Warning signs

Sunday’s result at Celtic Park has been coming for while now. The warning signs have been visible in this and other Celtic fixtures.

The big question for Celtic now is what are they prepared do about it? Everyone is accountable so nothing can be left to chance.

So many of our players looked off the boil. That has been evident in the weeks building up to this game.

Is it fatigue? A lack of hunger?

Neil Lennon must have some inkling. He’s not entirely blameless himself because for the last two games against Gerrard he has been dominated.

Celtic stole the League Cup and that should have been a huge signifier for him. I didn’t expect Celtic to lose at Celtic Park, but now Gerrard can score that one off his list of things to do.

You saw the joy on his face at winning on our turf. It’s a hurdle cleared and now gives his side a chance to go a point clear when they finally take on that game at hand in the new year.

Of course, to do that Lennon and Gerrard will both have to hit the ground running when the season resumes on 18th January. That will be the Scottish Cup, so league duties will not get underway again until 22nd January.

What Celtic have to achieve in this window could have a huge impact on the rest of the season. The coaching team have to identify what has made the players so flat lately and get us back to where we were.

I agree that additional personnel will be welcome, but you don’t necessarily solve a team problem by throwing more players at it. The players have be playing competitive football non-stop since 9th July and so have Gerrard’s.

So fatigue shouldn’t really be a factor in this debate? Is it simply just that our rivals wanted it more than us?

I’d hate to think we are getting complacent. If it isn’t that then I’m running out of ideas as to what it can be.

Whatever it is, Celtic have a couple of weeks to identify it and work the problem. If the league comes down to these matches between Lennon and Gerrard then the indication is that Gerrard will win based on the last two encounters.

We’ve had more than enough warning. Now show us you’re going to do something about it, Celtic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The end of the year is nigh…

Celtic’s final game of 2019 is here. Today, there is an opportunity.

A year ago to the day, Celtic were heading to Ibrox, under the management of Neil Lennon’s predecessor. We all know the outcome of that match and could offer a variety of reasons as to why it occurred.

As it turned out, that season was riddled with simmering, underlying issues. In the end it culminated in a calculated, mid-season departure by the man how now sits in the Leicester City hot seat.

That is now all history of course. Neil stepped in, in our time of need thanks to his departure from Hibernian weeks earlier.

This rather convenient opportunity was ideal back in February though not the name on everyone’s lips as we approached the summer. In the end, those of us who doubted his appointment, myself included, were wrong because now we have a team of fighters.

The summer didn’t inspire many with prompt signings and an exit from the Champions League, which continued the idea that Lennon was not the right choice. Now, look at what has be born out of those set

Five points ahead in the league of our rivals with an opportunity to make it eight today. League Cup winners and qualified for the last 32 by finishing top of our Europa League group.

Our gap in the league is small, but one that keeps us in front. In fairness to Gerrard, he has improved the team he took over eighteen months ago and has stayed on our heels this season.

In some matches against us, Gerrard’s players have been wasteful. Though last season, won both games at Ibrox and ended 2018 on the same points as us thanks to the win at Ibrox.

He would have been looking for the same if not better this season, but so far he has lost at Ibrox and Hampden against Celtic. At Celtic Park today every attempt will be made to halt this Neil Lennon Celtic side.

What Celtic do today will set the tone for the rest of the campaign. There’s no doubt that we have the advantage of being the home side, but how Celtic play today will also be of interest.

Allow Gerrard’s team to play or dish out some of our best football? I recall Celtic going out all guns blazing during the years of Ibrox dominance, but now that shoe is on the other foot.

We are in the driving seat. We are the Champions and it’s ours to lose.

Now is the time to demonstrate our strengths. Let’s end the year on a high, Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The next three games are ours to lose…

Celtic have been ploughing through a hectic schedule of matches since late November with relative success. It has seen Neil Lennon’s side approach a sequence of two games a week in European and domestic arenas for a period that will last five weeks, having dealt with everything that has been thrown at them in the process so far.

Before this run got under way, Celtic had already qualified for the last 32 in the Europa League having beaten Lazio home and away, but they still had to entertain Stade Rennais, travel to Romania, play in the League Cup Final and defend their position at the top of the Scottish Premiership.

Just to make things that little bit more challenging, there have been a number of injuries to key players in the squad. Whilst the club do benefit from a larger pool of talented players than most in Scotland, the injuries have meant not having some of our best players to call upon.

It is all part of the game of course, but even some of our back up players haven’t been available or at the very least, not sharp enough. This was evident in the usage of Lewis Morgan at centre forward, something he took a lot of flack for.

I can only imagine it is his appetite and application in training that has caused him to be selected ahead of guys like Leigh Griffiths, Vakoun Bayo or even Scott Sinclair who has played there himself in the past and must desperate for some action. You can’t fault Morgan for being given the chance to play up front though because ultimately it is the manager’s decision to play him there.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t surprised to see him play in that role, but it deos appear it was something they were doing in training. I don’t mind experiments if they pay off and to be fair he has scored in that position, but long term I’d rather see a proper back up striker from the two that we do have.

I don’t agree that Morgan isn’t a good footballer as many have said though. I do think we have yet to find out where his best position is and if we can make it work for him.

Thankfully, we have Odsonne Edouard back in contention and although he was a little unlucky not to score midweek at Tynecastle, he did a lot of the dirty work and in awful conditions. Winning matches on surfaces like that are crucial and to be fair to Neil Lennon his team have not slipped up since the defeat to Livingston back on 6th October.

That’s eleven domestic games undefeated including semi-final and final victories in the League Cup. If Celtic hadn’t lost to Cluj in the final group phase match of the Europa League they would have been looking at a fifteen game unbeaten run to date.

To be fair, that game out in Romania was meaningless in that we had already qualified and topped the group with two games and one game to spare respectively. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have tried to win it, but when you have a crazy run in of matches such as the oen we are in and with an injury list the size of ours, this was a game I was happy to forfeit as did Scott Brown when he got himself booked against Stade Rennais to miss the final match.

We had just won the League Cup prior to the Cluj game and then we had to face Hibernian to maintain the gap in the league. Arguably two more important games to us than the Cluj one and Celtic have dealt with those both of those matters.

There was a lot of doubt about Neil Lennon being appointed during the summer after stepping in as interim head coach in February to steer Celtic home to a treble treble and eighth successful league title. Much was made about the club’s slow paced moves in the summer transfer market, early form or absence of new players and subsequent exit from the Champions League at the hands of a team who we ended up facing in the Europa League.

All of these doubts, some of which came from the media, some by our own fans and some even relevant, have all been answered thus far by a calmer version of Neil Lennon and his players. He is a seasoned player and manager for this club and has endured arguable more than any other single Celtic professional ever has done in history, both on and off the field.

Look at this team now and how they conduct themselves. They have a demonstrated strong character and will to win regardless of the circumstances.

This has been built up over years of course and every manager that has been involved in the club’s current run of success has played a part in that. Neil Lennon was the beginning of that and after two successors he is continuing that in a new generation.

Things have changed behind the scenes since Neil was last in charge and he has only benefited from it. Injuries aside, Celtic have players in better condition thanks to the change of culture within the club.

Our recruitment for this term has been very good too. We have a strong squad and it will only get stronger.

The break in January will be a welcome one for the squad and with three games to go until then, the focus remains on winning. A home game against Aberdeen today will be an interesting encounter and an even more important result if we can keep up that winning run.

Steven Gerrard’s side are keeping up their fight having won against Hibernian last night. If Celtic can maintain this unbeaten run they will finish the year with a solid gap.

After today they are away to St Mirren on Boxing day and finally at home to Gerrard’s side next Sunday. It’s a critical time in the league for Celtic.

They have momentum, but every team wants to disrupt the flow. Aberdeen will attempt to do so today, St Mirren might fancy a festive disruption on their own turf and the Ibrox club will make a third attempt this season to beat Celtic.

We just have to remain composed over these next eight days and see out 2019 on a high. It’s ours to lose.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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