Thistle get stung by Celtic

soccer-pa-45Celtic tucked away a 4-1 victory on Friday night at Firhill. Partick Thistle missed opportunities but they didn’t really trouble Celtic enough to alter the destination of the game.

Brendan Rodgers made some personnel changes and the football wasn’t as fluid over the 90 minutes as we’ve seen of late. However, after going out of Europe with a spirited display on Tuesday night you could forgive the squad for displaying some fatigue.

There weren’t too many talking points from this game apart from the goals which were all of good quality. Stuart Armstrong sent home his first goal six minutes from the interval thanks to a great square ball by a hard-working Leigh Griffiths.

Armstrong was front and centre once more in the second half as he received yet another assist from Griffiths in the 49th minute. A free kick from the right hand side of the Thistle box was knocked low into Armstrong who controlled and finished calmly.

Griffiths then turned from provider to opportunist a minute later. It was a reminder of what he is great at when capitalising on hesitant opponents by notching up his first and Celtic’s third, after some quick-wittedness in the danger zone.

Thistle then pulled one back after a solid header from a free-kick beat Craig Gordon. Celtic were sloppy on this occasion but the a Jags weren’t.

The Firhill players then sensed another opportunity and almost did the same again with a near identical free kick and header. Thistle weren’t as fortunate with offside given on this occasion, but if they had been the game may have looked very different from this point on.

With Thistle not giving up, Callum McGregor had come off the bench to secure the win for Celtic. A delightful ball in from cut back on the touch-line by Emilio Izaguirre found McGregor who slotted it ball home from close range.

There has been criticism on Callum McGregor and his finishing. Yet, he’s scored twice in his last two games and as Brendan Rodgers says, he’s always good for a goal.

I think he is a magic wee player who has a role to play. Goals and guile he has in abundance and is a good squad player.

The one key talking point for me in this match was the foul/penalty claim by Ade Azeez. I didn’t see much contact when it happened in real-time and when the replay was shown, I couldn’t see much more either.

Chris Sutton was keen to see the replay and the different camera angles but he along with the rest of the pundits were convinced Gordon had taken Azeez out of the game. Well, I’ve looked at it several times and I still can’t see any contact in or outside the box and I am by no means in denial.

I don’t think any of the replays show contact and for once I’m not hearing too much from the media suggesting that Celtic got away with murder. Despite this not being a polished display, there were some very good performances at Firhill though.

I thought the Partick Thistle keeper Tomas Cerny was great to stop Leigh Griffiths from helping himself to more goals. In turn, Leigh Griffiths was instrumental in practically every forward move.

He demonstrated his full skill set in this match. His footwork is unbelievable at times and has proven time and time again that he can provide assists as well as goals.

That was certainly on display at Firhill. He did so much in this game which at times even includes tracking back which isn’t something you get from a player like him very often.

And….that’s the difference between Leigh and Moussa Demeble. The French forward has been fantastic for Celtic but there are significant differences between himself and his Scottish counterpart.

They both offer something different to Brendan Rodgers and equally as effective. That is the kind of headache you want as a manager but it remains to be seen if he will ever play them together.

Out on the wings, it was a pretty quiet night for Celtic. Patrick Roberts looked decent early on but like his fellow winger, Gary Mackay-Steven over on the left, they were both having a largely unproductive match.

The same could be said for Tom Rogic but to be fair, I felt the majority of the play was coming from Cristian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre. Some Celtic fans have been quick to judge Gamboa but he came onto a game at Firhill.

It should be remembered that he has barely kicked a ball for Celtic this season and needs time to establish himself before we sound the horn of disapproval. On the other hand, I though Izzy was great down the left and provided a lot of support to the front men.

Armstrong was good throughout as was captain Scott Brown who continues to have a fantastic season. The Celtic defence was steady enough to see off Thistle but in terms of future proofing, Brendan Rodgers will need to establish interchangeable players for central defence.

Whilst Mikael Lustig can play in there, I still think he is better at right back or in a back three. Erik Sviatchenko is a key figure in this squad and will play there week-in, week-out but I am sure he would like to know who his partners are going to be in the long-term.

Jozo Simunovic is being used sparingly for fitness reasons which is fine but I’d like to think we can bring in one more suitable defender to do the same job. Kolo Toure brought steadiness and experience at the beginning of the season but even he is looking short of confidence right now and almost certainly won’t be here next season.

As for Dedryck Boyata, I am not sure what will happen with him. I’ve never really been convinced by him and I’m not sure if Brendan Rodgers is either.

Efe Ambrose has become a spectator and his time at the club will end in the summer if not before. So unless Eoghan O’Connell is deemed to be an option in the long-term, central defence needs another player.

However, a good win for Celtic and good to see some players getting a run out. I’m sure as the season progresses and January looms, availability for places will grow with injuries, suspensions and exits.

Eleven points clear at the top of the league, two games at hand and the rest of the Scottish Premiership in action today. The question remains, will Celtic go the distance unbeaten?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

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Celtic not too far off the pace when you consider Spurs result

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It appears that the gap between Celtic and Borussia Mönchengladbach is not as big as we first thought. Celtic played at Borussia Park on Tuesday and earned a draw against the German side, but the Hoops almost won it.

After taking the lead through Lars Stindl on 32 minutes, it looked as though Celtic might be facing a second defeat by Gladbach. However, the performance either side of this opening goal by Celtic was far better than the one they put in at Celtic Park.

That wouldn’t be difficult of course because they never turned up at home two weeks ago anyway. What is more commendable though is that Celtic were vastly weakened going into this match, the odds were stacked against them (aren’t they always?) and going in at half-time a goal down you might just think another goal would finish the match.

Celtic had other ideas though and played some good football throughout the game. Scott Sinclair had already hit the upright before going a goal down to the Germans and there was still fight in Celtic.

Gladbach also hit the woodwork and both keepers were drawn into action, but it was Celtic who showed greater character in the second half. Away from home and a goal behind, Moussa Dembele won and scored a penalty with the resultant offender red carded.

Celtic smelled blood and were trying to win it as well. Nobody will be more disappointed than Callum McGregor at failing to hit the target after being one-on-one with the goalkeeper in the closing stages of the game.

On another day, I’m pretty sure McGregor would have tucked it away. It wasn’t to be and so the task remains tall with one win required at the very least to even have a chance of qualifying.

When the group was drawn, we all knew it would be tough and that the best we could hope for would be third place. After four roller coaster games Celtic are still in it, however unlikely it may seem that Brendan Rodgers will be playing European football after Christmas this season.

As I said at the beginning though, perhaps the gap isn’t as big as we thought. Rodgers mentioned ‘time’ in his post match interview as the requirement to make progress and not ‘investment’ as the BT Sport interviewer did.

I found that encouraging because it calmed the nonsense that usually arises from the post match analysis after these European fixtures. Speaking of which, look no further than Tottenham Hotspur as an example.

Last night they slumped to a 0-1 defeat at home to another mid-table Bundesliga side, Bayer Leverkusen. I’ve commented previously about the gulf in finance between Celtic and many other European clubs, but Spurs are not short of cash.

In fact like Celtic they are run pretty well financially. The difference is they can spend like most high-end European clubs can because of the income generated in English football.

Like Gladbach, Leverkusen sit mid-table but they showed away from home that they can get a result. So perhaps Celtic aren’t as far out of things as we think when you compare the Spurs v Leverkusen result.

If Brendan needs time to close that gap then he has it. I’m sure Celtic will invest what they can, but the response in Germany was very encouraging and the Bhoys were desperately unlucky not to get the win.

I guess all Celtic need to do is beat Manchester City or Barcelona (or both) and we’re in the Europe after Christmas eh? Sounds like a challenge.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Scotland the brave?

On Saturday night I sat down and watched the Scotland v Lithuania game on TV. Once again I put myself through the kind of torture that can only mirror what it’s like to follow a lower league club.

That hopeless desire that one day you might just experience something wonderful with that inevitability that you never will. In that respect, Scotland are a lower league international side. 

International football, of course, is a different beast to club football altogether. The analogy is pretty close though.

The qualifying campaigns are long, drawn out affairs and in Scotland’s case unfulfilling. Having failed to reach a finals since 1998, the national side remain way off the pace.

After Saturday’s lucky draw at Hampden there appears to be no sign of that changing. Scotland always seem to come up short when they need exactly the opposite.

Gordon Strachan was a good appointment for the national side. He’s a good coach and was an iconic player so he fits the bill in terms of an international leader in my view.

The trouble is, Scotland were lack some exciting players on Saturday night. They have a good variety of talent playing at a decent level in England but there weren’t many on the park that I would have considered as star players.

Robert Snodgrass was probably the only guy I’d put in that category that started the match at Hampden. There might be a few who have moved with rather large price tags or command larte salaries but nobody got my heart racing against the Lithuanians. 

Lithuania are ranked around 70 places below Scotland, but Strachan’s players struggled to create chances let alone score goals. There is the basis of a good Scotland squad,but you need players out there providing a bit of inspiriation.

There are plenty of guys out there who haven’t even been capped and could do a very good job. When their time will come remains to he seen.

I might be slightly biased in my analysis,but not one Celtic player started. Leigh Griffiths, James Forrest and Kieran Tierney were all on the bench.

Are we really saying none of these guys were good enough to start against Lithuania at Hampden? And what about the other Celtic players yet to get a sniff at a Scotland squad such as Stuart Armstrong and Callum McGregor?

Of the Celtic outfield trio, one, two or all three should have started given their form this season. Coming off the bench is all well and good but I think Gordon set up wrong for this match.

Scotland should have hammered out a solid home win at Hampden. With a more attack minded team, Scotland could have ended this game early.

Intead they were chasing an equaliser. Had they gone on the front foot sooner, Strachan could have switched things and rested players for the next game.

Away points will be hard to come by in England, Slovenia and in Slovakia on Tuesday. We can add Lithuania to that list if Saturday’s match is anything to go by.

Winning home games is essential. Scotland won’t win the group, but they should be doing everything to ensure they amass the highest amount of points possible to see them into a play off position.

Realistcally, that is Scotland’s best hope. Just managing a draw against Lithuania was lucky, but it was also damaging to our campaign.

You don’t get much of a chance to recover in qualification. There are few games in which to make your mark and Scotland always seem to be dragging their heels.

The qualification process is far from decided. At this stage though, it was a blip that Gordon Strachan could have done without.

There will be more dramas ahead. As a Scotland fan of many years, I know that all too well.

Stevie Mac

A busy transfer window, not a miserly transfer window

I’m not going to beat about the bush. This Bhoy is satisfied with the transfer activity carried out by Celtic this summer.

Many of you will no doubt disagree with me on that,  judging by some of the reaction I’ve read elsewhere on the web. The lack of an apparent marquee signing or a creative midfielder appear to be the main reasons.

With a squad the size Brendan Rodgers has, there are still plenty of opportunities for existing players to prove themselves under his guidance. The manager has already made a huge difference upon his arrival.

Celtic have offloaded nine players with a further ten out on loan. At the same time, they have drafted in six players and renewed the contracts of two.

If that isn’t a busy window, then I don’t know what is. Come the January transfer window, I would expect to see further moves in and out of Celtic Park as well.

Celtic are already showing signs of great improvement on the field of play and that is without a fully fit squad. Now with the transfer window shut, we know who will be available to Brendan Rodgers until the end of the year at least.

The addition and impact of Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure has been very influential and I would argue that they have marquee signings for Rodgers. New contracts for Tom Rogic and James Forrest has breathed new life into their careers at the club and on the field of play.

Moussa Dembele continues to settle in and has also made a steady impact. Cristian Gamboa’s was an unexpected purchase but with Saidy Janko now out on loan, it appears this was an area Brendan Rodgers was not happy with.

The departure of Stefan Johansen and the loaning of Scott Allan has helped the midfield in that there will be more opportunities for others. Ryan Christie, Liam Henderson and Kristoffer Ajer will be seeking to displace Scott Brown, Nir Bitton, Callum McGregor, and Tom Rogic.

There is also Stuart Armstrong and Kris Commons to consider as well. With the amount of games Celtic are set to play, I expect many will get an opportunity even if they have to be patient.

At the back, it would have been good to see the back of Efe Ambrose but he has stood firm and remains. I can’t see him getting in the team with Kolo Toure and Erik Sviatchenko as key players.

Also fighting for a place will be Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic. The jury is still out on Boyata for me but the failed transfer of Simunovic to Torino is a positive.

Having been hampered by injury, the Croatian defender has rarely had time to make a go of things and I was stunned Celtic were trying to move him on. I think this might be a twist of fate for Celtic as he will push Toure and Sviatchenko all the way.

Mikael Lustig has the benefit of being able to play right back or centre half so he is one of our more fortunate defenders. Kieran Tierney doesn’t look as comfortable in a back three as Lustig but will be a key player on the left side of defence regardless.

Sparring for that role will be Emilio Izaguirre though he is more like Gamboa as a wing back than a defender. The one player I was sad to see sign on elsewhere was Charlie Mulgrew.

Although he was still training at the club, he hasn’t been shy of injuries in recent times. Mulgrew’s versatility is one of his greatest assets which would have been great to have had in the squad.

However, if he did receive reduced terms as reported, I cannot fault the club. Given his absences in the past two seasons and his desire to secure one last big contract I can only wish him all the best at Blackburn.

On the wings we have Scott Sinclair, James Forrest, Patrick Roberts and Gary Mackay-Steven. Mackay-Steven will struggle to get into the team now, especially when Roberts returns.

Up front, Leigh Griffiths will duel with Dembele so it will be interesting to see how Nadir Ciftci handles being left in the dark. He will either emerge better or go under and eventually move on – it is up to him.

Last but not least is the number one slot. Craig Gordon has been first choice for two seasons but with the arrival of Dorus de Vries, his position is in jeopardy.

De Vries played under Brendan Rodgers previously and seems he will be given a chance to push Gordon all the way. Meantime, Logan Bailly and Leonardo Fasan have fallen further down the pecking order.

So it is an exciting time. The squad has seen arrivals and departures and judging by what I have seen under Brendan Rodgers will continue to get better.

Poor transfer window? I don’t think so.

Some further deals may have happened but for the business that has been done, I am happy. There is so much to look forward to right now and even more to look forward to in the future.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Sinclair breaks Hearts

Just when it was looking like a draw, up stepped debutant Scott Sinclair to send Celtic fans wild. Tynecastle is a hostile environment and it rarely produces a dull match when Celtic come to town.

Sunday’s opening league match away to Hearts was always going to be a tough start for Brendan Rodgers. Celtic took the lead though in just 8 minutes as James Forrest pounced onto the loose ball Callum McGregor had been relieved of inside the penalty box.

It looked like a penalty but play continued to allow Celtic their first goal of the domestic season. Hearts were up in arms about Stuart Armstrong interfering with play (though not at the time of the incident) but whether the rules say he was or wasn’t,  McGregor was fouled for a penalty that wasn’t given so let’s scratch that one shall we?

Talking of penalties, Hearts equaliser came courtesy of a Jamie Walker dive. There was no contact with Kieran Tierney and by his own admission the referee owned up to getting that one wrong. 

Will Jamie Walker face retrospective discipline for cheating? Not unless he changes his name to Derk Boerrigter.

One glaring opportunity that Hearts should have equalised with was the free header ex-Celt Tony Watt had. Not only was he unmarked by Mikael Lustig, the goal was wide open for him. 

Nae luck wee man. Thanks for missing though.

Later on there was another penalty shout for Hearts. At best it would have been very soft and not giving it was the correct decision, most likely aided by the Hearts spot kick awarded in error earlier in the match. 

Like Wednesday night against FC Astana though, this match produced a winning moment from the bench. I don’t know if ‘Mystic Mick’ McManus saw this in his crystal ball, but Scott Sinclair seized his opportunity to win the match for Celtic. 

Celtic broke down the left hand side after a Hearts move broke down. The ball was chased down by Leigh Griffiths who, after fending off his pursuers, squared the ball long and low to the onrushing Sinclair who finished neatly inside the box.

What a start for the English winger and what an end to a fiesty match. Celtic deserved their victory, even when you take into account all of the right and wrong decisions.

Robbie Neilson, a good young coach, sadly had a touch of the Jim Jeffries about himself post-match. Being a sore loser and not understanding the rules of the game only makes you look like a bit of a fanny, so only whinge when your facts are solid.

On the subject of fannies, Sportscene was back last night and in glorious er…SD. We were told of this new time slot and promised longer coverage.

What about the Scottish Championship coverage though? Why would they ever have dropped that segment for this season I wonder?

Still no post match interviews from Ibrokes for the BBC. I guess Sportscene will need to try even harder though I doubt their two bob mixture fund will stretch any further.

The Scottish Premiership’s first timers might have failed to speak to the grovelling BBC, but it wasn’t because they drew with Hamilton Accies at home. It’s all historical, though given their history only goes back to 2012, not that historical.

Elsewhere the Dons drew with St Johnstone in a 0-0 thriller. Having gone out of Europe to Celtic’s old foes Maribor midweek I thought Aberdeen would come out of the traps at the weekend.

So none of Celtic’s so called ‘contenders’ managed a winning start. I guess that’s because only Celtic have a £4M player on the bench eh Robbie?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Honours even

​So Celtic began this Champions League qualifier away from home the way we’re well accustomed to as supporters. Giving away cheap goals is a European trait for the Hoops and goes hand in hand with calamitous defending. 

The goal scored by FC Astana in the 20th minute was an open invitation from a corner. Up stepped Logvinenko to head home the first goal of the game unmarked and unchallenged.

There are a number of areas you can examine for this error. All of which play a role.

Craig Gordon came for the ball and failed to collect it. This was mainly down to the presence of an opponent between himself and the ball.

In that wide open space there was no Celtic player to speak of either. That was why Gordon came for it in the first place.

If this gap was as a result of zonal marking then it was breached. Much criticism has been levelled at Celtic for deploying such a tactic, but it is widely used in the game and this isn’t the first Celtic manager to utilise it either.

It could also be agrued that Eoghan O’Connell wasn’t doing his zonal job. I’ve much confidence in the youngster and if I am being honest, acquitted himself well for the 90 plus minutes played bar a lapse in concentration late on in game and this goal.

FC Astana played it hard and fast from the start though. Celtic were on occasion showing signs of setting up a shot on goal but were disappointing in the last third.

The linkup play was poor in the first half and the midfield weren’t protecting the defence either. I wasn’t totally surprised to see Brendan Rodgers go with Lustig, Ambrose and O’Connell and overall they did a decent job as one unit.

The big change was reshaping the midfield in the second half. Callum McGregor wasn’t at his best and Stuart Armstrong was equally unimpressive before being replaced.

As the second half unfolded, so too did the changes. Moussa Dembele was replaced by Nir Bitton, James Forrest for Armstrong and Tom Rogic for McGregor.

This made a difference and even Scott Brown was getting forward. This was largely due to Bitton’s presence. 

Forrest was getting some joy down the left and Rogic’s linkup play was filling the void. It would be the superb performance of Patrick Roberts though that would help unlock the Astana defence and provide the one shot on target Celtic managed all afternoon.

Following a mix of determination and skill Roberts robbed his marker before playing in Leigh Griffiths. He took one touch – which at the time I thought was one too many – and with the second found its way calmly into the net.

It was a goal Celtic worked hard for and I felt were capable of getting even in the first half. Astana were stunned and Celtic were on the hunt for  winner but with time ticking away it finished a 1-1 draw.

Brendan Rodgers will be pleased with the attitude of his players, especially after going a goal down. With an away goal, a good away performance and a positive response from his squad, the second leg at Celtic Park is looking good for progression.

The job is far from done though. We saw how quickly Astana got forward and Celtic will need to be alert to that on home territory. 

The expectation will be for Celtic to flex their own muscle at Paradise. The stage is set for players to make a name for themselves.

Moussa Dembele, looking almost uninterested at Celtic’s equaliser whilst sat on the bench, should be aiming to break his duck at Celtic Park next week. There are high hopes for the free scoring youngster and where better to do it than in front of your home crowd and help take your club into the next round?

Celtic have done the hard bit and with a depleted defence. They did a good job, even Efe, though many will have overlooked his failure to deal with the square ball that led to Lustig knocking it out for a corner.

The result of that was of course the free header that produced FC Astana’s goal. For now, we have a good away result and by the time Astana come visiting we could have Kolo Toure available for selection.

All in all, a good repsonse. Saturday will see Celtic head out to Dublin to face Barcelona in the International Champions Cup.

It’s another road trip we could do without but it is an opportunity for some players to get a run out. Toure will be one of those players and will help put him in contention for Wednesday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

A tale of two Johansen’s 

One-and-a-half good seasons and one awful season. That’s how to sum up Stefan Johansen’s Celtic career to date.

The Norwegian internationalist joined Celtic from Stromsgodset in the January transfer window of 2014. He made an encouraging impact and collected a league title medal with virtual ease.

Although signed by Neil Lennon, Johansen wouldn’t blossom until his first full season. By this time it was under new manager Ronny Deila, who had followed his student to Celtic within a matter of months.

Having been crowned SPFA Player of the Year and Celtic Player of the Year by the fans and he became a mainstain the midfield. However, Johansen’s second full season couldn’t have been more different. 

He failed to emulate the kind of performances that made him a key player for Deila. There wasn’t a shard of the previous season in his play.

Eventually he would blame it on a back problem but I’ve never bought into that. If his back was so bad he should never have been playing as many games as he did so that doesn’t hold any water with me. 

Celtic had injuries, yes. However, adequate and fit players in a midfield role, the club had in abundance.

The squad was looking fragmented but Deila stuck with Johansen even though he wasn’t playing well. It annoyed many supporters that the manager remained so loyal to Johansen when he was clearly not at his best.

Having put a miserable season behind him, I was of the opinion he may rediscover his form under Brendan Rodgers. I mean, you don’t suddenly turn into a poor performer overnight without good reason.

With the latest rumour suggestion an exit is on the cards, perhaps Stefan has lost his desire for Celtc. It’s a strange one though.

Should he go, fine, I’ve got no problem if players aren’t interested any more. The squad is overflowing with midfielders as it is.

Another space free, another opportunity for another Celtic player to step up. I don’t think Rodgers would rush out to replace him when you have guys like Tom Rogic, Callum McGregor, Ryan Christie, Scott Allan and Liam Henderson all vying for regular football this coming season. 

Even Scott Brown, Kris Commons and Nir Bitton have a place to fight for. I’d also like to see more of Stuart Armstrong in a central position.

Still, this remains a rumour. Time will tell whether there is any truth to it or if it’s another just another ‘Efe’ story.

As it is there’s further rumours about our midfield personnel in the shape of Nir Bitton. His form hasn’t been as affected as badly as team mate Johansen’s, but like many Celtic players season wasn’t at his best.

Again, if it is his desire to move on, which at this stage is still specualation, why stand in his way? If the money is right, there are plenty more fish in the sea.

There is a requirement to allow youth to flourish but if you’re accommodating a plethora of senior players at the same time then something has to give. We’ll how things pan out but my feeling on this is that I would be happy either way.

As for today, Celtic face Olimpija Ljubljana in their third preseason fixture. It’s another chance for Brendan Rodgers to tinker with team selection whilst casting his eye over his players.

One of those players is likely to be new signing Moussa Dembélé. He’s scheduled to make his debut and even though it’s a friendly, all eyes will be on him.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac