Forging ahead

20150921-mind-the-gapThere was nothing scintillating about Celtic’s win over Kilmarnock last night. A single goal decided the match, but this was no easy three points for Brendan Rodgers.

In the first half Celtic were dominant with good work rates from Callum McGregor and James Forrest in attack. Despite retaining the ball for long periods though, Celtic weren’t really penetrating the Kilmarnock defence.

In fairness to the Ayrshire side, they put up a solid formation, but they didn’t sit back too much either. They hit on the break and put Celtic under pressure at times and probably could have scored a goal or two had it not been from a lack of composure or better fortune, which in this game would have made things more interesting.

Celtic had several chances themselves, but composure and luck deserted them on all but one occasion. The second half was a little more feisty with several players becoming involved in mini-tussles.

Craig Gordon had a least one blip which could have been worse and Dedryck Boyata, starting his first game under the new manager, looked shaky on more than one occasion. Gordon did recover though but I’m still no more impressed with Boyata than I was when he played under Ronny Deila.

Stuart Armstrong also found himself under pressure in the first half a couple of times. He looked like he was wearing the wrong boots….until he scored.

Armstrong, a growing presence in the Celtic midfield these days, put away a tidy finish after a good run and some neat interplay in front of him. His all round game is becoming more prominent in the team with every passing game and he showed that even after a slip up earlier in the game he can retain his composure when required.

When you have a young talented player like this in your squad, why would you even bother with Steven Gerrard? We already have one senior midfielder in Scott Brown who is playing his best football in years.

And when you consider that Tom Rogic is adding goals, pace and skill in a midfield-attack role, our midfield is looking healthy. Nir Bitton will want to sort out is ailing game and get back in the program because he is slipping down the pecking order and rightly so.

So it is another 3 points for Celtic and the gap is widening. Another clean sheet takes Celtic step closer to obtaining another Scottish league record.

The rest of the Scottish Premiership are in action this afternoon and on Monday night. Four teams will be hoping to catchup with Brendan Rodgers runaway train.

Aberdeen (2nd) have a tricky one away to Inverness (6th), The Rangers (3rd) have and easy one at home to Dundee (11th),  St Johnstone (joint 5th) are at home to Ross County (12th) today and Hearts (joint 5th) are away to Hamilton (9th) on Monday night. With Celtic are 13 points clear at the top of the league, only a point separates second, third and fourth/fifth placed teams.

It is that tight and the pecking order could change very quickly. This is an interesting battle as four teams compete to be Celtic’s real contender though at this stage it is looking like the best of the rest.

Aberdeen have been that team for a while. Hearts showed their intentions last season.

We’ll know by the end of the season just how close The Rangers are to mounting a serious challenge. Right now they are sitting third, but no team is as near as Celtic as they would like to be.

In the meantime, Brendan Rodgers will prepare for Barcelona on Wednesday night in the Champions League. Can he beat the Catalan machine on home turf as his Northern Irish compatriot Neil Lennon did in 2012?

Well, let’s put it this way, one win from the last two games is the ONLY way Celtic have a chance of qualifying in third spot. Beating Manchester City away seems like a tough one so why not Barcelona at home eh?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Friday night lights

rugby-park-kilmarnock-general-view_3453658Celtic are back in action tonight in a rare live broadcast for Hoops fans on a Friday evening. However, it’s been another disappointing international break for Scotland fans like myself.

Gordon Strachan may have got a half-decent performance from of his players against England. That amounted to nothing though with three goals being conceded at Wembley.

Thankfully, I have Celtic to lift my spirits tonight. An away encounter with Kilmarnock to watch on a Friday evening is most welcome.

Mind you, there have been plenty of other football stories circulating to attract our attention this week. Aside from the Steven Gerrard rumour, the meltdown continues over at Snake Mountain.

With the strength and variety of damaging storylines coming out of Mordor these days, it has gone from tribute act comedy to a sporting embarrassment waiting to crumble die. I honestly cannot keep up with the plethora of threads that emanate from the other side of Glasgow not that the Scottish media report much of this.

On top of that shambles, the SFA are a hot topic once more. The Resolution 12 story is back in the fold after getting an airing at Celtic’s AGM during the week.

With FIFA already looking at the SFA (as well as the English FA) over Poppygate, UEFA are coming in at another angle. The latter is with thanks to the truth seekers who have fought hard for justice and transparency over rule breaches in Scottish and European football by the governing body of our game and their now deceased pet team.

There will be lots more to come from this. There will also be a lot more to come from Ibrox unless the establishment’s new puppy team implode before the shit really hits the fan.

Meanwhile back at the Rodgers Ranch, Brendan is tending to his flock of warriors. Tonight we can turn our minds back to the progress Celtic are making.

The league title is the theme for tonight and obtaining more goals and points to make that happen on the agenda. With 10 points between Celtic and Aberdeen, the Hoops are looking comfortable.

Hard work continues behind the scenes and that means fine tuning the talent currently at the club. There are still several fringe players whose futures will be decided throughout the remainder of this season, if not by January.

Might there be the possibility of one or two coming in? I’m not sure that is something Celtic are in desperate need of to see us through this campaign unless there are departures.

One player who has been mentioned as coming in is Steven Gerrard. Personally, I can’t see any advantage to bringing him to Celtic at this stage.

We have a midfield more than capable of winning the title, double and treble. Had European football been on the cards after Christmas I might have understood, but that remains an unlikely possibility.

Right now Celtic need to carry on the charge with the team we do have. As I said before, we have a lot of fringe players who will need to either need to get an opportunity or move on temporarily or permanently.

This size of squad is not sustainable particularly if you want youth to flourish. So expect some exits as this team continues to grow.

As for Rugby Park tonight? Three points please Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

129 years, injuries and that gap

skysports-mikael-lustig-ankle-injury-celtic-v-inverness_3824676Celtic restored their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership on Saturday to 10 points with a 3-0 victory over Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Despite the Hoops consistency in the league this season, Thistle have been the only team to take points off them, a 2-2 draw in September.

Under Brendan Rodgers, Celtic continue to make progress whilst dominating their domestic opponents. And at the current rate of improvement, Celtic could be looking at huge gap between first and second come the end of this season.

When Caley Thistle are in the other corner, you can expect a tough challenge though. They punch well above their weight for the size of club and they never seem impaired by their own league position when playing the Champions.

Thistle weren’t exactly oozing class at Celtic Park right enough. They were certainly playing a physical game though.

You can argue that they went about playing that way to disrupt Celtic’s flow, but that’s when you rely on the referee doing his job. However, this is Scottish football and you could turn blue holding your breath waiting for that to happen.

It took a long time for the match official to book Greg Tansey who had been at it all game. In the end he would see red and deservedly so.

Celtic continued to make strides, adjusting their personnel when required. Leigh Griffiths got a rare start and scored into the bargain, but not before Scott Sinclair scored his 9th league goal of the season.

Tom Rogic capped off a victory with the third after coming off the bench. All of the goals came in the second half with Rodgers’ game plan being disrupted by the injury to Mikael Lustig.

The Swedish defender went off early in the first half after taking a knock on the ankle. On came Emilio Izaguirre to left back and Stuart Armstrong dropped into right back with the Bhoys shifting from three to four in defence.

As unconventional as this was, Armstrong didn’t shirk his duties. In fact he imposed himself in attack as much as defence, playing a wing back role which drew a comparison from his manager to the ex-Brazilian star, Cafu.

I’m not so sure I’d have gone as far to say that, but Armstrong was brilliant against Thistle and he continues to make a steady impact for Rodgers. Despite being faced with an early injury, a forced tactical change, a player out of position and a tough tackling opponent, Celtic brought home a solid victory.

Going into the international break on a high is always good, but with injuries to Scott Brown and Mikael Lustig there was immediate concern. Brown is said to be fine and still in contention for Scotland duty but Lustig is out for Sweden.

The Swede has dealt with injuries well this last year so Rodgers will be hoping to have him back for the next match against Kilmarnock. At the very least, back in time for face Barcelona.

walfrid_brotherbOn Sunday, Celtic celebrated 129 years since they were founded. The date relates to the meeting that took place in St Mary’s church hall in Calton, Glasgow on that day in 1887.

This was the beginning of Celtic Football Club and as far back as I can remember, I have always created my own mental image of that meeting. So important was this meeting that when at school, some friends would speak proudly of their ties to the church, the school, the street or even the area.

My parents were both from Calton, went to St Mary’s school and regularly attended the church in their youth, but they rarely talked about this moment in Celtic’s history. I guess when you’ve grown up there, you don’t have to talk about it because you are already part of it.

Still, for me this was always a proud association with the area and still is today. Calton may be a different place these days, but my routes from both sides of the family are steeped in this area just as they are for many other families in the Celtic community.

All Celtic families though, regardless of where they are from originally, can ponder about that meeting all those years ago in that church hall and what effect it has had on their lives today. It has changed all of our lives for sure.

Happy Birthday Celtic Football Club.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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

Crunch match in Germany

Celtic go into tonight’s Champions League match with three important domestic wins behind them. Those results have seen Brendan Rodgers’ side into the League Cup Final as well as extending their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership to nine points with one game at hand.

On the European front though it has been a mixture of fortunes for the Hoops in Group C. A heavy defeat in their opening match against Barcelona, a heroic score draw at home to Manchester City and a disappointing defeat whilst hosting Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 3.

This evening, Celtic face Borussia Mönchengladbach once more and despite the inconsistent domestic form of the Germans, they have proven to be a more the more effective side head-to-head with the Hoops. After beating the Bhoys 0-2 at Celtic Park, ‘Gladbach will be looking for a similar, if not better result at Borussia Park.

Since the Celtic Park game, they go into this game with one win, one draw and one defeat from their domestic matches. Now the onus is on Celtic to get something out of this match or you would feel this would be the end of their European hopes.

There is nothing to say that Celtic can’t fair better in Germany than they did at Celtic Park. Even though the Germans were better organised and effective on the ball, I didn’t think Celtic played to their best on that night.

However, Celtic are without a back up striker in Leigh Griffiths, a left back in Kieran Tierney and two centre backs in Kolo Toure and Jozo Simunovic. When you are stepping into a win or bust game then this isn’t the ideal situation.

Mikael Lustig could step into central defence alongside Erik Sviatchenko, but that would mean playing Cristian Gamboa at right back. That would be a gamble and he’s had about as much match time as Emilio Izaguirre who will step into the left back berth.

Eoghan O’Connell could play in at centre back, but he is in the same boat as the two back up full backs in that he hasn’t kicked a ball for much of the season. It will be a big ask whoever steps into this match for Celtic.

With the odds now firmly stacked against Brendan Rodgers, particularly in this game, there is nothing to lose. He may as well just go for it and give Mönchengladbach a run for their money if he can.

Third place was the only realistic target and the German side are the team who stand in Celtic’s way. Beating them in Germany is the only way Rodgers will have any chance of seeing Celtic in Europe after Christmas.

I wasn’t expecting miracles from Celtic this season in Europe. The most important thing was getting into the Champions League after a two year absence and we got their.

I’d be happy if Celtic went for the jugular tonight and got beat. At least we will have had a go unlike the match at Celtic Park.

Whatever happens this evening, it can be built upon for next season.

Hail! Hail!!

Stevie Mac

Hangover at Hampden

On Sunday afternoon I watched Celtic take on the new Rangers for the fourth time in Scottish football history. It was the third meeting between the two clubs in domestic cup competitions, of which all have been semi finals at Hampden.

Having lost their first ever league clash against Celtic in September significantly, Mark Warburton was planning for damage limitation. Celtic on the other hand were looking to bounce back from a home defeat in the Champions League. 

Each club is experiencing very different fortunes right now. The importance of this game was high but perhaps not as even as the Scottish media made out.

For starters, this Rangers side are still way off the pace of where their friends in the press will tell you they are. Not only that, off the field they remain an absolute disaster, not that you’ll read about it.

Celtic on the other hand have the kind of problems other Scottish teams can only dream of. Playing in Europe is one of them, who to spend a few million on might be another. 

Despite Celtic’s dominance at Hampden they lacked a cutting edge and a bit of luck. We can talk about Craig Thomson’s refereeing and diabolical decisions but I’d really rather not – I don’t have the time or energy today. 

On a good Sunday this should have been 3, 4 or 5-0 to Celtic. They were hardly troubled whilst at the same time not as effective as they have been this season. 

European hangover? Most likely, but it’s still a cup competition and it crossed my mind a couple of times during the match if Celtic might just blow it. 

Thankfully they didn’t. Leigh Griffiths’ effervescence was instrumental in the second half and he assisted Moussa Dembele with the winner.

There were notable performances from few but Matt Gilks kept his team in it for a while only to be outdone by Dembele’s nutmeg. I’ll save my main praise for Scott Brown who didn’t stop passing, running and tackling like a true captain.

So the final will be contested between Scotland’s two best clubs. Should be interesting. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

Climate control

It was a game I felt Celtic could win. In the end it was a game that Celtic never really turned up for.

I watched the match, the post match interviews, listened to the post match analysis and took in all of the viewpoints. I didn’t disagree with much of it at all.

Borussia Mönchengladbach, despite the loss of several first team players through injury, were the stronger team by far for the entire match. This disappointed and frustrated me immensely.

After going for the jugular against Manchester City, I expected more of the same from Celtic against the Germans. But Germans being Germans they outclassed Celtic in every area of the park with efficiency.

This wasn’t a thumping. This was more of a lesson in better use of the ball, movement and positioning.

Celtic played like the away side all night with the supporters the only element that suggested otherwise. The Germans strolled through Celtic Park like it was a walk in the Rhineland.

Personally, I wasn’t under any illusions about the gap between our two nations and their top flight football leagues. However, I thought I had seen enough so far from Celtic this season to get a result on Wednesday night.

Brendan Rodgers summed it up simply by saying “they were better than us”. He wasn’t wrong either and even he pointed out that that is the level Celtic must aspire to.

I’m fairly certain in time, Celtic will be playing at a better level under Brendan Rodgers. In fact they already are, but we are still off the pace for the Champions League.

Improvement will come at a cost and will need to be done within budget. Playing in Scotland does not help that situation, particularly when many clubs lack the financial input to get near Celtic.

Celtic are a big club in a small pond. I have no doubts that in a bigger pond, Celtic would be able to cut it.

Many outside of Scotland disagree because they base their decision upon how they see Scottish football. What these people fo not realise is that Celtic have the fan base, stadium, marketing and anything else you care to mention that in a wealthier climate would do very, very well.

Scotland is not that climate. I don’t believe that Scotland will ever be that climate either.

My home country can aspire to many things, but when it comes to football it is a marshy landscape. So for Celtic, they must do all they can to survive in Scotland’s financial climate whilst flying the flag in Europe until a solution can be found.

Right now, Brendan Rodgers will be seeing the club through the rest of this group stage and assessing what he needs to improve upon that. Whatever is available he will get, but we will have to wait and see if it is enough.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie mac