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

From Paisley to Paradise

Celtic edged past Real Sociedad at St Mirren Park last night in their final preparation match before they get down to competitive business this Wednesday. Next up is the Champions League encounter with Stjarnan but Ronny Deila got a chance to put his players through one more test with David Moyes’s La Liga side providing opposition.

This was Ronny Deila’s third preseason friendly and the first for David Moyes. However it was the Basque side who played the better football in the first half.

Celtic found themselves under pressure from Erreala as Ronny Deila’s player’s tried to get into their stride. They dealt with everything that came their way even if they struggled to find their own.

The second half was totally different. Celtic found themselves stepping up a gear and putting together better moves and chances.

Then came probably the moment most fans had tuned in for. The arrival of Nadir Çiftçi from Dundee United had mixed feelings amongst Celtic fans.

Now that he is here it’s about application and effort. He didn’t waste much time when he came on as a substitute for Leigh Griffiths in the 67th minute either.

Griffiths was unlucky not score. Having had one deflected wide in the first half and another hitting the post in the second half he was lively.

Within moments of entering the field of play though, Çiftçi was involved in an attacking move. After that one broke down he was straight in again assisting Gary Mackay-Steven for the only goal of the match.

It was enough to win the game but again it was more about preparation for Wednesday. Still the result will go along way to easing the fears of those supporters who get a wee bit upset at friendly defeats.

The positive sign was that Celtic upped their game second half after pressure from the opposition in the first. Real Sociedad’s player’s were a wee bit feisty throughout the match but that provided a little bit of realism for the competitive games ahead.

Next stop is Celtic Park and Champions League opponents Stjarnan. This is where our season begins.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Goalfest Friendly

Celtic were outgunned in their second preseason friendly at St Mirren Park on Saturday lunch time. Ronny Deila fielded a stronger side for this game which meant that criticism for losing the match 3-5 to Dukla Prague was more likely.

I won’t make excuses for mistakes that caused any of the goals. I won’t even chastise the players involved.

These matches are about fitness and sharpening up. I take nothing away from Dukla Prague, they won fair and square but this is a warm up match.

And yet some fans are up in arms about the performance of certain players. I mean for the love of god, really?

The fact is nobody remembers preseason friendlies in the context of the season that lies ahead. If we’d won 5-3 sure everyone would be happy but in reality it means hee-haw.

It’s a testing bed for the new season. A chance to warm up, iron out the kinks, give an opportunity to others etc etc.

Haven’t we been over this before? Of course we have but still fans get their scants in a twist.

Get over yourselves. If we have a worse season than last, then you are entitled to whinge.

From what I saw of the game, Dukla Prague were up for it. They played some nice stuff as well.

Do they have a Champions League qualifier coming up they are saving themsevles for? No, they don’t even have a competitive European game coming up but we do.

You might recall last year that Scott Brown got injured during a friendly against Rapid Vienna? That cost Celtic a lot so I’m fairly certain with that in mind, several first team players were treading carefully yesterday.

We need as many first team players available during the summer as possible. If that comes at the expense of losing a friendly in Paisley then I’ll take it.

Dry your eyes. All I want is the Champions League.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Competition for places in Paisley

Celtic got their preseason underway at St Mirren Park last night. The result is often not an immediate concern in these games but it was still good to end the match with a clean sheet and two goals in the bag.

Paisley was the location for these first of three warm up matches, with FC Den Bosch the first opponent. The Dutch second division club were overawed by Celtic dominance in the first half which featured both goals for the Hoops.

The first came from Gary Mackay-Steven in the early minutes of the match. The second also came via the former Dundee United player though the Den Bosch keeper saved the effort only for it to be bundled into the net by his own player.

Cruel, but fair because it was one way traffic by Celtic. In truth it could have been much more in that first half alone.

Gary Mackay-Steven was at the heart of most moves showing great energy with every run. There were plenty of other notable performances into the bargain.

Boyata looked comfortable to the point he van Dijk were mainly just feeding the ball forward whilst Lustig (C) and youngster Kieran Tierney filled the full back berths. They were rarely called into to defend much but a valuable run out in the Hoops for Boyata, a development squad player in Tierney and of course a very much missed Lustig.

Young Luke Donnelly took up the midfield attack role between Mackay-Steven and Armstrong. He turned in a good performance and looked comfortable in the role.

Tom Rogić was among a midfield holding two along with Liam Henderson. Both were close to matching energy of Mackay-Steven and is encouraging news for Ronny Deila that they both looked so capable together.

Many fans have been keen to see Rogić back in the Hoops, myself included. With Henderson back from a brief, but worth while loan spell at Rosenberg its like having two new players.

That can only be good news for Celtic. Knowing that Scott Brown and Nir Bitton have back up means there is cover as well pressure.

In fact Celtic have an abundance of wealth in the midfield. The question is who will be shed by the club to trim down to Ronny Deila’s ideal squad size?

So far Celtic have moved on four players and acquired two. Over the next two months I would expect to see more exits.

I was surprised to see Dylan McGeouch and Jackson Irvine (you have to check out his squad picture on the official website) among the recently updated squad list. Both have been on the books for a while and out on loan recently so what of their futures?

McGeouch has had a good season with Hibs and Alan Stubbs looked keen to have him stay but I believe Celtic activated an extra year on his contract. As for Irvine, he’s had good run in the Ross County side.

Despite both having a good season I was a little surprised to see them back. Not because I don’t rate them but because Ronny is trying to trim the squad.

Perhaps it is part of some bigger plan. Pool all of your talent throughout this summer and have them all competing for a place to stay?

Well I’m not sure but Ronny is intent in blooding youngsters as part of using the talent the club rear. With that in mind these friendlies are as much of a shop window as they are a warm up for the Champions League qualifiers.

Then second half of last night’s match saw the manager throw on eight players on for the last 30 mins. Though mostly players from the academy, one of those was the not so young Derk Boerrigter.

He turned in a decent 30 mins to be fair and even recovered from an injury during play. If there was one player who is on that list to exit though it is Boerrigter and he did his chances no harm if any prospective buyers were watching.

One player keen to ensure he stays will be Stefan Šćepović. After a season of woe, he will be aiming to up his game this summer.

Recently he openly admitted to struggling to adapt to the Scottish game. This season the gauntlet has been thrown down for him to perform because I doubt he will be on the snip list.

Next up is Dukla Prague where we’ll see further outings by from the whole squad. One of those could be new signing Saidy Janko from Manchester United.

His role has yet to be established but it could spell the end for someone in that right side of the park. The club cannot sustain Lustig, Fisher, Matthews, Ambrose and Saidy for that right back/wing back role so something will have to give.

It’s interesting times with competition for places are fierce. With the young talent that took to the field last night the future looks bright for Celtic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Çiftçi and McGeady?

I don’t know what I am more alarmed about. That Celtic have reportedly made a bid for Nadir Çiftçi or that Aiden McGeady is rumoured to be returning to Paradise.

Firsty, lets talk about Nadir Çiftçi. On the face of things it looks like a mediocre move for Celtic.

The Turkish striker has made a name for himself at Dundee United and in Scottish football, particularly against Celtic. I’d say he is a key player for McNamara’s team but is he really up to the job at Celtic or in Europe?

Well, lets go a wee bit deeper. At 23 years old, this is a young striker playing regular football in Scotland for the last two seasons.

Prior to his arrival in Scotland Çiftçi had spells with Portsmouth, Kayserispor and NAC Breda. He has also been capped at under-17 level by the Netherlands and under-19 level by Turkey, the latter being his actual place of birth.

Ironically, he was convinced to switch allegiances to Turkey by Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman. He was Turkey manager at the time and evidently liked what he saw.

In my total ignorance before today’s blog, I thought Çiftçi was an older player but that may just be the beard! That got me thinking – does Ronny see this guy with greater potential?

Well, it still sounds like another gamble, something Celtic have done a lot with strikers these last few years. However, he does have good experience playing in Scotland which is one less risk.

Does this guy have more to offer? Are Celtic going to raise the bid?

Elsewhere, rumours have begun to circulate about Aiden McGeady. He left Celtic five years ago for a whopping fee of £9.5M.

At the time I thought this was superb business by the club. Many saw it as Celtic cashing and I had no argument about that then or now.

For me McGeady was a one trick pony who had one amazing season at the club. Despite his flare, it rarely had an end product and his place in the team was always under scrutiny.

Crossing the ball was not his thing either despite it actually being his job on matchdays. In fact, I think his best position may have been playing off the front man but I didn’t see him given that role too often.

In the back of my mind, yes it would be interesting to see him play in the Hoops again. On the other hand, has he actually improved since leaving Celtic in 2010?

As I said in a forum thread last night, if his career had blossomed since leaving would we even be talking about a potential move back to Celtic? I doubt it because he would be priced out of such a move whereas now, people think he might have to lower his demands such is his career dip.

Now after a three-and-a-half year spell in Moscow and just over a year with Everton he has apparently put in a transfer request. Given that his appearances have been limited at Everton I’d say he’s done the right thing for himself but is Celtic really on the radar or is this pure speculation?

I think McGeady will have matured in his five years since leaving Celtic. I know many would like to see him back, but there’s an equal amount (if not more) who wouldn’t.

Fancy tricks aren’t everything in this game and it doesn’t win you matches. You need to be able to deliver and that is where my frustration with McGeady lies.

Throw in the fact that coming back is rarely, if ever, a good thing and I think you have your answer. The way forward for Aiden is not the way back so perhaps this should remain a rumour.

Tomorrow Celtic take on FC Den Bosch at St Mirren Park. I’m desperate to see the Hoops play again.

I’m also looking forward to seeing some fringe players getting a chance to shine. For some players, it may be the last or close to last time we see them don the Hoops as Ronny aims to trim the squad so I’ll be tuning in for sure.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Forget the lying King…here’s the King of Kings

Whilst the comedy show at Ibrox continues to embarass Scottish football (I mean seriously sort yourselves out over there), the name ‘King’ has been embossed in the Scottish media almost daily. However, it was the return of the King that took my attention this week.

Henrik Larsson, the King of Kings made an appearance for Helsingborgs IF on Wednesday evening. As their current manager and experiencing player shortages, Henrik threw himself on as a substitute against Malmö FF.

As if that weren’t enough he helped himself to the last of the goals in a 7-1 mauling of their Swedish rival’s in a practice match. 43 years young and still doing the business.

We never tire of watching Henrik. It does make me wonder if I’ll ever see another player of his quality in the Hoops again during my lifetime.

Topically, a striker is one key position Ronny Deila needs to consider for next season. Leigh Griffiths has done a great job as a goal provider since his arrival in January 2014 but Celtic need something in addition.

Stefan Šćepović hasn’t lit up the forward line as we had all hoped. He didn’t even get near the brief achievements of the outgoing John Guidetti, but it remains to be seen how things will pan out for the Serbian at Celtic next season.

Celtic’s shape these days is completely different to the era when Henrik was the first name on the team sheet. Lone strikers are all the rage these days with support coming from the channels.

Ironically, Henrik used to work the channels himself (as well as other positions), particularly at Feyenoord before achieving legendary status at Celtic as a striker. Who will be our next star and is he already at the club?

When Henrik arrived we had no idea he would become the player he did. Especially after an abysmal debut against Hibs where he gifted them a goal resulting in a 2-1 defeat at Easter Road.

Some players can make that kind of error and be remembered for it for their whole career. Instead, Larsson carved out his own history at Celtic as well as Barcelona and Manchester United in the final years of his career.

To see him play is always a joy. A true legend.

Will we ever see his likes again? Well, we can dream.

Hail! Hail!

Waiting for a decent match

During the international break, football fans find themselves divided. Some will tune in or travel to follow their country whilst others a dislike of the whole bout of fixtures.

As a Celtic fan, I’ve always followed Scotland. I’m not in the Tartan Army league but I always had time for Scotland (except when they’ve had really awful managers).

Last night Scotland played Northern Ireland but I wasn’t all that interested. International friendlies are,for the most part, tiresome.

I don’t mind meaningful qualifiers and of late Gordon Strachan has reignited the fires . So I’m happy to wait until Sunday’s encounter with Gibraltar to get on board.

If anything, I think friendlies could be played behind doors. They’re good for the players but not always for fans.

On the subject of meaningful matches, I tuned into El Clásico on Sunday. As far as huge fixtures go, this is one of the best and yet I always find the same disappointment.

Diving.

When I was growing up folk used to go on about the dirty South Americans and the divers from Italy, Spain etc etc. Whilst the former may be a distant memory (except maybe Honduras in last year’s World Cup Finals) the latter is still in full flow today.

El Clásico had plenty of antics going on last Sunday. I get that its part of a culture with some countries but its a negative one.

I tune into these matches hoping to be dazzled by the things that Scottish football cannot produce. So when I see guys billed to be the best in the world, falling over holding some part of their body Family Guy style is a little embarassing to watch.

If you’re not very good and you need all you can to get the game, fair enough. These guys earn a fortune though and have global exposure, yet collapse with all the drama of an injured ballerina.

Its a total disgrace to football and its crept into the game in the England. That may be to do with the influx of huge salaried foreign ‘stars’, in fact it is.

Lets hope it doesn’t become prevalent  in Scottish football. We need a helping hand now and again but this we can do without.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie