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’s City Pride

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Patrick Roberts of Celtic (L) fouls Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City (R) during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City FC and Celtic FC at Etihad Stadium on December 6, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Celtic bowed out of the Champions League last night with a 1-1 draw. Brendan Rodgers took his squad to the Etihad Stadium in Manchester to face Pep Guardiola’s side one more time before bringing down their European curtain for this season.

The game itself had no impact on qualification places. With Barcelona qualifying in first, City in second and ‘Gladbach in third there was nothing to play for but pride for the Hoops.

And Celtic did just that with City loanee Patrick Roberts opening the scoring within 4 minutes. City equalised on 8 minutes courtesy of Kelechi Iheanacho.

Despite no more goals for the remainder of the game, there were plenty of talking points. Top of that was Celtic’s performance.

You could argue that with the group placings already decided there was nothing to contest. When Scottish and English teams collide there is everything to play for though.

With Guardiola’s players fresh from some weekend controversy and already qualified for the next round, he made some changes. It was mentioned throughout the match on BT Sport that this was a second string Manchester City side but I will come to that later.

In all fairness to Chris Sutton, as much as he is quick to criticise Celtic players for not doing something right, he was equally adamant to point out the talent that was on the park for City, not who wasn’t. I must say, Sutton is growing on me as a pundit and what spot on when stating the facts.

I wouldn’t say he is biased, he will tell you when things aren’t right in his opinion. I will disagree with him from time-to-time, but he ironed out the facts promptly on BT Sport which is more than could be said for the commentators .

Ian Darke and Robbie Savage weren’t offering too much in the way of praise about Celtic’s goal. Their focus appeared to be more on the constant changes Guardiola makes, this game being no exception, rather than the complimenting the impact one of City’s own players had made on them.

In contrast, when City equalised the Darke and Savage were a little more buoyant. They weren’t too critical of a lapse in Celtic’s defending or that Craig Gordon should probably have made a better effort to save thea shot which was pretty much at him.

Still, by this point in the game it was looking like it could be another 3-3 affair and was developing into a great match. What a way to end our European run that would have been to have won it.

Celtic were in fine form in Manchester. To go down there with no European progression is a tough motivator but the Bhoys gave it their all regardless.

As I said before, playing an English side is generally all the motivation Celtic need. Ironically, the only English Manchester City player on the park was actually playing for Celtic.

Speaking of which, all the talent that was supposedly left of the sidelines by City were replaced by younger players. They may have been up against Celtic’s close to strongest team, but leaving value aside for one moment, the age and experience of the Celtic team wasn’t given the credit it deserved.

The average age of the Celtic starting line-up was 25 years old. City’s average player age in their starting line-up came in at 26 years old.

Yet all I kept hearing was City’s young side getting to know each other and Pep’s system. Is Brendan Rodgers in any better position at Celtic given he has been in his job the same length of time?

They failed to mention how much some of these City players are on or how much was paid to acquire their services as well. The ‘young’ lad Leroy Sané cost more than the whole Celtic team alone when you add all the fees up.

However , I digress from what was an entertaining match. For Celtic fans this was a very positive nights entertainment.

From back to front I thought Celtic were great. The passing and movement were impressive.

The team looked sharp and fluid. This was a good sign for the future.

My key men on the night were Jozo Simunovic, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic and James Forrest. I thought Emilio Izaguirre had a busy night, but he dealt with the pressure well considering.

Erik Sviatchenko looked a little off the pace once or twice, but he too made some timely interventions. Mikael Lustig was steady, but also tested by the young Sané at times meaning he couldn’t get forward to support or serve Roberts.

Roberts himself was in and out of the game. Despite scoring, his impact was not consistent but still a valuable contribution without a doubt.

Coming off the bench was Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths. Both players could have won the game for Celtic but City had their chances to do the same.

One thing is for certain about each players performance. Had they been playing more recently rather than on the sidelines, both of those strikes could have been in the back of the net.

All in all it was a fair result where either team could have nicked it. That’s despite the match officials having a poor game.

Celtic should have had penalty when Roberts was manhandled on the edge and inside the box. Worst still were the handful of offsides at either end of the park that never were.

Lots of positives for Brendan Rodgers to think about. A good crack at the top flight which he could have been luckier with but this was a tough group.

Take what we have learned from this campaign into the next. A fine effort Bhoys.

A final note to the commentary team. Despite the blatant focus on Manchester City, Ian Darke found time to mention not just the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s success in the European Cup in Lisbon, but the proximity of that home-grown squad to Celtic Park and the fact that they were the first British side to win the competition.

Credit where it is due.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Brendan’s turn

When Neil Lennon took charge of Celtic in 2010, it was a gamble for the club. The former Celtic player and captain was hugely popular, maybe even a legend, but off the back of a disastrous period under Tony Mowbray he was also a risk. 

Neil didn’t have any managerial experience to speak of. Yes, he had done some coaching and knew the club, the history, the supporters and the city very well.

That said, Celtic were in a state of flux and needed to improve and soon. After a caretakers stint, Neil was given the job permanently . 

He promised to bring back the thunder and he did manage that even if it was only briefly. He also made moves in the transfer market which were warmly welcomed initially.

Success would come his way, but not without enduring one of the most turbulent times in Scottish football history. That period should always be applied when looking at Lennon’s time in charge and what he was subjected to.

Neil was held to his word about bringing the thunder back and he did. That peaked after beating Barcelona 2-1 at Celtic Park to reach the last 16 of the Champions League.

It came at a time when Celtic were celebrating 125 years of history. In contrast, their rivals across the city had just collapsed in every way possible.

There was a poetic feel to this given the personal abuse Lennon received during his time at Celtic as player, coach and manger. That he reigned at Celtic during the demise of a rival club whose supporters had done everything in their power to make his life a misery in every way imaginable.

And so, bringing Celtic back to the top once more and into the European light in such a stunning way was fitting for such a guy. He did so with a threadbare squad as well as his bench on that evening showed.

And yet, it was from the bench that victory was secured. With Gary Hooper and James Forrest both sidelined Miku played up front with Georgios Samaras playing just of him.

Tony Watt’s will be hailed forever. Victor Wanyama’s with equal importance if not the same level of celebration on the night!

Celtic maybe without Leigh Griffiths but we have Moussa Dembele who is enjoying his Celtic career as much as we are right now. Rodgers also has a stronger squad in terms of numbers. 

Now, we hope that he might mark the first of many moments in his Celtic career by getting a result against Barcelona at Celtic Park as well. It c as n happen.

The circumstances are different of course. It isn’t Brendan’s first European tournament as a manager and he has more experience than his predecessor.

He is at the beginning of his Celtic tenure. There are also greater things ahead I’m sure.

Still, if he could get a victory on Wednesday night at Paradise, he’d be well on his way to greater things. Borussia Mönchengladbach are still capable of upsetting the apple cart, but Celtic won’t achieve anything if they don’t have a go.

Exiting Europe would not be the end of the dream. This is only the beginning of the Rodgers era.

There is more to come, you can be sure of that. Bring on Wednesday and our old friends, Barcelona.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

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

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

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