Bouncing back in Inverness

A trip to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium for Celtic usually means a tough game lies ahead after a long trip north. With the champions sitting unbeaten at the top of the league and their opponents, Inverness, currently propping up the rest of the Scottish Premiership right now, both teams couldn’t be further apart in terms of league position.

Thistle have literally always been a thorn in Celtic’s side, but last season they slipped out of the top six prior to the split even though their final points tally would have seen them finish 5th. The season before that, they finished a very respectable third in the league behind Aberdeen.

This season hasn’t been a great start but they drew their last match away to Aberdeen which was a decent result. The game before that, they beat St Johnstone who currently sit in third place.

So after a run of four straight defeats, including a loss to Alloa in the League Cup, they are beginning to pull together just in time for the visit of Celtic. Brendan Rodgers must bounce back from defeat today but he has said that he will not make huge changes to the team.

And why would he? Going out and getting a win today would be the perfect way to exorcise the mauling of the team that played on Tuesday night wouldn’t it?

Perhaps, but we have a large squad so we might as well use it. Even if there aren’t too many changes, our formation should be less defensive.

Whilst I respect the difference between Celtic and Inverness, I think the Hoops will be too strong for Thistle today. Brendan Rodgers will be looking to maintain a winning start in the Scottish Premiership.

A victory would see Celtic move on to 15 points and 5 points ahead of nearest side Hearts with a game at hand. Creating a gap now would give Brendan Rodgers a safety buffer and with five more tough Champions League fixtures ahead, that could well come into use as the task of avoiding fourth place in Group C becomes more demanding.

I’m sure Richie Foran won’t allow his side to be pushed over easily today, but Celtic have the mentality and the squad to inflict some damage today. Based on that, I’m going to stick my neck out and go for a 3-1 win for the Hoops this afternoon with Stuart Armstrong netting at least one goal.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Time to put defeat behind us and move on

After Tuesday’s thumping defeat in Barcelona, Celtic must return to winning ways in the Scottish Premiership this weekend. They face Inverness Caledonian Thistle at the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The task for Brendan Rodgers is to motivate his players and put behind them such a heavy European loss. The result was far from ideal and lessons must be learned quickly but as I have stated before, Celtic were up against the best there is.

It doesn’t excuse naivety or any other failing you care to offer in the post match analysis. That is football though and Celtic must emerge stronger.

Fortunately, there are sufficient options for the manager to make changes this weekend should he feel the necessity. Some players may not be in the right frame of mind for Caley Thistle but they will all need to get past this European result eventually.

Losing by such a large margin is difficult to justify. I wouldn’t dare make excuses for Brendan Rodgers.

Some fans might, though personally I’m looking to the future. Will Barcelona do the same to Manchester City or Borussia Monchengladbach?

Who knows? What Celtic must do is bounce back though.

This Celtic team is still evolving. Under new management we’ve seen established players do better and with some new players we’ve seen additional quality.

There is more to come and it is a progressive piece of work. To play Barcelona first has halted that progress, but it is done and dusted now.

The Scottish Premiership is every bit as important as the Champions League. So the players must retrain their thoughts on the former.

There will be players itching to get involved. Guys who barely saw the ball or even the time at Camp Nou midweek.

Craig Gordon has a place to fight for even if I do think he has errors in him. That can’t be any worse than what I’ve seen from Dorus de Vries though.

Cristian Gamboa will need more games before we can truly judge him. Similarly, Celtic will need to assess their defensive organisation as it is leaking goals.

I’m not just referring to the seven in Barcelona. Prior to that, Celtic conceded 12 goals in their first 11 competitive games of the season.

Only two of those matches have been clean sheets against Lincoln Red Imps and Motherwell. So defence is an area that must improve fast.

From midfield to front we have more options and stability but we must use it better. Under Rodgers I’m keen to see how that progresses.

If more players come and go then great. We want to have the best team we can afford.

This won’t be anywhere near the quality of our Champions League rivals. We must work worth what we have for now though.

Eventually Celtic will hit a glass ceiling, but if we can improve with what we have right now we’re on the right road. That’s worth bearing in mind.

When we know which avenues have been exhausted, we can add and subtract accordingly. Until then let’s allow Brendan Rodgers to prove himself.

Nobody wants second, third or fourth best. We need to keep perspective though.

Roy Keane was way off the mark in his rant about Celtic’s defeat. Fancy talking about your managerial career Roy?

Keane may be a fan of our club but his assessment of the 7-0 defeat didn’t offer anything of substance. He merely highlighted some facts interlaced with a short sighted viewpoint.

I won’t say that Celtic will go on to finish a hopeful third in their Champions League group. That must remain the goal though.

We should not write off a developing team. We must support them as always.

Did any of our recent managers make European progress in their first season in charge? Absolutely not.

O’Neill, Strachan and Lennon, our favourites of the modern era, all stumbled in season one before Christmas was upon us. In the not too distant future (now the past) we got there though.

Time, experience and future results will tell us if we’re heading in the right direction. I’m keen to see how that goes.

Let’s deal with the match ahead though, starting this Sunday at 3pm. There’s a league title to defend.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Reality bites

Nobody was under any illusions about Tuesday night’s task. It was more about how does Brendan Rodgers go about facing the inevitable?

Barcelona, one of the finest teams around, set about Celtic at Camp Nou with zero mercy. They annihilated the Hoops and demonstrated the class they possess in abundance.

History around this fixture made it an almost impossible task. With no wins to speak of for Celtic at Camp Nou, this was about damage limitation.

The most potent strike force in Europe wiped away Celtic with torturous execution. You could argue that Celtic failed to stifle the Catalan class on show, but in reality the game was beyond their reach.

The few chances that came Celtic’s way would have done little to change what was coming. Even the penalty miss by Moussa Dembele would probably only have delayed the inevitable.

Brendan Rodgers put out a 5-4-1 team hoping to limit attack and allow wide men such as Scott Sinclair and Patrick Roberts to counter attack. The latter of the two made very little headway, the former doing what he could for the whole match.

Cristian Gamboa made his debut and had such a tough match he was culpable on more than one occasion. You could have put any man in there, but the result may have been similar given just how effective Messi and Neymar were throughout the match and how frail Celtic were at the back.

This was a masterclass in HD. That much cannot be denied.

Luis Suarez was billed as the danger man, but he didn’t pop up until the last quarter of an hour. The reality was a harsh lesson for Celtic and the scoreline punishing.

Winning was never on the cards, but the result was hard to take nonetheless. The Hoops will recover though.

They are back where they need to be, but teams like Barcelona are a reminder of just how big a gap there is between Celtic and progress. A lack of progress that has hurt Celtic in Europe.

The little investment made is more than capable on the domestic front but making headway in Europe is a different ball game. Celtic must accept such defeats and invest where they can incrementally.

7-0 is a huge defeat, Celtic’s worst in Europe in fact. Where does the club go from here though?

Could Brendan Rodgers have done things better? Could the players have done better?

Well we can debate the positives (Scott Brown) and negatives (Dorus de Vries, Cristian Gamboa…) but not right now. Celtic must move on and seek results elsewhere.

They’ve gotten undoubtedly the toughest game out-of-the-way first. There will be plenty more challenges in this competition as the fixtures unfold.

Best to focus on those. Barcelona are the best there is.

Hail! Hail

Stevie Mac

The greatest show on Earth: The UEFA Champions League 

After an absence of two seasons, Celtic return to the Champions League group stage tonight. They play undoubtedly their toughest game first, away to Barcelona.

The Catalan and Glaswegian club’s have praised each other over the years and are almost symbiotic in their respect for each other. In their twelve previous competitive encounters, Celtic have punched above their weight and to the applause of many of the Barcelonsitas.

Superstars such as Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and former midfield legend Xavi have all heaped praise upon key Celtic players, the fans and the atmosphere generated at Paradise. This isn’t something that I expect from Barca forever right enough.

In a time when they have been one of, if not the best team in the world, Celtic can be proud to have attracted attention, praise and gotten significant results against Blaugrana. I’m particularly proud that our club have found a connection with the all-conquering club.

On match day though none of this matters. Barca lead the way on head-to-heads.

Celtic fans do not have unreal expectations against such a potent football machine. Yet on a couple of occasions, the Hoops have defied the odds.

Is this Celtic side better than Martin O’Neill’s of 2003 or Neil Lennon’s of 2013 that both won at Celtic Park? If the game plan is good enough I don’t see why not but playing at Camp Nou is a different prospect.

Getting something out of games such as these can help you progress in Europe. For O’Neill and Lennon this has been the case.

However, the odds are stacked against Celtic and in most cases they have found themselves on the rough end of these fixtures. This must be taken into consideration, therefore the emphasis must be shifted primarily to home matches and Celtic’s other opponents.

This is where it gets even more interesting because with Manchester City providing opposition from pot 2, the task becomes much more difficult. With a former Barcelona player and manager at the helm along with a massive amount of money at his disposal, the odds begin to stack against Celtic.

Personally, I don’t mind because this is what you want: to see your team play in Europe against the best. One thing is for certain, Celtic will get a serious test against these two teams and their respective superstars.

So what of Borussia Mönchengladbach? Can the 4th placed Bundesliga side hurt Celtic just as much as Barca and City?

Well, I certainly wouldn’t take for granted that they are a pushover because of their final league standing. City also finished 4th and I’ll give them and German side the respect they each deserve.

Although Borussia and City played against each other in last season’s Champions League, they were polar opposites by the end of the group phase. Take what you want from that, but Celtic’s two-year absence, not to mention just how bad their last appearance in the group phase was three years ago, only goes to show how far off the pace the Hoops are these days.

This campaign is about re-establishing the club’s position in Europe’s premier competition. Financially the club cannot compete, but getting your name up in lights again brings good fortune and attention to Paradise.

The Hoops have never won at the Camp Nou and I don’t see that changing. The best offering they’ve had in six competitive away games are two draws.

However this match turns out you can be sure it will be the one Celtic have least chance of getting a result or a goal in. There is no embarrassments in that, merely realism.

At the end of the day, Celtic have nothing to lose on Tuesday night. It will be interesting to see how Brendan Rodgers goes about his business for this one.

The dust has barely settled since Celtic put five past the Premiership new boys on Saturday. That was a good warm up for the Hoops but Tuesday will be a totally different game.

Leigh Griffiths has been ruled out of the game but captain Scott Brown has been passed fit for the Catalan encounter. Barcelona will dominate possession so for Celtic, it will be about defending, trying to break things up and most importantly remaining focussed for the entire match.

There will be a lot of tired legs in this match and substitutes will be key. Barcelona lost at home to Alaves at the weekend but don’t be fooled by this result.

When you are playing the best in Europe, you need to be on your guard and we will see a strong Barcelona tonight. I’m really excited to see how Celtic go about this one tonight.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Start as you mean to go on

Brendan Rodgers and Celtic got off to a flyer against their new Glasgow rivals on Saturday. Celtic Park was bouncing as the Premiership Champions smashed the Premiership newcomers 5-1.

The Ibrox oufit were assembled predominantly behind the ball throughout the match. However, they did put together a few decent moves with some neat passing as well.

It has to be said though, at no point did this ever overshadow what Celtic were doing. The five goals scored by the Hoops were spread out over the last sixty minutes of the match.

The goal scored by Mark Warburton’s side was merely an interruption to what Celtic were doing. In fact as was better put by my buddy, this goal sharpened the Hoops up for the second half.

Having drawn first blood thanks to Moussa Dembele on 33 minutes, closely followed by the second on 42 minutes,the Ibrox side must have been thinking they were still in with a chance when they pulled back a goal on 44 minutes thanks to Joe Garner. With no disrespect, Dorus de Vries was culpable for poor positioning.

2-1 at half time was no big issue but it kept us all on our toes regardless. The early stages of the second half saw more impetus from the away side and changes were made by Brendan Rodgers to address this.

Tom Rogic made way for Stuart Armstrong whose impact in the centre of midfield was beginning to look effective. How I have longed to see him play in that position. 

He would be involved in much of what happened since he came onto the field on 54 minutes and 7 minutes later was involved in Celtic restroring their two goal lead. Armstrong slipped the ball across to Dembele who played a neat touch through the opposition defence that found a preying Scott Sinclair to score in all of Celtic’s league games so far this season.

In high profile games, players can lose the plot unnecessarily and for Phillipe Senderos he found himself on a secod yellow card for handball,thus reducing his team to ten men. That allowed Celtic to turn the screw further on their Glasgow rivals.

Celtic weren’t finished with this game and more importantly, neither was Dembele. Having scored his first goal with his head andthe second with his right foot, he completed his hatrick in the 83rd minute with a left foot finish.

To wrap things up and demonstrate Celtic’s dominance in this fixture, Armstrong helped himself to goal number five for the Hoops in injury time. I was pleased to see him get a goal given his return to the team and impact since coming on.

This was a game with so many positive talking points for Celtic. Even the post match interviews were a good viewing thanks largely to Scott Brown’s banter and Brenda Rodgers’ respectful assessment of the game.

All the fighting talk from Joey Barton since he dismissed his claims as a Celtic supporter and joined the zombies, didnt help the fact that he was posted missing in this match. His assistant manager’s red card drew more attention than Barton’s derby performance. 

Now Celtic sit two points clear at the top of Premiership ahead of Hearts who have now moved up to second place. Celtic still have a game at hand and a 100% record in the league so they are in good form going into Tuesday’s game against Barcelona. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

You go away for a few weeks…

…and you come back top of the league with a game at hand. Let’s deal with a more exciting storyline though shall we?

Celtic have made the Champions League group stage for the first time in three seasons. Brendan Rodgers has achieved in his first attempt, what Ronny Deila failed to do in his two seasons in charge.

When I last wrote on here, Celtic had just beaten St Johnstone and were off to Israel for the second leg playoff match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Despite having a three goal cushion, Celtic had two away goals against them to be concerned about.

The first half of that match was all about the home side. In fact so was the second.

With nothing to lose, Hapoel went all out for the three goals they needed.They missed a penalty, but they would eventualy score the opening goal of the game.

The penalty wasn’t one in my opinion, nor was it a yellow card for Saidy Janko. The save by Craig Gordon was justice for the referees poor decision.

Ben Sahar, a substitute for the concussed Lúcio Maranhão, made an immediate impact with his first touch. He got away from his marker, Scott Brown, to head home from a corner.

With Kieran Tierney, who had bandoned his near post position and Craig Gordon scrambling around they both failed to prevent it from going in. It was a decent goal by the Hapoel substitute and probably deserved for his team’s efforts. 

The manner in which Celtic lost it though left me questioning our marking system once again. The way Brendan Rodgers had setup Celtic for this match it appeared to allow him to alter the team shape if needed. 

It has to be said, there was very little evidence of alteration until very late on. More on that later.

The formation would remain as it was for most of the match. Not great for the nerves it must be said.

Hapoel had their tails up and the freedom of the park. You could argue that this was to be expected given the deficit they had to overturn and the fact the Israeli champions had home advantage.

The space they had to express themselves, caused by the gaps left by Celtic was risky. In managerial terms this might be described as ‘containing the opposition’ but this isn’t something we’ve seen Celtic do too often or effectively.

The second half saw one single change. Tom Rogic replaced James Forrest, with the aim of getting higher up the middle of the park as our wide players were making little headway. 

It didn’t take long for that change to be shattered as Celtic became involved in an unmistakable calamity. Janko, not having his best of games it must be said, ploughed straight into his keeper who had just collected a crossball. 

The momentum of Janko, who was keeping up with his opponent, Ovidiu Hoban, carried him straight into Gordon, knocking the ball out of his hands. The ball dropped kindly to Hoban who probably won’t score an easier goal in Europe.

If they weren’t doing so already, Hapoel were beginning to believe. Their dream was turning toward reality whilst Celtic’s was turning into a very familiar game of European self inflicted damage.

The Israeli champions began creating more and more chances. The Scottish champions weren’t creating, just defending.

Moussa Dembele replaced Leigh Griffiths hoping to spark a revival. He came close on 60 minutes when he curled a fine effort past the Hapoel goal.

Then another chance, this time by Scott Sinclair. His shot was parried and Dembele’s follow up blocked by the Hapoel defence.

On came Erik Sviatchneko for Callum McGregor. He came on with orders as well, which he duly passed in note form to captain Scott Brown – defend even more – it transpired.

With Hapoel still on the offensive, that third goal was looking closer and closer. Celtic were clinging onto the match by the skin of their teeth.

Every time a ball was loose it seemed to fall to Hapoel, but fatigue was begnning to set in. Celtic were digging deeper and deeper.

As the clock ticked down both sets of players were displaying multiple signs of pain and weariness. For the first time in the game I sensed that Hapoel might have run out of gas.

The 90 minutes were done and 4 were added on. With 3 minutes left, Hapoel got a freekick which they put high and wide.

Gordon was booked for time wasting. All the players were dead on their feet.

The seconds burned away slowly. Then came the final whistle!

For over ninety minutes, Celtic lived dangerously. The tactic deployed to contain isn’t something I’d like to see again, not for a whole match anyway.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva weren’t a bad side, but Celtic showed them too much respect. I’d like to have seen a few spells where Celtic put Hapoel under pressure but they didn’t.

Instead we let them play the entire match breaking only when the ball allowed us to. That didn’t really work for Celtic other than the fact the avoided a narrow aggregate defeat.

I didn’t enjoy a single minute of the match. Just in case you hadn’t picked that up previously. 

Now though, we’re back where we want to be in the Group Stage of the Champions League. And with that, a very familiar opponent. 

Much to my displeasure, Barcelona head up Group C. It would have been nice to play a team that we haven’t been drawn against so many times.

On the other hand, facing Manchester City will be refreshingly new. They may have finished 4th in the English Premier League but they have Pep Guardiola at the helm and a formidably financed team.

The final piece of the puzzle was Borussia Monchengladbach who like City, also finished 4th in their league. So there are only two current national champions in Group C.

The favourites will be Barcelona whilst Manchester City will be second favourites. Borussia Monchengladbach will be aiming for 3rd place but as we’ve seen in previous Champions League campaigns, strange things can happen for Celtic.

I know very little about the German side other than that last season they were grouped with Juventus, Manchester City and Sevilla in the Champions League. They finished bottom whilst City topped that group and even made it to the semi-finals losing out at the hands of eventual winners, Real Madrid.

So with Guardiola’s City battling it out with his old club Barcelona, Celtic have to focus on pipping the German side. At this stage, 3rd place would be fantastic.

The variables in the group phase are plentiful so it isn’t impossible. And let’s face it, nobody likes coming to Celtic Park except to witness one of the best atmospheres in world football.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Tears from Astana

The campaign to have Leigh Griffiths banned from next week’s Champion League Qualifier has failed. UEFA threw out FC Astana’s complaint and despite the social media campaign they ran, I’ve yet to see this as a red card incident.

Firstly, Igor Shitov deliberately obstructed Leigh’s run into the box, extending his arms backwards. The two entered into a tussle with the Celtic striker ‘winning’ and Shitov going to ground.

Griffiths appears to raise is hands during the tussle but so too does Shitov. At no time is there a punch in the footage that I have seen.

The smart thing to do of course is to keep your hands down but neither player did. Shitov went to ground easily and Griffiths was shown a yellow card.

For a player whose team were happy to dish it out for over 90 minutes, it is somewhat ironic that Astana chose to cry wolf. The whole incident was handbags and the other way to look at it was that Shitov was trying to get Griffiths sent off.

It’s a desperate quest by a the Kazakh Champions and one which will stir things up for the return leg at Celtic Park. Astana make the long journey to Glasgow with the only disadvantage for them being the time difference.

The first leg kicked off at 3pm Celtic Park time but for Astana it will be like playing in the early hours of the morning. Even still, Celtic must be vigilant against the attacking threat posed by Astana and of course, their tough tactics and play acting.

Astana got away with quite a few challenges in Kazakhstan. Most of that was down to the Italian referee so we can only hope the official for the second leg won’t be so lenient.

I don’t expect an easy game despite playing at home and on grass. The job is half done and we have an away goal but we need to be sharp and take our chances.

With the turnaround seen in Kazakhstan, I feel confident in the players and Brendan Rodgers to step things up. Saturday will allow some other players to get a run out but no risks will be taken with injuries and fitness currently affecting the squad.

Barcelona and Celtic meet in Dublin and despite the level of opposition in this International Champions Cup match, Brendan Rodgers won’t be putting too many players at risk. Kolo Toure is said to be remaining in Glasgow to work on his fitness.

Whether that means he won’t be available for Wednesday as well remains to be seen. I can only imagine he would be pitched in against Astana if Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O’Connell or Efe Ambrose get injured.

Should Celtic progress to the Champions League Play Off round on Wednesday night, further moves and changes are likely. Things are moving forward a bit at a time as I expected they might.

We are seeing some progress for the first time in a long time. That has to continue in the games that lie ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac