Make the home tie count

Tonight’s visitors to Celtic Park need no introduction. Similarly, Celtic need no reminder of the task.

Overcoming this stage of qualifying is a massive of injection of entertainment and finance for the club. It may also help one or two footballers decided where their futures lie.

Brendan Rodgers must set up for tonight to get the best possible result. As much as I think Celtic can score away goals these days, I would be over the moon if we kept a clean sheet are Celtic Park.

With the second leg away, a clean sheet is essential at home. More important is a victory. 

So ideally we’re looking for two or three goals without reply tonight. Tough ask, but not impossible. 

We’re a far more rounded team this year and with a few additions. There have been some teething issues though with form, injury and suspension.

Celtic must keep things tight and take full advantage of playing at home though. Conditions will play a factor in this match as the Glasgow summer continues to unleash rain.

Bitton or Ajer? Forrest or Hayes?

Brendan has done decisions to make. The rest of the team picks itself.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We are all Neil Lennon

The Scottish Premiership was anything but dull over the weekend. Six scheduled fixtures produced 18 goals, 5 red cards and plenty of talking points.

Whilst I would normally have focused on the Celtic match our attention was drawn toward the bigger picture of discipline and refereeing. That has now been eclipsed by a far more serious issue.

It isn’t a new subject, but rather something of a historical, ongoing, unresolved disease. Think of it as a cancer that has spread across our game but unlike the old man Scottish football is, he refuses to have it investigated by a doctor.

A huge thing was made of Neil Lennon’s reactions at Ibrox. The home fans were outraged at Lennon’s celebrations during the match. 

It prompted a statement from the fans group Club 1872. They appeared to be unhappy with his happiness at beating their team.

Of the gestures made by Lennon one was deemed as going a bit too far, but wait. The same guy has received verbal and physical abuse from the day he set foot in Scotland by your very own fans not to mention throughout that match. 
On top of that the media have continued to paint an unpleasant picture of the Northern Irishman. That agenda came to interesting peak on Sportscene at the weekend.

Unsurprisingly, the studio pundits threw the book at Lennon. This is standard practice and think Lennon as ‘brings it on himself’.

Interestingly Michael Stewart revised his comments yesterday and made an apology. That retraction says a lot about just how influenced things are in the media.

Himself and Steven Thompson stuck together in condemning Lennon. It will be interesting to see what else comes out of this especially when you saw Chris Sutton’s show of support and mockery of the Ckub 1872 statement.

These people have very short memories. If they were ever in any doubt about what I’m referring to you can read about the death threats Lennon had after that game which is now as ongoing investigation. 

The key part of every Lennon reaction is the abuse he’s taken for nearly two decades. Though tough on the field, he wasn’t a dirty player and far worse have existed in the Scottish game before, during and after his time as Celtic’s number 18.

You don’t have to question why fans at all grounds dislike him so much. He’s a Catholic Northern Irishman with a big presence and personality playing for Celtic.

This is red rag to a bull if you’re of the union flag waving, sash wearing variety. These people are also Scotland’s shame.

The irony is that despite the football authorities and the Scottish government’s efforts to address bigotry and sectarianism in our sport, they are strangely lenient or silent when Lennon is a victim and his attackers are out in the open for all to see. How many times has he been threatened, attacked and received parcel bombs in the mail targeting him and his family?

More to the point, what has been done about it? Nothing.

Put simply, Lennon is enemy number one for those whose purpose in life is to inflict anger and hatred. Just like the Linfield game and Leigh Griffiths, if you can’t control your emotions in the stands then the problem is in the stands not on the pitch. 

The hurt amongst the Ibrox support is massive. Their club died thanks to their former knighted leader and his cronies. 

That slow painful death occurred during Celtic’s continuing reign as Scotland’s number one club. A club with a business model to die for. 

Lennon is a constant reminder to the Ibrox fans and their new club, of their old club’s ultimate failure. That must hurt very much indeed.
He isn’t going to go away though. He has endured everything you have thrown at him for nearly twenty years.

It’s time for those of you filled with hatred to move on. We don’t need your kind.

Lennon is here to stay. You lot are not welcome.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Armstrong needs to be open about his future or move on for the good of the club.

Brendan Rodgers has claimed that Stuart Armstrong’s form is being affected by unresolved contract talks. Whilst I agree with the obvious I would also say that this is having an impact in the dressing room and amongst the fans.

Uncertain futures raise concerns about a player’s application, dedication and happiness. You don’t get many players like Kieran Tierney, but he’s in a different bracket altogether – Mr Celtic you might say.

I was discussing Armstrong’s situation with a friend at the weekend. We agreed on all of the positives and negatives about Armstrong playing down south or staying a Celtic. 

The most significant point we agreed on was the player’s final decision. That if he failed to agree a new Celtic contract we wouldn’t lose sleep over his departure. 

You may ask why this was our thoughts or you may already know or think the same. The fact is, nobody is bigger than the club though you can win the fan’s hearts and minds if you play it right. 

I was just as pleased as any other Celtic supporter to see Armstrong flourish for the Hoops last season. We all knew he wasn’t playing in the right position under Ronny Deila.

In his two-and-a-half years at the club he has had one stand out season. That’s as much down to Brendan as it is down to Armstrong though. 

If you bear those two facts in mind then you have to say to the players negotiators “Just how strong a position are you in to get a better deal?” A Premiership club may double or treble his Celtic terms, but one good season doesn’t make you a god.

Whilst the details of any offer are unknown to me, I would imagine that the Celtic offer is a decent one for the immediate future. The player’s advisors shouldn’t get carried away until he’s proven he can repeat the same form.

Armstrong is a natural, but he is far from the finished article. Using the Premier League as a bargaining chip is a sly yet common tool by agents.

The question for the player is does he want to become the best he can be under Brendan Rodgers or does he take the money and his chances down south? The manager is convinced of the former and my gut instinct is the same and we know all to well how moving south turned out for many other former Celts. 

Understandably, I would find it very hard to say “no thanks” if I was offered twice or treble my salary. In my current job it would be a no brainer, but in football there are other factors. 

There are some really average players earning tonnes of money down south. If money is the key factor for Armstrong and he has an offer from a Premier League club then he should take it.

If he truly wants to be a better player, become a club legend, play in Europe, win domestic silverware and maybe even captain the club one day then it is probably only going to happen at Celtic. Down south he’ll get the money, but that’s about it unless he secured a decent move. 

To get a club in England that offers the same chance of success as Celtic he’d need to have good back-to-back seasons. So far he only has one and that will only secure him an average side.

Virgil an Dijk, Fraser Forster and Victor Wanyama are all players who made a name for themselves over a period of time. They all got their moves eventually and Armstrong can still get his if he wants it, but he has plenty of time and isn’t in the same bracket of the players I’ve just mentioned. 

Why not take a new deal at Celtic, continue to prosper under Brendan Rodgers and raise your status whilst winning trophies? In a couple of years you would be in a much better position to negotiate a decent move south or a bumper deal at Celtic. 

If done right, Armstrong could have a very good decade in the game. So far there is little to suggest any progress has been made.

So as much as a new deal is important, Armstrong’s advisors should not be overstating the players case at this stage. It is having an impact on the player, the team and the fans.

Armstrong is a fantastic player who can have a very career in the game. Now he needs to step in take control of this situation and make a decision. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Flying high at Firhill on Friday

To say Celtic have begun their domestic campaign on fire would be an understatement. Nine goals from the opening two games have got the Hoops off to an absolute flyer.
Having dispatched two Premiership teams in the space of four days, many of us are wondering if an unbeaten run could be on the cards once more. It’s early days of course, with another nine opponents of varying calibre in waiting, but it would be an unbelievable feat if another invincible season happened.

Though unlikely, Celtic will use that as their yardstick for the season ahead. Let’s also remember that the team aren’t even at full strength yet.

Injury and suspension have claimed the availability of key players. Match sharpness is still being worked on as well.

Since the Champions League qualifiers began, Brendan Rodgers has fielded his best available team selection. He’s maintained that through to the opening league match.

A strong home performance saw off managerless Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park last Saturday. A fine 4-1 victory was a solid enough performance to mark the flag day celebrations.

Celtic were in good rhythm despite four qualifiers in the previous weeks where match sharpness was expectedly absent. With a striker and a focal point back in place though, things are been beginning to click.

Leigh Griffiths has been the catalyst in better fortunes since he reappeared as a substitute in Norway. Coming off the bench in the second leg against Rosenborg altered the dynamic that night and made a significant contribution in getting the win.

Despite not scoring in that match, he carried his performance into the Hearts game and bagged a superb brace. Scott Sinclair and Callum McGregor each providing a goal too.

Next up was Kilmarnock in a rare home fixture in the League Cup. Instead of going for his best available eleven, Brendan mixed things up a little.

As holders you want to retain the trophy you’re competing for again. What Brendan did though was something bold and beautiful.

An outfield team with the average age of less than 20-years-old buried their Ayrshire opponents 5-0. This was a match of such dominance you’d be forgiven for thinking that Killie hadn’t turned up.

Old man Craig Gordon had all but taken his teeth out and put them in a glass by his goalside table. It was a youthful batch of players taking the game to Lee McCulloch’s woeful warriors.

Is it too early to say they’ll go down this season? Don’t let that take any credit from Celtic – the Hoops were on fine form.

Kieran Tierney captained the team for the second time. This was his first competitive captaincy having deputised in the Sunderland friendly. 

Playing in a back three, he was joined by Kristoffer Ajer and Anthony Ralston. The midfield was equally as youthful.

Calvin Miller, Eboue Kouassi and Kundai Benyu joined the experienced Tom Rogić, Stuart Armstrong and Jonny Hayes in the middle of the park. The blend was tireless and endlessly productive.

At the tip of the attack was an effervescent Leigh Griffiths once again. And it was himself that opened the scoring from the spot on 14 minutes. 

Ralston popped up with a header seven minutes later for 2-0. Griffiths continued his goal scoring form with a well placed finish eight minutes later to make it 3-0.

That was the score at half -time, but before the interval Celtic lost Kouassi to injury. He was replaced by the young, experienced and tidy traits of 21-year-old Olivier Ntcham.
In the second half, captain Tierney decided that if Ralston could score then he could as well. So he stepped up and unleashed an unstoppable 40 yarder to make it 4-0.

Goal of the season? Well, we’ll still be talking about it in May 2018 that’s for sure.

Celtic swapped out Griffiths for Forrest and Benyu for McGregor. That kept the momentum going. 

Armstrong wrapped things up with close finish to make it 5-0. He looked pretty happy to score as well. 

Given his unresolved contract status he showed encouragement that night that he wanted to stay. We’ll have to wait and see how that pans out though.

This was as good a performance than you could hope to see from such a young team. No, it was better than that – it was a masterclass of youth and experience working in unison.

Were Killie poor on the night? Yes they were.

They offered nothing in a game which is a knockout competition. Didn’t have a go/couldn’t have a go – it didn’t matter.

Celtic wiped the floor with them. Partick Thistle are now awaiting Celtic’s arrival this evening at Firhill. 

The Jags lost their opening league game of the season away to Neil Lennon’s Hibernian who returned to the top flight with a 3-1 home win. Thistle bounced back midweek in the League Cup by hammering St Johnstone 0-3 at McDiarmid Park.

The only thing that goes against Partick for tonight’s live match is that Celtic are likely to field their strongest side. Scott Brown is back after his suspension and we’ll probably see Mikael Lustig and Jozo Simunovic return to defence.

Whether Brendan decides to stick with Ajer or redeploy Nir Bitton at centre half is anyone’s guess. Both players are actually midfielders, but have seen themselves in defence this season due to injuries.

I think both have acquitted themselves well though. Ajer seems to be the one who is more likely to be retrained for this position long term, but Bitton offers cover as midfield chances will be rare for him.

The midfield can take many forms these days. There are so many options to start with and so many you can bring off the bench as well.

Up front we’ll be looking to Griffiths once more. I genuinely think he’s going to push on this season.

Celtic have set their stall out early. They are the current benchmark.

Friday nights and Celtic. What’s not to like?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Bloody Astana again!

One of these days we’ll actually avoid a long trip in qualifying. One day we’ll also avoid playing the same bloody teams time and again.

FC Astana stand before Celtic and the group stage of the Champions League. Last season the teams met in the Third Qualifying Round of the same tournament. 

Celtic drew 1-1 in Kazakhstan followed by a 2-1 win in Glasgow. Having both disposed of decent teams this year around I think this could be a close encounter.

Celtic are a better team than last year despite not quite as sharp as we could be. Astana have dispatched Legia Waraw though so there is merit in that result. 

I just can’t believe we’re playing the same team for the second year in a row. And don’t get me started on the distance!

Playing a team from Kazakhstan is NOT a European tie. However, these are the hurdles we have to face these days. 

It isn’t enough to win your league outright to get into the group phase. You have to play some team from Central Asia or the Middle East whilst clubs finishing second, third and fourth can march into the group phase directly or by playing one qualifier which even if they falter at allows them to parachute into the Europa League.

There’s no help in the fact that our fellow Scottish clubs are an eternal let down as well. I had hoped Aberdeen would stay the course, but they must have thought they were going to Cyprus for a holiday instead last night.

We may have just eeked past Rosenberg, but given our injury crisis and the fact Rosenborg were half way through their season I’ll give our Bhoys a bit of a break. They don’t make the decisions to play these rounds.

Their efforts of last season were astounding. And after a very short break from a full on season they’ve come back in to do it all over again and much earlier than most clubs who are already secured in the Champions League.

So basically it’s the same story. A story we’re all too familiar with. 

Long trips out of Europe in order to stay in Europe. Flying the solo flag for Scotland once more.

Hail! Hail!
Stevie Mac

Rule of Thumb

This evening Celtic will face Rosenborg in Trondheim. After a goaless draw at Celtic Park last week, the task is now a little bit tougher for the Hoops.
Brendan Rodgers was without a recognised striker last week and the team struggled in front of goal. Leigh Griffiths travelled to Norway and is likely to play, but how fit he is remains to be seen.

Still, having someone actually fulfill the role of a striker, even if they don’t score themselves, is an improvement on last week already. It isn’t that Celtic played badly, they just had no focal point and Leigh will provide that. 

With Moussa Dembele out until September Celtic are a little light up front. Brendan has strengthened the team for sure, but not for this position.

The question for Brendan is can he afford to carry this sort of risk for another season. I don’t think he can. 

Rosenborg may not be at the seen as thw same team from when Celtic last faced them in 2001. However, seventeen games and midway through their season, fitness and sharpness is at a higher level than Celtic’s.

Kåre Ingebrigtsen had his team well organised at Celtic Park. They defended well and hit on the break effectively.

At the Lerkendal Stadion, expect another efficient performance from Rosenborg. What Celtic need to do is be more clinical.

There were chances last week for both sides. Rosenborg looked better on the break, whilst Celtic had trouble finding the target.

Despite dominating the first half and the match over all, Celtic only managed 2 shots on target out of 12 attempts. Rosenborg had 8 attempts with 4 on target.

Goals haven’t been hard to come by for Brendan Rodgers team in the last year. Be it one of our front men or the midfield we’ve produced the goods. 

At the weekend, Celtic dismantled Championship side Sunderland 5-0 at the Stadium of Light. It was a comprehensive performance against a Sunderland team who finished an eight game pre-season with their first defeat.

There were some notable performances from Celtic including a double save by Dorus de Vries from a penalty and a fine match by Kieran Tierney who wore the captains armband for the first time. It was hattrick hero Callum McGregor who stole the show though.

Some Celtic fans have given this guy a bit of stick in his time as a first team player. Much of that was likely to do with Ronny Deila’s faith in the midfielder.

He gave him his first senior game and often turned to him throughout his two year stint as manager. He rarely let him down. 

McGregor has proven everyone wrong time and time again. Now, people are calling for him to play up front against Rosenborg.

I’m not sure how effective he would be in that role. He is a versatile player who is good for goals and assists.

To play up front you need a presence and I’m not sure Callum has that exactly. What I will say is that he should play a part in this one. 

The striking dilemma will be addressed by playing Griffiths. Let’s hope he can impose himself enough to help get that result to see us into the playoffs.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

We’ll need to triumph in Trondheim

Celtic came up short against a well organised Rosenborg side last night. The absence of a recognised striker didn’t just leave the Hoops without a focal point, it left the opposition without anyone to martial.

Brendan Rodgers commented on Dembele and Griffiths being out before this game. That he was quite happy with the given situation and that people may not have noticed but Tom Rogić had played up front before and may well for this game.

Well, Rogić didn’t move into the strikers role. In fact nobody did.

Instead Celtic created an arc of midfielders with Sinclair at one end and Forrest at the other. Both players were ineffective.

I was surprised at Sinclair’s performance. Forrest’s lack of dynamic concerns me more.

At the deepest part of this midfield formation lay Armstrong and Rogić.  Again, neither were having much of an effect in front of goal.

Rogić can’t play up front. He needs a few yards to get into his stride and to have a man in front of him.

That could have been Sinclair or maybe even Aitchison or Nesbitt or Miller. Armstrong was trying to find a way through but there was no movement in front of him or anyone else in the midfield for that matter.

Ntcham was keeping things moving in front of a tireless Brown who was protecting the defence. This was probably our most efficient zone, but it didn’t last for 90 minutes.

Celtic lost ground in the second half and frustration set in. The introduction of Hayes did have an influence, but Rosenborg got braver and began to increase their hit-on-the-breaks.

We were beginning to get caught out. Rosenborg had the better chances despite Celtic’s dominance in the match.

Tierney was off his game in defence and attack. Lustig was having more joy getting forward, but he too got caught out a few times in defence.

This was nowhere near what we expect from Celtic or at home. Still it is only our third competitive match.

Rosenborg set themselves up well. A better Celtic performance can triumph in Trondheim.

I don’t think we underestimated Rosenborg. I do think Brendan going without a striker was a mistake though.

No need for a third striker? I disagree.

It’s a day off for the opposition. Nobody to drawing defenders, nobody for the opposition to mark.

Confined to potshots from attacking midfielders. We should have had one of our young lads just occupying the position.

What do I know though eh? Perhaps I’m just spoiled after an unbeaten domestic season?

I’ll finish on a positive so you don’t all think I’m a miserable got. Praise goes to our defensive diamond of Gordon, Simunovic, Ajer and Brown.

They all worked together and overcame any pressure from our toothless attack. Dare I say they kept us in the game?

Sorry, I’m being miserable again. Get the cheque book out Celtic and bring Paddy home, Brendan.

Whilst you’re at it, go get another striker. We’re going to need one.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac