Stick or twist?

Ronny Deila’s job just got that little bit harder. In the wake of this season’s first Europa League defeat he is now under full scrutiny as Celtic manager.

Having weathered last season’s storm he and his players got into rhythm and looked to have turned a corner. This season we haven’t seen an improvement and are being worn down by the team’s own shortcomings.

I’ll nail my colours to the mast, I’m supporter of Ronny Deila and I want his plan to come to fruition. We’re not seeing evidence of it though.

There are many talking points on this. It doesn’t all come down to one person though.

Celtic have brought in and moved on some very good players in the last few years. That is where the club are at these days and I have no problem with that.

The most recent example is Virgil van Dijk. Rumours are not unfamiliar with Celtic but his departure was certified if the Champions League failed to materialise.

So with that eventually being te case and the on-loan Jason Denayer back at parent club Manchester City, Celtic no longer had a central defence. At best, Efe Ambrose was back up and certainly not a player to build your team around.

Mikael Lustig is a player whose skills and abilities have at times been hampered by injury. We’ve seen more of him recently and whilst that has been pleasing, he cannot carry the defence.

On the opposite berth, Emilio Izaguirre has had flashes in his debut season form. He is still often been found out defensively though which is why seeing young Kieran Tierney emerge has been encouraging.

With Adam Matthews departing for Sunderland and Darnell Fisher going out on loan to St Johnstone, Celtic were further weakened defensively. The arrival of Dedryck Boyata appeared to be swift and many would have though we were getting a maturer Denayer but I’ve yet to be convinced.

Celtic’s bold move for Jozo Šimunović at the supposed fee of £5.5M took be by surprise. For a player of his age there is a lot of pressure on him to match the valuation and with injury being his great contribution to the team, we’re still waiting to see what he can do.

Saidy Janko signed a four contract and fellow Manchester United colleague Tyler Blackett signed on loan to bolster the depleted ranks. Neither had a vast amount of first team experience though.

As yet, we have yet to see this current crop of defenders form an understanding. Many factors have played a part in this but it is alarming that Celtic are so vulnerable at the back.

Even the fine first season Craig Gordon had under Ronny Deila is beginning to look like a one off. So far he has escaped criticism from most but he has been as culpable as any Celtic defender this season.

So where do we go from here? Is it it just a failed defence that blights the Celtic cause or is there a bigger issue in play?

Celtic aren’t exactly prolific up front either these days or well endowed and despite the acquisition of Carlton Cole, he can’t play in Europe. That short sightedeness hurt Celtic last season and it appears we haven’t learned from that issue.

Like him or not, Stefan Šćepović should not have left the club without a suitable replacement.Nadir Çiftçi is not an out and out striker and we’ve entered this campaign without sufficient strikers.

The midfield on the other hand has a good supply of players. Even with the dip in form of Stefan Johansen, the performances of Nir Bitton and Tom Rogić have given us hope.

Even still, Kris Commons made his feelings known for all the world to see when he was substituted on Thursday evening. That was followed by a humble apology on Friday in front of the media.

As much as venting his spleen was unprofessional and underminding of the management, it did add weight to the fans argument that Ronny might be losing the fight. Many want him out and have done since last season.

Whist it is difficult to defend such appalling Celtic performances, I don’t wish to see Ronny Deila fail. I like the guy, I like that Celtic opted for a coach like him but this turn of events has made me wonder whether he has his reached limitations or simply requires more time to make things work.

Despite the Commons protest, the players have still come out and backed Deila. If the club are to get through this period it will only be done by standing together.

There needs to be a positive reaction to this bout of negativity. The Europa League is still salvageable and the Scottish Premiership remains on course but the one burning question for many is would Ronny Deila be given another crack at the Champions League?

Neil Lennon had two cracks at Europe before reaching the Champions League and one of those attempts was at the expense of FC Sion. Similarly, Ronny got another crack at Europe at expense of Legia Warsaw, albeit a different competition and different set of circumstance but as someone pointed out to me yesterday, Ronny has had better chances to get into the Champions League.

To ensure a third season happens, everyone at Celtic will have to step up there game. Not just Ronny Deila, but the players, the coaching staff and the scouts.

Today Celtic host Dundee United. With Aberdeen being held to a draw by Motherwell, Celtic have the chance to widen the gap at the top of the Scottish Premiership.

This team needs and enema.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Commons sense

So far this season, the Champions League has not been an easy ride for English clubs. With all of match day two fixtures of the competition done, there will be more relief than joy, particularly down Manchester way.

Despite both Mancunian clubs obtaining wins last night, they both lost their opening Champions League matches. Although they got their first points on the board last night, these were narrow victories.

Elsewhere, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were overcome by his former club Porto. It’s a similar story to City and United with one win and one defeat so far.

Worst still is Arsenal’s campaign. After two games they have yet to get any points on the board.

What I find staggering is that all these clubs have excellent funding but star signings don’t always seem to buy them success. Is there some sort of complacency amongst the Premier League’s super clubs in Europe or are they just badly managed?

Anything Celtic can do in Europe I hold in high esteem because it is generally a bloody hard task. Celtic may be above all other Scottish clubs but in Europe it’s a different ball game.

Any club that wins their domestic league should go straight into the Champions League, end of story. Unfortunately there are more represented countries than places in the current set up but I do think this competition requires serious revision.

The Champions League continually undermines the smaller teams and leagues whilst ensuring the bigger clubs with more than sufficient funds stay on top. Celtic, whilst having a reasonable reputation in European competition, are well short of the income to compete at the top and hindered even more by going through three qualifying rounds just to get into a group phase every summer.

And yet, Celtic continue to “punch above” their weight as Martin O’Neill once said. That has continued with the managers that succeeded him.

For Ronny Deila it is still coming together. Though despite two failed attempts at entering the Champions League, he has ensured Europa League status for two years running.

We shouldn’t sniff at that. It doesn’t have the glory of the Champions League, but the tournament should still be treated with respect.

Celtic got off to a flyer two weeks ago with a near victory. That draw in Amsterdam got us our first point away from home.

When you consider points on the road are not always guaranteed, that’s a damn good start. Tonight, Fenerbahçe will be a different prospect.

Whilst playing at home in front of your own audience has its advantages, Fenerbahçe are a different opponent. They lost their opening Europa League match a staggering 3-1 at home to Molde.

Turkey is renowned for its hostile atmosphere at matches. You might have read one or two opposing players from tonight’s match stating as much.

The Norwegians didn’t appear to be too intimidated though. So credit to them for axing the Turkish runners up and their team of ‘stars’.

Amongst those plying their trade in Istanbul are former Manchester United players Robin van Persie and Nani. Both have a wealth of experience on the European stage but it doesn’t stop there.

Their team also boast international players such as Raul Meireles, Bruno Alves, former Celtic target Michal Kadlec and Simon Kjær who all have between 50 and 99 caps each. That’s without mentioning the the home grown Turkish players, four Brazilians and a Senegalese international on-loan from Porto.

One on-loan player who will miss out tonight is Serbian, Lazar Marković. The Liverpool winger is out injured but as you can see, the Turkish side have plenty to choose from.

For Ronny Deila, it’s about creating the right blend again. We have a lot of players to choose from but it is about being effective.

With home advantage, he is likely to be more adventurous. However, caution needs to be paid to the experienced players amongst the Fenerbahçe ranks.

Their European and international careers are to be respected. This will be no easy task.

One area Deila needs to consider is who fills in for the suspended Emilio Izaguirre at left back. He has several options but it all depends on how defensive or offensive he wants that role to be.

Kieran Tierney has been getting some game time lately and done well when called upon. However, Deila may feel throwing him into his first European match is a tad risky.

Saidy Janko is another option but he too has yet to play in Europe. So it is likely that he will go with Tyler Blackett given that he has more senior experience over all and has played in one Europa League match already.

The rest of the defence is likely to consist of Lustig, Ambrose and Boyata with Gordon in goal as usual. Šimunović is a doubt for this match and with Mulgrew out injured the defence has more or less picked itself.

Brown and Bitton are certain to start this one but who do you surround them with? A few players have been off the boil recently such as Johansen and Mackay-Steven.

Forrest could be given the chance to turn on the home crowd on the right and if Armstrong is fit a place on the left. That leaves the attacking midfield role.

With Johansen off the boil I think we would all agree Commons is the man for this game. He’s earned his chance and could light things up tonight.

You have to feel sorry for Rogić though. He’s likely to be on the bench for this one but he has been superb this season so far so I expect an appearance at some stage.

The strikers role should go to Griffiths as he is our best option. You can probably expect Çiftçi to be given a chance against the Turkish side at some point though.

Elsewhere in the Europa League Spurs are away to Monaco whilst Liverpool are at home to FC Sion (remember them?). I’m sure with two English heavy weights in the same competition Celtic coverage will be kept to a minimum but with maximum criticism.

Celtic made a good start against Ajax. Let’s hope we see that continue tonight at Paradise.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Celtic in Europe: a trip down memory lane

With Celtic’s first Europa League tie coming up on Thursday away to Ajax, many of the club’s fans are hoping for the best but preparing the worst. The club’s Champions League exit and away defeat to ten man Aberdeen at the weekend has caused ill feeling to resurface against Ronny Deila and his back room staff.

‘Clueless’ and ‘naive’ are two of the kinder words expressed to characterise his squad selection and tactics of late. Criticism has, and not for the first time, also been levelled at the boardroom and more specifically Peter Lawwell on several matters including player purchases and finances.

As one fellow blogger wrote, this is exactly the kind of supporter reaction you tend to see when the chips are down. I’ve omitted some of the more absurd gestures and comments I’ve read as they don’t deserve an airing on here.

Little blame has been directed toward the playing squad. In fact many supporters have even chosen to lay off the referees.

Player and officials have not been completely overlooked though. They’ve just slid down the pecking order behind coaching staff and the men in suits.

Losing is part of the game. Without it, there would be no glory in winning.

Win all the time? Predictable.

Where would we be without the highs ‘n’ lows of football? Sitting in domestic bliss for an unchallenged eternity no doubt.

Celtic and their deceased rivals have done enough of that between themselves. With Celtic the key player in a leanly contested league, losing isn’t a disaster – it’s good for the game.

The Champions League was what we all craved this season and missing out on this is a different story altogether. Winning that competition is out of reach but that goal coupled with the revenue and media exposure is what motivates everyone and drives us forward.

So the disappointment at not being in the group phase is something we all share and suffer from – club, coach, player and boardroom member. Before the Champions League ship had even sailed for Celtic, some people asked the question that if Deila should fail at the second time of asking, would he deserve a third?

In answer to that I would say that all depends on how this season goes. I’m still opposed to ousting the Norwegian coach and more interested in seeing how Celtic respond between now and Christmas, particularly in the Europa League.

We should remember that despite two failed attempts at reaching the Champions League group phase we are still in Europe. It may not be the Champions League but we have now been in the Europa League for two years running now.

Every Celtic manager in the past has had mixed fortunes in Europe. For a look at those stuttered beginnings, lets take a trip down memory lane.

Martin O’Neill made it through to the second round of the UEFA Cup in his first season at Celtic having played three rounds in total. The following season he would fair better by taking the club into the Champions League group stage for the first time in their history.

A 3-1 win for O’Neill in Amsterdam took everyone by surprise. Losing the home leg 1-0 was of little consequence.

Despite winning all three group phase home matches that season, no points were picked up on the road. Celtic finished third and parachuted into the UEFA Cup where after an aggregate score of 1-1 with Valencia, lost 5-4 on penalties at Celtic Park, denying them a place in the fourth round.

Unlike today’s set-up, all of those fixtures took place before Christmas so Celtic were out of Europe by December. I can’t imagine cramming all of that in these days!

In the season that followed, O’Neill exited the Champions League qualification campaign at the hands of Basel. That twist of fate would set Celtic on the memorable UEFA Cup run taking the club to the final in Seville in 2003.

Like Lisbon and Milan before, these are memorable achievements which the club’s history is built upon, even if they were not all winning finals. Seville in particular helped put Celtic back on the European map and would be Martin’s legacy.

In the aftermath of that defeat at the hands of Mourinho’s cheating Porto, O’Neill would have another crack at the Champions League. Despite some thrilling encounters in the group phase of the 2003-2004 Champions League, Celtic came up short and parachuted into the UEFA Cup once more.

After successfully navigating two rounds of that competition, including an aggregate 1-0 win over Barcelona, Celtic faced Villarreal in the Quarter Final. Sadly, they lost out to the Spanish side who would then be ousted themselves by another Spanish team in the shape of Valencia who would eventually go on to win the tournament.

In Martin O’Neill’s final season, he would make the group phase of the Champions League one more time. With legend Henrik Larsson having said his farewells to the club, it was somewhat ironic and painful that he would face Celtic in a Barcelona jersey and score against us at Celtic Park.

That was the low point in what was a poor European campaign that saw Celtic finish fourth in the group with one win and five points. It was the end of an era for Celtic and for Martin O’Neill.

Then came Gordon Strachan and a new wave of European drama. At the first time of asking Gordon exited Europe in big style.

Losing 5-0 away to Artmedia Bratislava was a devastating blow to winning over the fans. A 4-0 home win wasn’t enough to level the playing field or keep Celtic in Europe.

Strachan had already caused ripples amongst large sections of the support just by being the new manager. Some had it in for him from the beginning.

Having still managed to win the league that season though, Celtic entered the Champions League group phase without any qualifying rounds. Not only did Strachan turn over some great results, he took Celtic to the last sixteen of the tournament for the first time in their history.

He had succeeded where O’Neill had failed. Results had conspired against O’Neill but not for Strachan it seemed.

Celtic would eventually lose out against AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate after extra time in the round of sixteen. However, the Italian’s would go on to win the tournament for the seventh time by beating Liverpool.

When you look at it that way, that’s a damn good effort by Celtic and Strachan. The two teams would come to meet again the following season.

A memorable Champions League qualifying round against Spartak Moscow saw Celtic into the group phase again. There they would face Milan and in the dying moments of the Celtic Park tie, they beat the European Champions 2-1.

That difficult win was key in securing second spot and a place in the last sixteen for the second successive season. Celtic would face Barcelona in the knock-out round, a team they had beaten and been beaten by in recent times.

The Catalan giants were beginning to emerge as one of the best teams in Europe. They beat Celtic home and away 4-2 on aggregate but they themselves would exit the tournament in the Semi Finals at the hands of eventual Champions League winners, Manchester United.

Gordon Strachan would finish his third Champions League campaign and final season just as Martin O’Neill had. Celtic secured just 5 points and one win finishing fourth in their group.

Despite that humbling season, Strachan had taken Celtic a step forward in Europe. Many had despaired at the quality of football and I would to agree to a certain extent.

However, we had some great European nights under Gordon and some very respectable victories. The last sixteen was now the benchmark for the next manager and would be his legacy.

Unfortunately the Celtic challenge would now fall to Tony Mowbray. He managed to take down Dinamo Moscow 2-1 on aggregate in their first qualifying round but they would be comprehensively disposed of by Arsenal 5-1 on aggregate the next.

That meant a first time experience for Celtic in the Europa League. Celtic finished third in the group phase in a season which saw Mowbray sacked after a poor domestic campaign.

Then came Neil Lennon, like Mowbray a fans favourite as a player, but less experience in the dug out. First he was appointed as caretaker, then given the reigns that summer.

In his first full season, Lennon would exit both the Champions League (to SC Braga) and Europa League (to FC Utrecht) tournaments in the qualifying rounds. It was rather humbling but not a total surprise given his lack of experience as a coach.

The following season FC Sion stood in the way of Lennon and the Europa League group phase. He would have failed once more had it not been for a breach of a UEFA ruling by the Swiss club.

Having fielded ineligible players during the ties with Celtic, FC Sion were excluded from the tournament and Celtic were reinstated despite being beaten by the Swiss club. This allowed Lennon a crack at the group phase of a European tournament as a head coach.

It was a pivotal season for Lennon on home soil as well as on foreign. Celtic would eventually finish third in their group.

Although a largely disappointing campaign, the 1-1 match against Rennes over in France was one of two games that season that marked a turning point for Lennon’s Celtic career. The other game was a domestic match away to Kilmarnock which finished 3-3, five days earlier.

These games turned the tide for Lennon. In both matches Celtic were away from home and had to come from behind to earn a draw.

Lennon later stated that after being 3-0 down to Kilmarnock at half-time he seriously though about chucking in the towel. Having gone down 1-0 to Rennes, thanks to an audacious Cha Du-Ri own goal, the same thoughts must have been going through his head.

Celtic fought back to claim a draw in both matches though. They would go on to win the league that season having gone on an unbeaten run in the league beginning with that draw against Kilmarnock.

What would follow in season 2012-2013 was an excellent campaign in the Champions League. Having qualified via two rounds, Celtic were paired once more with Barcelona and Benfica in the group phase of this tournament with recent knock out phase opponents Spartak Moscow completing the list of opponents.

Before the group phase got under way, Celtic were given little chance of finishing third, let alone second by the critics. As it was they would beat the odds and finish second behind Barcelona having beaten the Catalan giants 2-1 at Celtic Park in one of the most memorable matches for Celtic in the modern-day.

Lennon had achieved the impossible. After two previously disappointing seasons in Europe, it was a real turnaround.

Celtic made the last sixteen of the Champions League for only the third time. Even though they would go down in the knock-out round to Juventus, it was against all odds that Celtic got their in the first place.

It was a testimony to the perseverance of the Northern Irishman after a long period where trouble off the field would dominate the headlines and threaten the life of himself and his family. Lennon showed great character and with the backing of the fans and the club beat the evil that has plagued football.

The next season would be tough on the park though. Despite three rounds of qualifiers, Celtic made the Champions League group phase but this was the group of death.

Ajax, Barcelona and Milan were the opponents. Celtic won one match losing the other five.

This would be the club’s worst Champions League tournament in history. In fairness to Neil Lennon, the club had sold three of their best players before the group phase got under way and were not suitably equipped with replacements.

And so Lennon left after that season and in came Ronny Deila. We know his story and this season Europe has been similar to the last with the exception of the Legia Warsaw fiasco of course.

Having looked at O’Neill, Strachan, Mowbray and Lennon’s experiences in Europe I don’t think Deila deserves to be shown the door. O’Neill and Strachan didn’t have a blistering start to their Celtic careers in Europe.

Mowbray’s didn’t cover himself in glory or have much of a legacy to speak of. Lennon’s had a very poor start but he came good even if he came up short in the end.

For Ronny Deila, missing out on the Champions League two season in a row has overshadowed making the Europa League group two years running. When you also consider he got to the last sixteen at the first time if asking, only losing out narrowly to Inter Milan in the end, I think it is harsh to be calling for his head.

In times like this when morale is low we should be supporting the team. Not slaying it from boardroom to dressing room.

Unlike many bloggers and forum frolickers, I choose to support Ronny and his back room team. I give me backing to the squad as well, even if I do have some criticisms I would like to share.

Let the players and coaching staff rectify the Champions League exit by giving them a chance in the Europa League. Similarly, let the domestic season unfold as it should.

A defeat on Thursday would not be game over. A win is not a guarantee of qualification either.

It’s all about the bigger picture and we must remain positive. There’s more hard work to be done so let’s not throw in the towel just yet.

Let’s see how things play out. We’ll have a better idea of where we are by Christmas.

If we’re still going strong then we’ll see how the season has gone come May. Should people still want to ask about that third chance base it on the two seasons that will hopefully then be completed by Deila.

Keep the faith.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac