Sinclair breaks Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nae luck wee man. Thanks for missing though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Mystic Mick

He called it, I wasn’t buying it. In the end big Mick was right though. 

Moussa Dembele’s name wasn’t all over this match in terms of minutes on the park. He was the orchestrator of the move which brought about Celtic’s second penalty though which he slotted home nicely to score his first ever goal for the club. 

The big fella came at a small price, but the expectation was high. To date, and bearing in mind it’s only 3rd August, he hasn’t produced anything of note.

Co-commentator on Celtic TV, Stephen McManus, said this match had Dembele’s name written all over it. Just as he said that my mate and I exchanged puzzled glances. 

Throughout the match Big Mick was cramming so many euphemisms into his commentary we were barely holding it together as it was. To come out with this superlative about Dembele just about finished us off.

And so to the game. Celtic looked alive from the start and were making inroads. 

They lost the services of Patrick Roberts midway through the first half. For me this match had his name written all over it, but that all changed when he went off injured.

Celtic’s first goal came courtesy of a stonewall penalty. Kieran Tierney  was chopped down just inside the box and the rookie ref made no hesitation. 

The penalty from Leigh Griffiths was perfect. Not just the finish but the timing of it on the stroke of half-time.

We expected Celtic to come out and finish off the job in second half. Instead we made heavy weather of it and allowed Astana into the game. 

The warning signs were there for Celtic. So when Craig Gordon rushed out of his box to head the ball clear it was no surprise when Agim Ibraimi, one of Celtic’s Maribor tormentors from last season, would pounce upon the gaping goalmouth. 

This equaliser meant the aggregate score was also level on away goals. I was in disbelief that had Celtic found themselves in this position. 

The tie could have and should have been tied up earlier in the game. But no, no Celtic have to do it the hard way!

So the opportunity then arose for someone to step up and be the hero. The thought of extra time and penalties filled me with dread. 

When Moussa Dembele came on in the 75th minute I was so consumed with the unthinkable that I’d dismissed Mystic Mick’s prediction. Then it came like it was written on some stone tablet in Big Mick’s hometown of Lanark.

After some tidy footwork out wide and a neat interchange with Griffiths, Dembele was taken out by enemy number one Igor Shittov. For the second time in the game Astana had given away another cast iron penalty. 

Shittov walked, and not before time either. Dembele stood over the penalty spot in the second minute of injury time and tucked home a brilliant penalty.

If someone had told me before kick off that Celtic would score two penalties I wouldn’t have believed them. As it is I’m still processing Mystic Mick’s prediction!

Now Celtic are in the pot for Friday’s Champions League Playoff draw. The opponents for that round could be Dinamo Zagreb, Ludogorets, FC Copenhagen, Dundalk or Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Hapoel replaced Legia Warsaw on that list following Olympiakos’ exit at the hands of the Israeli Champions. You could say a bullet dodged but the gun is still very much loaded.

The most important thing is Celtic are through. Now it’s time to open the cheque book and draft in players to play in European competition and move on the rest. 

Hail! Hail! 

Stevie Mac

Momentum

Since arriving at Celtic, Brendan Rodgers has cut a very calm and patient figure. He hasn’t overreacted to the press or the supporters despite any criticism received or expectations made known.

Instead the new Celtic manager has eased himself into the job whilst dealing with the instant pressures that come with the Celtic job. These pressures consist mainly of assessing a bloated squad, trying to qualify for the Champions League and of course satisfying needy supporters with new players and spectacular football.

None of these targets have been met just yet as it remains an ongoing process for the manager. Changes are taking place incrementally as the summer progresses though.

The squad still requires trimming and we are half way through qualification for the Champions League. There has been an admission from Brendan Rodgers though that the club require about four new players which suggests he has a better idea of his current squad’s capabilities.

There hasn’t been any further news on player exits at the club at senior level thought it emerged yesterday that Scott Allan was on his way to Rotherham. That hasn’t been confirmed yet, but he is one of many midfielders at the club barely seeing the light of day.

Speculation surrounds quite a few though and in order for growth something has to give sooner rather than later. You need space in your squad to allow youth to emerge and if you’re filling your squad with players that won’t play then it’s time for a clear out.

Injuries continue to blight the managers defensive issues but he remains focussed on the task at hand and isn’t showing signs of negativity. This is good because despite being a slow build, everyone at the club appears to be positive.

This evening Celtic host FC Astana in the second leg of the Champions League Third Qualifying Round. Returning to Glasgow with a respectable 1-1 away draw last week has set Brendan Rodgers up nicely for Celtic Park tonight.

Celtic showed great character in that first leg despite receiving some ‘treatment’ from Astana’s players throughout the match. All of which went largely unnoticed by the Italian referee.

To come back from a goal down was a positive response, particularly at this stage in the season and whilst your squad is unsettled. In previous seasons Celtic have benefited from keeping their squad together but this squad will start look very different as the team moves forward.

It all seems relatively quiet right now, but I’m fairly certain that should Celtic progress in Europe the transition will begin to gather momentum. Patience, not at the core of most supporters, appears to be forefront of Brendan Rodgers’ approach.

Celtic will have to invest to progress though. It’s a no brainer.

The club have stumbled in qualifying for the last two years. It was three years ago that the club last made the group phase and by the skin of their teeth.

That team were vastly lacking quality signings. This was reflected in our final standing as we finished rock bottom of our group.

So if Celtic make it past Astana tonight, the signings need to be brought in for the knockout phase, not just the group phase. Moves and changes are immeinent.

Tonight’s lineup should be interesting though as will FC Astana’s attitude. Both teams are up for this but with a noisy Celtic Park there is an opportunity to finish this team off.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Tears from Astana

The campaign to have Leigh Griffiths banned from next week’s Champion League Qualifier has failed. UEFA threw out FC Astana’s complaint and despite the social media campaign they ran, I’ve yet to see this as a red card incident.

Firstly, Igor Shitov deliberately obstructed Leigh’s run into the box, extending his arms backwards. The two entered into a tussle with the Celtic striker ‘winning’ and Shitov going to ground.

Griffiths appears to raise is hands during the tussle but so too does Shitov. At no time is there a punch in the footage that I have seen.

The smart thing to do of course is to keep your hands down but neither player did. Shitov went to ground easily and Griffiths was shown a yellow card.

For a player whose team were happy to dish it out for over 90 minutes, it is somewhat ironic that Astana chose to cry wolf. The whole incident was handbags and the other way to look at it was that Shitov was trying to get Griffiths sent off.

It’s a desperate quest by a the Kazakh Champions and one which will stir things up for the return leg at Celtic Park. Astana make the long journey to Glasgow with the only disadvantage for them being the time difference.

The first leg kicked off at 3pm Celtic Park time but for Astana it will be like playing in the early hours of the morning. Even still, Celtic must be vigilant against the attacking threat posed by Astana and of course, their tough tactics and play acting.

Astana got away with quite a few challenges in Kazakhstan. Most of that was down to the Italian referee so we can only hope the official for the second leg won’t be so lenient.

I don’t expect an easy game despite playing at home and on grass. The job is half done and we have an away goal but we need to be sharp and take our chances.

With the turnaround seen in Kazakhstan, I feel confident in the players and Brendan Rodgers to step things up. Saturday will allow some other players to get a run out but no risks will be taken with injuries and fitness currently affecting the squad.

Barcelona and Celtic meet in Dublin and despite the level of opposition in this International Champions Cup match, Brendan Rodgers won’t be putting too many players at risk. Kolo Toure is said to be remaining in Glasgow to work on his fitness.

Whether that means he won’t be available for Wednesday as well remains to be seen. I can only imagine he would be pitched in against Astana if Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O’Connell or Efe Ambrose get injured.

Should Celtic progress to the Champions League Play Off round on Wednesday night, further moves and changes are likely. Things are moving forward a bit at a time as I expected they might.

We are seeing some progress for the first time in a long time. That has to continue in the games that lie ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Honours even

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

Time to tough it out 

As Celtic fans we are all concerned about the injury crisis at the club, no arguments there. Similarly, we are also distraught at the lack of cover there is for central defence.

Celtic are currently is Kazakhstan, preparing to face FC Astana in a Champions League qualifier this afternoon. Alarm bells have been ringing because Brendan Rodgers is short of capable options to play centre half.

Jozo Simunovic, Dedryck Boyata and now Erik Sviatchenko are all injured. Charlie Mulgrew’s failure to sign a new contract has also shortened the list of able candidates.

Recent addition Kolo Toure wasn’t just late to the party, but not fit for duty either. Although he has now been registered in time for the home leg as a wildcard.

So for this long trip to the Middle East (you know the Central Asian country?), Celtic’s second trip there in three years, there are few options. The only regular centre back is Efe Ambrose and we are all aware of the potential risk involved with his inclusion in crucial matches.

That leaves Mikael Lustig, who has played in central defence for Celtic in the past, and the slightly less experienced Eoghan O’Connell. I have no problem playing these two whereas with Efe, I have a huge problem.

My heart says Lustig and O’Connell but my head tells me Brendan may give Efe the nod. The only other option could be that he played all three in a flat back formation, but I doubt even Brendan would be so bold in an away match this early on.

The tie itself will be played on an artificial surface though far superior to the one we saw in Gibraltar. The question for Brendan is will he be planning to go for a goal over there or tough it out for the return leg at Celtic Park?

FC Astana are not to be underestimated and given Celtic’s first leg performance against Lincoln Red Imps, I don’t fancy our chances in Kazakhstan. Neil Lennon lost out there in 2013 to Shakhter Karagandy.

The home leg was hard-fought and saw the Hoops through to the group stage but that was a disastrous campaign and Lennon’s last season. Now we are at the beginning of a new era under another Northern Irishman.

We all have high hopes for Brendan but there has been a debate going on amongst Celtic supporters about a lack of transfer activity this summer. That supporters have been duped by the board and the new manager won’t have much to spend after all.

This is where caution is required. I’m as edgy as the next fan, but I am also a patient person (most of the time).

For some fans, their patience was worn thin during the Ronny Deila reign and I can’t argue about. With Brendan Rodgers, fans want to see signings that match the ambitions and stature of the new manager.

I get that, I really do. We could have done so much more to cover ourselves for these qualifiers.

Our squad is huge though and still requires a short back and sides. Brendan is using this squad as it should be and by doing so, further changes will happen.

We’re all concerned that the club are running the risk of another failed Champions League campaign. I said to my own friends last season that if you were to put the same group of players under new management I would be interesting to see the results.

Right now I think that is where we are at. Reviewing the rather large group of players which has been inherited by Brendan Rodgers.

This doesn’t sort out our predicament of an ailing squad though. Aside from departures and defensive injuries, Kristoffer Ajer and Stefan Johansen didn’t make the trip to Kazakhstan.

There is an ample squad size though for Brendan Rodgers to work with for this leg. I’m not predicting a win for this game, even with FC Astana’s top man out injured.

They proved their worth on home ground last season in the Champions League drawing all three matches to superior teams. Even gaining an away victory in Turkey.

The bottom line here though is that both Brendan Rodgers and his team have an opportunity to improve upon the last away match and against better opposition. With every game that goes by we should get stronger and as the squad is reshaped we will see comings and goings as deemed necessary by Brendan.

A defeat over in Kazakhstan would not be total surprise nor would it be a total disaster. Unless of course it was a significant failure.

Competing at this stage in the football calendar is tough enough without having to travel almost 4000 miles. And that isn’t even taking into consideration the time difference.

Still, I think Celtic are capable of a draw and we will should see a step up in terms of performance since the last round. Every week that goes by, the team will be getting sharper and nearing that phase where their season is really kicking off in terms of fitness.

It is still July and at this stage most European clubs are still enjoying friendlies. Well Celtic are doing the same whilst trying to save themselves for these ridiculous qualifying rounds which are quite frankly a sham for all league winners.

So go out there this afternoon and give it your all Bhoys. We’ll be cheering you on predominantly from our armchairs but you’ll have the hardcore travellers as well.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac