil Lennon during his first spell and before he left, Callum McGregor was sent out on a very successful loan spell at Notts County which paved the way for a role in the Celtic first team upon his return to Glasgow under Ronny Deila.

Liam Henderson was another player who was given his first chance under Neil Lennon. I was actually disappointed that the club saw fit to move him on to Italy.

Darnell Fisher was another young player I thought demonstrated some good potential. He found himself surplus to requirements though under Lennon’s successors.

Tierney is one who we’ll forever remember has one of our brightest talents of the 21st century and despite never having being introduced to the first team by Neil, he is a fine example of what the club have produced. He’s been in great company too with other guys like Mikey Johnston and Ewan Henderson making their way into the Hoops.

There are of course others who may or may not pin down a first team place as others have such as Anthony Ralston, Jack Aitchison or Conor Hazard. There is plenty to sing about though with the likes of Karamoko Dembele on the books.

These are just the players that we know about and under the correct leadership we will see more talent getting blooded and I think Neil Lennon is the right guy to do that. He will still buy players to step straight into the team, but he won’t ignore good prospects either.

The array of talent at his disposal right now is very encouraging and we’re seeing guys like Kris Ajer and Lewis Morgan impose themselves in the managers plans. Our newest players will need more time to settle into life in Glasgow, but I think we are heading in the right direction under Neil Lennon.

He’s already coming across as a more mature manager in his second spell as manager. The football is good to watch and results have been positive so far.

There is of course work to be done over a period of time. I’m optimistic about the future though and the efforts I’ve seen so far.

This evening Celtic have Cluj to contend with in Glasgow. It’s a huge game for both sides and at 1-1 from the first leg, very much a tie that hangs in the balance.

Cluj head coach Dan Petrescu has reportedly been at the mind games in the build up. How much of that has been misinterpreted or exaggerated isn’t a concern for me.

Neil Lennon knows what needs to be done here. He’ll have a game plan and no matter what Petrescu has or hasn’t said doesn’t matter.

Our manager will want a home victory and possibly even a clean sheet. It was a tricky game in Romania, but Celtic came back with a decent result.

The hard work is far from over though. I think Cluj will play the same way so it is Celtic who will have to impose themselves more.

Years ago I’d have been wary of going up against a European opponent with such a young side. However, we have a team of believers right now.

Last year I wouldn’t have even suggested playing Mikey Johnston in a match like this. Now, I’d have no qualms about using him in the starting lineup such is his ability to open up a defence.

The same goes for Kris Ajer. He is a colossus and can impose himself in games in the way that Johan Mjallby used to.

Even though these guys have things to learn, they can still do it on the big stage. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn and contribute at the same time.

We have a good blend in the squad right now of youth and experience. If we get through tonight’s game we may see more movement with the team.

Hail! Hail

Stevie Mac