How far can Celtic go?


Odsonne Edouard in action in Rennes

Stade Rennais come to Celtic Park this evening for the second time this year. It’s Matchday 5 of the Europa League and the Ligue 1 side have no chance of qualifying for the last 32 of the tournament, but Celtic are looking to secure top spot in Group E having already qualified two weeks ago.

This evenings visitors are playing Celtic for the third time since July. The two teams met in July in a pre-season friendly, sandwiched between two European qualifiers against FK Sarajevo.

The friendly in Glasgow ended 0-0 with neither club aware they’d end up being paired in Group E of the Europa League the following month. Indeed, the first group stage match was between the two clubs with that match also finishing in a draw.

M’Baye Niang scored for Stade Rennais before half time to go in 1-0 up at the interval after converting a Kristoffer Ajer gifted penalty. Ryan Christie also scored from the spot to make it 1-1 in the second half after James Forrest was floored by opponent club captain, Damien da Silva.

Celtic also had substitute Vakoun Bayo sent off for a second yellow despite having only been on the park for eight minutes right before the end of the game. A draw seemed like a good result away from home in the group opener given how cagey things had begun.

Prior to tonight’s encounter, Neil Lennon saw his resilient side beat Lazio home and away after falling behind in both games. Those results earned Celtic a place in the knockout phase with two games remaining.

If Celtic can beat the whipping boys of the group this evening, first place will be theirs with a game to spare. That is an enviable position to be in.

Finishing top would most likely put Celtic in a better position for potential opponents when the draw for the knockout phase is made on 16 December in Nyon. At the very least, they would avoid each of the other group winners.

The other Group E qualifying place is still up for grabs, but CFR Cluj are in a stronger position to secure that than Lazio. The Romanians are only one point behind Celtic and need at least one point from their remaining two games to go qualify from the group.

This evening Cluj will play Lazio in Rome and then host Celtic two weeks later. If they lose in Stadio Olimpico they will need at least a draw or better against Celtic in the final game in Romania in order to qualify.

Lazio of course require maximum points from from their last two games if they are to have any hope of qualifying. They are currently six points behind Cluj would need to beat Cluj tonight and Stade Rennais away in two weeks time.

If Cluj pick up any points at all or Lazio drop any, Cluj will be through and Lazio will be out. So going into these last two fixtures there is still a lot to play for.

I can’t remember a time when Celtic looked so strong in a group phase of a European tournament. When the draw was made I felt confident but I never imagined we be in this situation.

Tremendous credit must go to the players and coaching staff. In Europe alone we already look like a better side than in previous regimes.

The knockout phase of thistournament will be much different. If this team can take the same belief that has got them this far, then I ask the question how far can they go?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

No pyro, no punishment

I actually began writing this piece on 22nd October. It followed a UEFA mishap where the governing body posted, then pulled, a picture relating to Celtic’s most recent punishment from the CFR Cluj game in Glasgow.

The portrayal in the image itself was not the cause of the fine. The fireworks that were set off at the time of the display were.

Despite the act not being shown in said image, the link between the two was obvious. The whole world and its wife jumped on this of course, especially after UEFA realised caught wind of this took it off-line.

However, social media has some sharp folk out there. Sharper than UEFA it would seem.

A screen grab of the original Tweet did the rounds and everyone weighed in. Accusing UEFA of double standards repeatedly in the process.

There’s no doubt UEFA messed up. Or at least, one person did.

It doesn’t detract from the fact that a minority of Celtic fans cost their club yet another fine. Personally, I didn’t really care that much about the UEFA Tweet.

I’d feel forthright about it myself if Celtic had been dealt an injustice, but they hadn’t. The fine was, in line with the rules, fair and square and UEFA posting a Tweet which wasn’t thought through doesn’t make it the same.

What those Celtic fans did on this or any other occasion was punishable. This behaviour will continue by a small percentage of fans in our support and without remorse.

At the original time of writing, my next few sentences were going to be:

“Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again on Thursday when Lazio come to town. We don’t need any unwanted attention when their fans are visiting.

If anything, we should be vigilant. The Roman club have gotten themselves in the dock recently for racist behaviour within their support.

The lenient sentence handed down to the Italians is certainly worth addressing with UEFA. Their social media gaff is nowhere near as eye bulging as their handling of racist behaviour in the Lazio support though.”

The latter of the above was a missed opportunity for UEFA to crack down on racism. Whilst the actions of our own fans at Celtic Park was in reaction to that, it has landed the club in hot water again.

For an illicit banner and chanting, the club were fined 15,000. It didn’t end there of course because some of our fans were back on UEFA’s radar when we played Lazio two weeks later in Rome.

Despite the memorable double win over the Italian’s, pyrotechnics were out in Stadio Olimpico by some of the travelling Celtic support. A hearing is set for December and the outcome is likely to be anything between 10,000-15,000.

Last night, Celtic announced partial closure of the safe standing area where most of our home fines have originated from. This, has caused outrage amongst the support after Celtic released a statement in relation to ongoing behaviour and UEFA punishment.

“Celtic has ultimate responsibility for the safety of all our supporters and it is a responsibility which we take very seriously.  

We need to tackle any behaviour which can compromise the safety of our supporters including the use of pyrotechnics, overcrowding and offensive chanting or banners.  

Following the latest UEFA disciplinary decision we can confirm that there will be a partial closure of the rail seating section at Celtic Park for the forthcoming match against Rennes.

All those supporters affected will be notified and will receive a refund.

This decision follows similar significant sanctions being imposed against the Club already this season for the use of pyrotechnics during the matches against CFR Cluj and AIK Stockholm.

The Club also faces another UEFA charge for the use of pyrotechnics during the match in Rome recently and this will be heard on 12th December 2019.

Regrettably, these charges and sanctions continue to damage the Club’s reputation and this behaviour continues to threaten supporter safety.  

UEFA’s rules and the Club’s long-established ground regulations are very clear. Indeed, the Club engages in regular dialogue with all supporters groups to ensure these are well known and understood.

We have considered this matter very carefully. It is disappointing that behaviour which is unsafe and which we all know will breach UEFA and Club regulations has continued.

N.B. supporters in rows A-M will be affected.”

I’ve digested a fair amount of mixed reaction to this. There was even a poll asking our fans whether Celtic were wrong to take this course of action.

Rather than accept any wrongdoing, there’s a healthy amount of Celtic supporters who believe that they have been betrayed by the club. That innocent supporters have been hung out to dry.

I don’t doubt the club have done this to make and example of those guilty. The thinking behind this is that perhaps those who aren’t guilty may be able to influence from within.

Am I certain that will work? Nope, not in the slightest.

Because as we have seen for the past few months, some Celtic fans love their pyro and don’t give a toss how much it costs the club and will not heed any advice. The club have been criticised for making such a late announcement, the proximity of it to the AGM and match itself, whilst failing to open a discussion about how to resolve this.

I mean, am I missing something here? According to some the club aren’t dealing with this well at all.

How exactly do you deal with a pyro-weilding bunch of nuggets who aren’t willing to listen? I sense this issue runs much deeper between club and fan.

We’ve had issues with policing at games and the heavy handedness of the authorities. That of course, was mainly to do with the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act which of course has now been repealed.

Celtic were criticised by their fans for not showing enough support during those times. The club were already dissatisfied with fan behaviour though when their own supporters were breaking their own seating at Celtic Park.

One Celtic site wrote that a dialogue should be opened. I don’t disagree that it would help in the long term but please, for the love of god accept the consequences of your actions a just stop.

Do not disguise your behaviour with the failings of our club. Everyone has a responsibility here.

Board members, coaching staff, players and supporters. Jock Stein famously said “football is nothing without fans.”

Start acting like fans. Behave.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Eleven games to end the year on a high

Six of our remaining eleven games of the year are at home, including Stade Rennais, Aberdeen and Rangers.

Celtic are back in action this Saturday at home to Livingston in the Scottish Premiership. And Neil Lennon will be hoping for a better result than the one he got at Almondvale in early October against Gary Holt’s side.

We are now entering the final phase of the year before the Scottish Football winter shut down begins. Ahead of Celtic is a fixture list that consists of 11 matches in the space of 37 days.

That’s two games a week in less than six weeks, including two European matches and a cup final. Six of the matches are at home with four away and one on neutral ground.

It’s a gruelling schedule, but symptomatic of a club that are always at the top. We have the squad to contend with this and we want to be involved in all competitions every season.

Livingston currently sit in 7th place in the league and eighteen points behind Celtic. Though that didn’t prevent the Lothian side from being the only Scottish club to beat Celtic so far this season when they won 2-0.

It was a blip for Celtic, but the perfect opportunity for Livingston following the dismissal of Ryan Christie 26 minutes into the first half of that encounter. Now Celtic will be looking to make make amends and ensure that they stay top of the Scottish Premiership by taking all three points at Celtic Park tomorrow.

Steven Gerrard’s side are also in the hunt for a win as they sit on the same points as Celtic. Goal difference is the only thing that separates us from them in the league at the moment.

If both Glasgow clubs continue their domestic form, the gap may not open up until both sides come together at Celtic Park in the final match of the year. There is also the small matter of the League Cup Final to contest before that.

Steven Gerrard has reached his first final as a manager and it is his club’s second top flight final in their short history. For Neil Lennon, it is yet another Hampden Final.

However, Neil has never won the League Cup as a manager. Despite having won the trophy twice as a player, he has managed a losing Celtic side in two of these finals to Rangers and Kilmarnock.

So for both men, winning this trophy would be a first in their managerial careers. It will also determine which club, if any, has the sole chance of winning a treble this season.

Celtic have dominated all domestic trophies for the last three seasons and most people out there want to see that come to and end. There’s no doubt that Gerrard has made a difference at Ibrox, but Celtic are still ahead of them on all fronts.

This will be a good contest though. It’s a huge match and even though it is still over two weeks away, I can’t help but think about it.

It’s all part of a heavy schedule. Not just for Lennon, but for Gerrard too.

Having said that, Gerrard has one less midweek game to contend with than Lennon. That appears to have come down to the pre-scheduled Sunday and Friday fixtures his club have, leaving too little time for a rescheduled midweek game like Celtic now have to deal with.

As I said earlier though, Celtic have the squad to handle it. There is also a chance to take a lead in the league through this, albeit having played one more game than their nearest rivals.

Having begun the year with flat and bitter, we have the chance to end it on a positive. Neil Lennon, along with his back room staff, have galvanised this squad, along with new additions, into a far stronger unit.

They have qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League with two games remaining, a chance to win their group and also take home the first domestic silverware of the season only weeks from now. When the winter break comes it will be welcome and with so many huge games ahead of the club their is a lot of incentive.

It all begins on tomorrow at Paradise with Livingston then Stade Rennais (H) next Thursday followed by Ross County (A), Hamilton (H), Rangers (N), Cluj (A), Hibs (H), Hearts (A), Aberdeen (H), St Mirren (A) and once again Rangers (H). Let’s make them all count Bhoys!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

This Celtic side is worth sticking around for

After ten years of blogging about Celtic on this site and other places, I’d been giving serious consideration to calling it a day. It was purely a personal decision and nothing to do with Celtic, but then something spectacular happened.

Two weeks ago, Neil Lennon achieved yet another of Celtic’s best European results in modern times. And during those moments of jubilation, I changed my mind.

The result in Rome against SS Lazio was a game changer. It made me reconsider shutting down my blog which I started back in 2012, having written elsewhere online for a few years previous.

A decade of putting my thoughts about football (predominantly Celtic) into words online, seemed like a nice round number to end on. There are plenty of things to write about, but time has been my biggest struggle of late.

With Neil Lennon, now in this second spell as manager, making good progress, I sense this is something I cannot miss. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but what he has done in the Europa League group so far is worth sticking around for.

When the tournament began, I felt we could do well against all of our opponents and so far I have not been let down. I had mixed feelings about the match in Rome prior to kick off though.

Lazio were desperate for a win and on home turf and playing effectively two weeks earlier, my head said a win for Le Aquile. The way that match began, it certainly looked like being the case.

Losing in Italy would have been anything but a disgrace. A draw would have been superb.

I’ve seen Celtic lose early goals so many times in Europe over the years by different managers. I haven’t seen many Celtic teams respond to that, but this one did.

The character of the players in Rome was astounding. They’d endured a torrid first half from Lazio, lost and early goal and still managed to pull level before the interval courtesy of James Forrest.

I’d have been happy just to get in at half time without conceding any more. Instead Celtic had turned this match around in a country where they have never won.

Celtic were much more positive in the second half. Chances were coming, but there was still the threat from home side.

At times there were signs that Lazio were running out of ideas. I’ll mention Celtic’s character again because it won us the game.

Lazio looked baffled by Celtic. Fraser Forster was pulling off saves, Celtic were winning 50/50 balls and even getting decent decisions – the latter of which I often find they don’t get in Europe.

Did I smell a match winner? Not a chance.

Not even when Olivier Ntcham came on. Holding out for a draw was more than enough for me.

So when the man I just mentioned ghosted in from the right to take a pass from Odsonne Edouard the last thing I expected was for him to score. And he did just that.

As I’m sure many Celtic supporting living rooms around the world did, mine exploded with joyous celebration. I could not believe we had just beaten Lazio.

I was slightly dismissive of the team who finished 8th in Serie A last season. They had entered this competition having won the Coppa Italia, but despite having lost both games to Celtic, they created enough chances to have got a better result.

It is for that reason that I think that both Celtic victories deserve such great praise. The determination shown, in spite of the fact that in both matches the Bhoys conceded the first goal and then went on to win, shows a mental strength that comes from the top down.

The mentality in this team isn’t just positive. It is driven by a will to win.

Whilst the quality of the squad is far better than that of Neil Lennon’s first term as manager, his rubber stamp on the team has come through loud and clear. He has been given better backing this time around than the first as well.

When Neil stepped up in February, he managed the team without making any alterations. Training, preparation and indeed the way the team played was very much the same.

Neil endured some stick about the way the team were playing toward the end of last season. Many of his critics within the support ignored the fact that he was not interfering in what was largely a winning formula for his predecessor even if it had become dull.

Now with the job as his own Neil is embossing his vision on how Celtic should play. He has addressed problematic areas of the team in one window, something his predecessor failed to.

Despite exiting the Champions League, he has taken this Europa League group by storm. Had we been better prepared earlier in the summer you have to wonder whether we would have been good enough to play in Europe’s premier club tournament after all?

What’s important is that this team are performing and we have a strong squad. It will only get stronger and I sense Neil Lennon could be presiding over a team that will go further in Europe this season.

We may have lost some big players in the last year or so. The team that he has right now though is oozing with quality.

It is for that reason that I am sticking around a little longer just to see what they can do. Ten years seemed like a good number to end on, but maybe I’ll go all Spinal Tap and go to eleven.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac