Third qualifying round in the Qarabağ

Celtic marched into the third qualifying round of the Champions League last night with 4-1 victory. There was an initial scare for Ronny Deila though as the Hoops conceded a sloppy goal in the 7th minute.

I’m sure there were a few fans out there last night who had a bad feeling at the moment that ball pinged past Craig Gordon. It is easy to be drawn into doom when error is made and lets face it this was an ‘error’.

Celtic were dominant throughout the match though. The first half was a little sloppy as Celtic strived to control the ball on the artificial surface.

Stjarnan didn’t really make better use of it to be honest. The ball didn’t zip along the surface as quickly as we are used to seeing on grass.

Equally, the ball appeared to require extra touches to control and move it around. This all contributed to the tacky play we saw last night.

Aside from that 7th minute opener, Celtic were still the team with all the possession though. Then came the equaliser courtesy of a Nir Bitton header.

The corner from Stefan Johansen found the head of Bitton who finished from close range. Stjarnan’s goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen came for it but was impeded by his own team mate who had fallen right in front of him but Bitton was too far in front of him to be beaten anyway.

The timing was good for Celtic who despite going a goal behind continued to press. After half-time Celtic were beginning to look even more in control and it wasn’t long before they took the lead.

Before the match, I think a few fans were questioning the selection of Charlie Mulgrew. Was he a better choice to play the defensive role rather Emilio Izaguirre for this game?

He certainly wasn’t think defensively in the 48th minute when he latched on to a square ball. As the ball arrived at his feet he drilled it low and hard to the goalkeepers far post to give Celtic a 2-1 lead with a superb finish.

The next goal came from Leigh Griffiths who had come on as a substitute in the 62nd minute for Stuart Armstrong who had been having a fine game himself. Johansen slipped the ball through to Gary Mackay-Steven in the box who squared for Griffiths and finished unchallenged from close range

That goal was a first for Griffiths in the European stage. To retain a place he will want to be doing that a lot more.

I had expected him to start last night but Nadir Çiftçi was given the nod. The Turk offers a different style of play to Griffiths but was largely unsuccessful in this match.

For once I actually agree with what Chris Sutton said in the studio. That Çiftçi has more body strength and can be more involved but for me this was a game Griffiths was better suited to.

There was an element to Çiftçi’s game last night that I didn’t enjoy. A series of lightweight dives were visible and even if the referee didn’t see them as I did, I’d prefer that he cuts out the diving or does it more convincingly.

I do think he will be a good player for Celtic, but that will take a bit of time. I can understand Deila utilising him now because of his domestic ban but Griffiths is in the mood right now and should be given that chance.

To wrap things up, Johansen got his name on the score sheet as well. A through ball from substitute Tom Rogić found Mackay-Steven who laid it on for Mulgrew and squared for Johansen who had made a run into the box and a good finish.

The final whistle cam shortly after that and it was job done. That 7th minute scare was a distant memory though I am sure Ronny Deila will bring that up to Dedryck Boyata who was the main offender in that incident.

Celtic have one more friendly before they face their challengers in the next round of the Champions League. French Ligue 1 outfit Rennes come to Celtic Park on Saturday and it will be another opportunity for some players to sharpen up.

Come Wednesday, Qarabağ visit Glasgow in the first leg of the third qualifying round at Celtic Park. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that this encounter will offer a more spirited opponent.

For starters, the Azerbaijani team have far more experience in European competition that the Icelanders did. Only last season, they competed in the Europa League group phase.

They were pipped to second place by eventual finalists Dnipro in group F. Unlike Celtic, that would be the end of their season in Europe.

However, like Celtic they had also gone through qualifying rounds for the Champions League that year beating Valletta 5-0  on aggregate then succumbing to Salzburg 3-2, who would eventually go on to face Celtic in group D of the Europa League.

Both teams will be determined to make the play off round and hopefully the Champions League group stage. Celtic made the play off last year having been handed a second chance thanks to Legia Warsaw’s error.

Despite that they still lost and parachuted into the Europa League. With both Celtic and Qarabağ missing out on the Champions League last season, this will be a hotly contested two legged affair.

Qarabağ appear to have the ability to score away from home though not always convincing at home. Their group F stats from last year are W1 D3 L2 having qualified for the group stage on away goals 1-1 against FC Twente.

There is a stubbornness and unpredictability about this team. They do have good experience in European competition though.

Their squad is mainly composed of Azerbaijani players but they also have three Brazilian’s amongst a few other nationalities. The most significant of these appears to be Reynaldo who scored in last nights away win over FK Rudar.

He will be the one to watch but there are plenty of other candidates in that team willing to make a name for themselves. That is why Celtic will need to be at their best on Wednesday night and take full advantage of playing at home.

It will be a totally different type of game I am sure and certainly a more physical encounter. Not something Celtic are unfamiliar with.

For now it is job done and on with the preparations. Let’s hope to see some other players get a chance against Rennes.

It was good to see Stiliyan Petrov on the studio panel for last nights game. He was one of my favourite Celtic players of the modern day.

Although I was deeply disappointed in him and his decision to leave Celtic in 2006 it is very good to see him in good health and talking about Celtic.

There was also a nice message from Stjarnan about the good experience against against Celtic and the people of Scotland. They excluded the Daily Record from that thank you which is always nice to hear.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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The wind of change

The significance of events between 2014-2015 at Celtic could turn out to be a pivotal time for the club. At the beginning of 2014, the league title looked destined for Celtic Park and fans were in for another anti-climatic finish for a second consecutive season.

There were many fixtures still to be played but Celtic would tie up the league the earliest it has been done since before World War II. Having exited Europe before Christmas 2013, Celtic had maintained an unbeaten run and record amount of shut-outs by Fraser Forster (setting a new record in the process), both of which would grind to a halt against Aberdeen, their closest rivals.

In the January transfer window, Celtic bought Leigh Griffiths, a player whose off-field antics did not resonate well among the fan base, mine in particular. The timing of the move seemed unnecessary given that the league looked to be coming Celtic’s way, but he was a relatively cheap acquisition for a proven goal scorer and Celtic had limited attacking options having already lost Gary Hooper the previous summer and still without an ample replacement.

He didn’t disappoint either and since then has proven himself valuable but I can’t change my disapproval of the time. In the same window, Stefan Johansen joined the ranks and displayed the kind of energy you expect from an attacking midfielder.

His ability was recognisable as soon as he set foot in the team but there would be more come from him in the season that followed. However, it was the announcement that Johan Mjallby would depart that summer that became the focal point of Celtic’s future.

This raised concern and speculation about Lennon’s situation. With his assistant coach eyeing the exit door some felt Lennon would follow Mjallby but I wasn’t totally convinced at the time.

Lennon later announced that he would also be leaving and I wondered how long this had been coming. He had endured the worst of times as a footballer and head coach whilst at Celtic.

Death threats, bomb threats and physical and verbal attacks by opposing fans surrounded the Northern Irishman because of his nationality, religion and club of choice. These acts remain a cancer in Scotland and also its greatest shame in the modern day.

It is therefore quite astounding that Lennon left having won the biggest of battle of all – over his oppressors. He overcame all of it but I am sure the pain inflicted upon him and his family will remain forever.

As it was Lennon departed on a high having secured the league title for a third consecutive season. In the wake of his exit, Celtic are said to have courted many names, but I saw most of them as pure speculation.

I don’t doubt that initial contact was made with some potential candidates but to what extent is anyone’s guess. The man they settled on in the end was supposedly not first choice.

Realistically, a club won’t always get their first choice so that never bothered me in the slightest. In fact, if Celtic’s first choice was Roy Keane, as many have said (including himself), then I think the club dodged a bullet.

Celtic cast a net knowing that they had limited funds to offer in terms of salary, as well as for purchases in the transfer market. Yet it is no surprise that so many names are banded about given the culture, history and fan base that Celtic Football Club possess.

I think most would agree that despite the lure of such a big name, Roy Keane could have been a disastrous choice. Outside of the “favourite”, Celtic were looking at young, up and coming coaches rather than older experienced ones.

Ex-Celts would top that list if course but the man they would go for was unknown to all. Ronny Deila was a young, up and coming coach for sure but nobody had heard of him.

Again, that didn’t concern me to be honest and I was intrigued and somewhat surprised by Celtic’s bold move. This was out of character for the club but the more I read about what Deila had done since he moved into coaching, the more interested I became in who he was and he could do.

As it turned out, it would be no easy ride as some Celtic managers have found out but I remained a supporter of Ronny and his plans. He came from left field and went about getting his plan up and running but he faced many challenges.

Despite losing one of the club’s best players in Fraser Forster, the club had acquired Craig Gordon as a replacement but having been out of the game for so long could he fill the shoes of his predecessor? Deila would seek further additions to aid his quest but he would largely be assessing the current squad including Stefan Johansen who had worked under him at Strømsgodset.

Now you can make your own deduction from this story but it was speculated that Deila had initially been earmarked as a coach to come in and work with Lennon. Whether there is any truth in that or not is immaterial because the one thing we can safely assume is that Celtic had done their homework on Deila.

With the first season not even over you just don’t know how far this relationship can go but so far he has weathered the storm and come out fighting. There is never any guarantee of success when you appoint a new head coach so there is always risk.

Celtic didn’t opt for this Norwegian coach as a stab in the dark, but because his methods were fresh and new. And having watched Deila endure a slow start with high expectations, disgruntled fans and a less than supportive media you would have to say the club have stuck by their man.

He has won over most of his opponents, if not all of them. Wth the possibility of a treble in one of the most competitive Scottish domestic seasons in recent years, it will put to bed all of those doubters should that dream come to fruition.

The expectations placed upon Deila have been huge but it is no different to any other manager before him. Europe was a steep learning curve and in reality, it turned out to be a fairly positive experience for himself and the players.

Despite missing out on the Champions League, a tournament Celtic were sure to have been slaughtered in, the Europa League was an opportunity for these players to bed in under a new regime on continental soil. Reaching the last 32 was a boost for Deila and the fans and it even served up an old Italian foe.

The tie with Inter Milan gave everyone a taste of what we could expect should Celtic reach the group stage of the Champions League next season. And that has to be a target for Deila and the club because a domestic treble this season would provide the kind of momentum required to lead the team into the early European qualification round in the summer.

That said this season isn’t over as it was by this time last year, despite Aberdeen losing their own momentum in recent weeks. A gap has opened up in the Scottish Premiership but Celtic are not at a safe distance just yet.

The last eight games for Celtic will be a test of their mental and physical strength at this stage of the season, continuing today at Inverness. The squad is extremely strong right now a competition for places remains tight.

Its a healthy situation for Celtic currently and when you cast your mind back to September and October, it serves as a reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. The efforts Ronny has put in this season can only blossom in the next.

He will want to ensure he is well equipped for a Champions League quest and there is no doubt he wants it as much as the board do for financial reasons and the fans do for entertainment value. Ronny himself knows the level each player must perform at to compete with the best in Europe and the world.

This is what he has spent all season trying to drill into the players he inherited and drafted in. The players have responded to him and will be ready to take the lessons from this season into the next one.

Keeping the squad together will be the priority but a few are certain to leave which is only natural. Four of the current crop at the club are on loan whilst seven of Celtic’s are also out on loan to other clubs so there will be some movement on that front for certain.

Deila would love to keep Jason Denayer and John Guidetti, both on loan from Manchester City, but they remain uncommitted. Denayer has put in a solid season and I’m sure another season long loan would be beneficial for all parties, but Denayer has not hidden his desire to return to City.

Guidetti on the other hand made a blistering start to his loan spell only to lose his way on the park amid speculation about a permanent move. Celtic brokered a deal with City but the Swede wasn’t on board and instead made umpteen references in the media about playing for other clubs in Europe.

This led to fans turning against him and gladly seeing him out of the team. He also spat the dummy out recently during the League Cup Final when after James Forrest won a penalty, he refused to hand Guidetti the ball.

At this level of football you don’t expect to see that kind of petulance but Guidetti capped it off by storming up the tunnel at full time only to be retrieved by Mikael Lustig. That memory is embedded in my mind and despite any desire Ronny still has of obtaining Guidetti’s signature, the Swede would have a lot of back pedalling to win over the fans once more.

The other two loanees, Mubarak Wakaso and Aleksandar Tonev are certain to return their parent clubs. Neither have held down a place this season.

Aside from Wakaso’s wonder goal against Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League, his appearances have been limited. Tonev has made even fewer appearances and became an outsider after being accused and banned for alleged racial abuse of a fellow professional despite any hard evidence.

That seven match ban pretty much put an end to his playing chances as other players were beginning to find form. Celtic stuck by the player but he effectively lost his battle in the first team.

Celtic still have to decide on the futures of their own players out on loan as well. Amido Baldé was signed as a young prospect in 2013 but has rarely been given a chance so Celtic may cut there losses with him given that his loan spells with Waasland-Beveren and Hapoel Tel Aviv have not been prosperous.

Teemo Pukki and Hólmbert Friðjónsson are currently both playing at Brøndby IF with the former doing a decent job and likely to get a permanent move. Friðjónsson may also get a deal if Celtic end their interest in him though he is still on the fringes of success.

The four remaining players out on loan are could also move on with the exception of Liam Henderson. The young midfielder has put in some notable performances this season and has been loaned out for the rest of the season for experience only I would assume.

He looks as though he can do a job for Celtic but with competition for places high, he needs games to develop. Rosenberg should give him a decent level of experience to help him compete further next season.

The only other matter are the futures of Celtic’s contracted players. Commons finally sorted out his future and Van Dijk is now displaying signs of staying for a other season at the very least.

Another player back in the fold is young Tom Rogić. He went out on loan in January 2014 to Australia hoping to imprive his international chances but injury has been a thorn in his side.

There remains a glimmer of hope for the Australian midfielder. I’m sure we’d all love to see what he has to offer if he can shrug off injuries.

I read somewhere recently (possibly just a rumour) that the club may try and move Anthony Stokes on. I’m not totally against the idea to be honest but I think I’d rather see the back of guys like Derk Boerrigter first.

“Sicknote'” has been a disastrous signing for Celtic. Whilst the club have been known for unearthing gems, he certainly hasn’t been one of them.

The very fact he came with an injury tag was a risk the club must be held accountable for. There have been too many risks and I’d hate to think that the rumoured fees for these guys were all met in full given what they have failed to do for the club.

Baldé, Pukki and Boerrigter all signed four year deals and each has failed to cut it. One man on the brink of going down the same road is Stefan Šćepović.

He too signed a four year deal with Celtic, after an on/off transfer that cast a minor shadow over the deal. He hasn’t held down a regular spot in the team or provided the fire power he demonstrated at Sporting de Gijón but there remains the possibility he may still make it as a Celtic player.

Celtic have decisions to make on all of these players and cut back on waste. When I think about the players in years gone by that Celtic failed to stump up the cash for i.e. James McFadden and Steven Fletcher, it irks me that they have spent more on players at a higher risk of failure.

Time to move on the morons and motivate the worthy. Only the best will make it in Ronny’s squad.

Eight games left and a treble is in our sights. Inverness here we come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

The Winning Combination

In a season which has left many Celtic supporters shaking their heads and venting their spleen, tonight could see the club secure a last sixteen place in the Europa League. It’s been a bumpy ride for Ronny Deila but there has also been some recent progress as well.

When you consider that a large portion of fans were calling for the head of the Norwegian coach between September and October, you would think that all was lost. In reality, all Ronny Deila is guilty of is trying to forge a team of his own during a period of transition which to date sees Celtic playing in four competitions.

The club exited the Champions League qualifier’s twice but secured a group stage place in Europe’s second string club competition. As much of a disappointment as that may have been on an entertainment and financial level for all concerned, Celtic escaped what might have been a potential six game slaughter.

Instead, the Europa League has offered a “safe haven” of sorts for Ronny Deila and some of his players to cut their teeth in a group phase without losing too much face. The lower profile has drawn less attention, but provides a sufficient challenge to test your squad.

Celtic have faired well against opposition who at this moment in time are no better or worse. Astra Giurgiu have turned out to be the group’s whipping boys though it didn’t prevent  Celtic from handing them their first point in the group phase.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if they got something off Dinamo Zagreb tonight. European football is a funny game and your luck can change very quickly.

Tonight Celtic and FC Salzburg go head to head at Celtic Park. Both teams have seen their domestic fortunes change since their last meeting so this evenings result will not only help decide who is favourite to win the group, but who has improved since mid September.

In that last tie it was 2-2 and I was pretty pleased with the result. Celtic weren’t top of their game or the league and the same can be said of FC Salzburg at the time.

Celtic are far from the finished article but have improved as have Salzburg. Both teams go into tonights match as domestic league leaders.

The main worry Ronny Deila might have tonight is team selection. With some players out and some doubts, getting the right blend from the start must allow room for change later in the match.

Primary hitman John Guidetti is ineligible and by far Deila’s most potent goal threat. Stefan Scepovic and Leigh Griffiths are the alternatives though both have a combined lack of appearances, form and goals.

So it could well be fans favourite Kris Commons to provide for Celtic this evening. Despite his uncertain future at the club he’s remains a key goal threat.

His European goal tally may pale in comparison to his domestic one for Celtic (5 European, 53 domestic) but he can conjur something out of nothing. In game like tonight’s, it could be his particular ability that could decide this match and indeed Celtic’s European destiny.

As much as goals scored are important, Celtic will also need to be vigilant in defence. Doubt remains over Jason Denayer and with Mikael Lustig already out, that could mean playing Efe Ambrose.

I don’t have to say how much that scares me. Ronny could decide to play Charlie Mulgrew in defence but he hasn’t played their regularly for a long time.

So for this bhoy I’d pack that midfield to protect the defence and allow Commons or Johansen to make those forward runs.

Anthony Stokes on the left and James Forrest on the right would be my preference. In the middle of the park it will all come down to who is available come kick off.

Deila has Scott Brown, Stefan Johansen, Kris Commons and Beram Kayal to choose from. If he doesn’t have to use Charlie Mulgrew at the back he will also be in contention.

Stefan Scepovic may get the nod over Griffiths but for me the latter is the bigger goal threat. Whoever he goes with they will need service and in these games that can be in short supply.

Its a huge game for Celtic, Ronny Deila and player’s like Commons and Scepovic. Let’s hope its a memorable one.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Celtic must keep it simple.

Tonight’s match in Romania will be a tough test for Celtic. FC Astra have yet to score a point in Group D of the Europa League, but with key players out for Celtic, Ronny Deila will have to dig deep for a draw, let alone a win.

Take nothing away from Celtic these past couple of weeks they have found some form. Last Saturday they exorcised the demon of winning more than three games in a row by beating Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Celtic took full advantage of home fixtures by winning four matches in a row at Celtic Park. It is a good period for the players as they are beginning to gel but tonight, some of those players are unavailable.

John Guidetti is of course ineligible for this phase of the tournament. Kris Commons is on the sidelines as is long term injury concern, Jams Forrest.

As late as leaving Glasgow Airport, Anthony Stokes was left behind due to illness. He like most of his team mates have found a bit of form of late, his being out on the left flank.

In terms of goal keeping, defence and midfield, Celtic should be okay. The concern for me is where the goals are going to come from.

Leigh Griffiths weighed in recently with a double against Partick Thistle. His only issue is whether he gets picked or not.

The main responsibility comes from Stefan Šćepović. He got off the mark recently and has looked hungrier, but he didn’t start at the weekend.

It may well be Ronny Deila was resting him and keeping him focussed on this match in Romania. With a further two games to follow in the group stage, this group is far from over but it is a good opportunity to notch up an away win.

After half of the games played, FC Astra are currently the whipping boys of Group D and Celtic will not want to be the first opponent to give them points. This group is still wide open so picking up maximum points in Romania tonight will go a long way to helping Celtic qualify for the last sixteen.

This is only FC Astra’s second home tie in the round. Having been narrowly beaten 2-1 by Salzburg in their first home match, they will be looking for something out of this game.

Celtic won the first game over the Romanians 2-1 at Celtic Park. They received a scare late in the game when Enache scored in the 81st minute, but Celtic held on.

Tonight Celtic must be more clinical in attack and switched on in defence, particularly towards the end of the game. Celtic have not won an away game in Europe since they beat KR Reykjavik and tonight may be their best chance in this group.

The line-up for this game is important so it will be interesting to see how Ronny Deila sets up this evening. Celtic don’t need to do anything radical for this match, just keep it simple.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A good start

Ronny Deila’s players kicked off their Europa League campaign with a positive result. Despite leading twice, Celtic had to settle for a draw but it was a fair result.

Celtic started the stronger and looked good for the first goal. That came true after some nice one touch passing in the final third of the field involving captain Scott Brown, Kris Commons and finally debutant Wakaso Mubarak, curling a low drive into the far corner.

Salzburg would respond some twenty-two minutes later courtesy of a deflection. That goal came during a period when Celtic were sitting back and were duly punished, albeit cruelly.

Celtic took the lead once more in the second half through Scott Brown after he latched onto a loose ball outside the box. With space and time to breathe, Brown smacked the ball home calmly, though took a touch of a Salzburg players boot en route to goal.

Later in the second half, Celtic made attacking changes. It was inevitable given that some players, young Callum McGregor in particular, were surprisingly quiet and ineffective, though he himself would remain on the park throughout the game.

Anthony Stokes and Aleksandr Tonev replaced Stefan Šćepović and Kris Commons respectively. Whilst Commons can always conjure something out of nothing, Šćepović has yet to settle into the team though he did come extremely close to scoring a long-range effort shortly before going off.

However, Salzburg came back into the match with twelve minutes remaining. A free kick conceded by Celtic was sublimely placed into the goal by Salzburg striker Soriano.

Chances came and went toward the end of the game but it finished a stalemate. The main talking points were positive in my view, though I still question Efe Ambrose’s placement at right back.

With injuries to Lustig and Matthews, Ambrose’s experience has won over Ronny Deila. For me though, it is Darnell Fisher who should filling that position for now given Ambrose’s lackadaisical performances.

On a positive note Scott Brown’s return to the midfield was warmly welcomed in European competition. His influence and determination is important amongst these other midfield players who do not possess ability but perhaps not that same aggression and spirit.

For Callum McGregor it was not such a fortuitous night but Ronny Delia has a great deal of belief in him. I wouldn’t disagree with him either as McGregor is easily one of Celtic’s best players right now.

I save my main praise for goalkeeper Craig Gordon though. Celtic’s decision to bring him to the club (not Ronny’s) left me with mixed feelings, particularly as it meant a certain exit for “La Gran Muralla”, Fraser Forster.

Delia has given Gordon the nod and he has not let the team down. In fact, Delia said that Gordon’s influence in the dressing has been substantial.

On the field of play he evidently more vocal than Forster was and has a few years more experience as well, even though he has been out of the game for so long. He himself has indicated that he needs to improve more which is welcome, though for now he his doing a fine job.

His efforts last night kept Celtic in the game when they could quite easily have conceded. Disappointment was visible on his face at both goals but knowing that he does has room to sharpen up those reflexes and that decision-making is heartening given that he is also one of Celtic’s best players right now.

As far as the result goes I would have taken a draw before kick off. This competition may not be the Champions League but it doesn’t mean Celtic will walk it.

Ronny Deila has only obtained key players at the eleventh hour of the transfer window. Only now can he carve his vision onto the field of play with the squad he has.

That will take time and patience so in Europe particularly Celtic will need to tread carefully. Its as much a learning curve for Deila as it is for this squad.

It can be a platform to better things but should also be approached with greatest respect to the opponents in Group D. Nobody will be a pushover in this tournament but for me it is an excellent opportunity for Celtic to make a run.

The sad thing is that John Guidetti is one player we will not see in the group stage. If Celtic make it beyond Christmas in the Europa League, we might just get that wish.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie