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

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Imps dispatched, Astana await

Celtic laid to rest their Gibraltar woes at Celtic Park last night by finishing off Lincoln Red Imps with succinct victory. The Hoops continually threatened from the first whistle, but they would have to wait until the 23rd minute to do what the failed to do last week and score a goal.

In fact Celtic helped themselves to three goals in the space of six mintues. That was enough to finish the job and more importantly, exorcise last week’s result.

We saw a total change in passing quality and tempo in this match compared to the first leg. Not just the lineup itself, but the attitude, urgency, formation and of course the surface.

The game was done at half-time and we had hoped to see more goals in the second but we didn’t. Chances were missed though with Celtic still in preseason, the players are not yet functioning at the desired level.

For Brendan Rodgers, the most important factor was getting through to the next phase. Unlike us Cetlic supporters, he remained calm after last weeks result whilst we dealt with the embarassment of losing 1-0 to a semi-professional side.

Our anger was warranted, even if winning the tie overall was never in doubt for the manager. That’s not an unsual difference of opinion but we’ve already seen two failed attempts at entering the Champions League under Ronny Deila so we desperately need Brendan Rodgers to make it first time around.

As for the playing side, we still need investment. The next round is a tougher test with the away leg in a totally different time zone and at quite some distance.

Don’t expect Celtic to win that one. The last trip to Kazakhstan saw Celtic lose 2-0 in August 2013 in the Champions Legaue play off to FC Shakhter Karagandy.

Celtic overturned the scoreline at Celtic Park winning 3-0 in the second leg. That was a test of nerves but as it turned out, a pretty awful experience in the group phase.

The question remains whether we will see additions to the squad for this next round. FC Astana are a new club, having only been founded in 2009 but they reached the group stages of the Champions League last season.

Despite finishing bottom of their group, they proved to all away teams that Kazakhstan wasn’t an easy place to come to. They drew all three home fixtures against Benfica (2-2), Atletico Madrid (0-0) andGalatasaray (2-2).

Even though they managed a 1-1 draw in Turkey, they lost 2-0 in Portugal and 4-0 in Spain.That left them foot of the group but against that opposition in your first group phase it’s not too shabby at all.

So Celtic will have there work cut out for them. Some investment will happen soon but it remains to be seem if that will happen before tonights deadline even if it is just one player to shore up the defence.

Lincoln Red Imps may only have got a goal courtesy of Efe Ambrose’s comedic defending but you can be sure FC Astana will be more threatening to Celtic’s unsettled back line. Erik Sviatchenko needs someone to step in alomgside him and steady the ship.

Mikael Lustig is capable of playing centre half and may be an option should any signings fail to materialise. It wouldn’t be ideal but not a disaster either.

Eoghan O’Connell is another possibility. Even thoughhe lacks experience, he knows the team and always looks steady in that position.

I feel more comfortable after watching last night’s performance but as Chris Davies said it’s about getting the right player on the right deal. There’s no point in just signing anyone – we’ve done that before and it’s a waste of resources.

So let’s see what this evening brings. Consider the Imps dispatched. 

Hail! Hail

Stevie Mac

 

Tonight…

…is the biggest game of Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic career. So far anyway.

The negative scoreline that Celtic returned from Gibraltar with wasn’t just a bad result. This was an embarrassment that now requires complete exorcism.

Some said it was like England’s result against Iceland. It wasn’t, it was worse.

Iceland went through two qualifying groups before facing the English and were there on merit. Lincoln Red Imps are a semi-professional side formed the same year I was born.

Sure, they’ve won the last 14 league titles but Gibraltar only became a member of UEFA in 2014. Does this mean Celtic have met their match?

No it bloody well doesn’t. Yes they beat a better side (on paper) in the previous round, but Celtic should be able to dispose of the Gibraltarians at Celtic Park tonight with a strong scoreline.

That is what Celtic fans will be looking for Brendan Rodgers to ensure happens. We can accept that 1-0 away defeat so long as we are convinced by what is on show tonight and not just edging past the Imps.

We know that this Celtic team is still undergoing surgery. The fat is being sucked out of the torso in order to expose the muscle this squad does have so we can invest in the muscle that we do not currently possess.

It will be a process that requires our patience. Something we are not all blessed with as Celtic supporters.

There is pressure to reach the group stage of the Champions League but there is also the expectation to create a functioning football team at the same time. Both of these are working against each other because on the one hand we don’t have the luxury of time with qualifying for Europe’s premier club competition starting so early in the summer, but time is needed to develop a good team.

Could this have been prevented? To some degree yes, but we can’t dwell on that.

Now what we need is to start setting out our stall. Playing the players that are working and in the right position.

Lincoln Red Imps aren’t playing games. They fancy this with their opponents (us) not firing on all cylinders just yet.

This is no time for complacency. Rodgers needs goals, a clean sheet and a good performance.

We demand it. We need it.

Convince us.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Striiiiiike one!

Being right isn’t necessarily a good thing. It can be good or bad and with varying degrees of consequence into the bargain.

However, Efe Ambrose is a player that 99% of the time you are going to make the correct call on. Last night in Gibraltar he was the let down many of us feared but had hoped wouldn’t be.

For all his calamitous efforts, this one wasn’t the worst but it certainly goes into the hall of fame entitled “Efe’s ‘F’ Ups“. He is a catastrophe in a jersey and now under his third Celtic manager, we are still watching him playing a role in vital games.

I read a great many comments on social media and a variety of post-match reports last night. Most of the flak was directed at Efe and his blunder but Bitton and Brown came in for their usual bashing.

What Celtic fans shouldn’t overlook though is that this was a poor performance by the entire team. Even the good players like Tierney, Rogic and Griffiths were garbage.

The surface played a huge part in this but we knew about this days in advance. With that in mind we should have had a plan to adapt to the conditions.

Those of us who have played football at any level will know all too well about turning up for a game and not knowing what the surface is like. Grass, ash, artificial surface…you just got on with it.

Brendan Rodgers has experienced a bad start, but the real deal will be at Celtic Park next Wednesday. If Celtic can’t beat this team convincingly on their own green, green grass then we have a problem.

I can understand the reluctance to dive into the player market when we have a massive squad. However, central defence was an issue with two out injured and thread bare options.

Relying on Efe Ambrose was Brendan’s first mistake. At the very least he should have played O’Connell or McCart.

Young they may be, but incompetent they are not. That wouldn’t alter the fact that we were poor in Gibraltar though.

Brendan played down the result and credited Lincoln Red Imps with their win. We’ll know over the course of the summer if our concerns will be laid to rest or if we are making progress.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Let’s Rock ‘n’ roll in Gibraltar

This evening Brendan Rodgers will preside over his first competitive match as Celtic manager, in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar. The Hoops face Lincoln Red Imps in the first leg of the second qualifying round in the UEFA Champions League and will be looking to hit the ground running with a victory.

Lincoln Red Imps of course will be aiming to cause an upset and what better time to do it? Their opponents under new management, still getting to know his players and trying to establish a new system.

It’s the perfect opportunity for the Gibraltarians, particularly when the first leg is on their territory. Speaking of which, the Imps’ playing surface is plastic and said not be of the best quality.

All sounds pretty negative right? Well that shouldn’t deflect from the fact Celtic are a superior team in every way.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t writing off the home side. Respect where it is due and all that, but this Celtic side should be able to turn over this team on any surface.

Sadly, it looks as though Efe Ambrose might be playing at centre back so there’s always the possibility of a calamity. If that happens then he can make the short crossing to Africa and head back to Nigeria instead of Scotland.

With any luck there won’t be any calamities and instead we will be applauding Celtic at the end of the match. The last thing we need are headlines like “Cock of Gibraltar” and such.

A clean sheet and a goal or two will suffice before the Imps come over to Celtic Park for a good hiding. With all due respect to our opponents, Celtic shouldn’t have to play these rounds.

We’re the national Champions and shouldn’t have to be pitted against another national Champion for the right to play in this tournament. We should be there by default.

The UEFA set up is farcical from top to bottom. Every national Champion should have direct entry.

If UEFA want to pad it out further with more teams or just the biggest teams as they do currently, the let all the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed teams scrap it out in July. Celtic have already earned their right to be there as have Lincoln Red Imps.

Let’s kick the season off with a win.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Euro 2016 almost at an end, but Europe is open for Celtic

Commiseration to Wales in last nights European Championship Sem-Final. It was a cagey first half from both sides though both had chances to score as well.

Despite being slightly better in the first half, Wales succumbed to the threat of Ronaldo. It took the wind out of the Welsh sails early in the second half and the closely followed up second goal from Nani was a deadly blow.

Every effort was made to claw something back but the Portuguese had their tails up. This has been a valiant effort by Wales and they can go home with heads held very high indeed.

Tonight of course we will find out who joins Portugal in the final when Germany face host nation France. It’s a hard one to call but Portugal will find it a tough final no matter who they get.

Once Sunday’s final is decided, the European battleground awaits Celtic. They travel to Gibraltar to face Lincoln Red Imps in the Champions League second qualifying round.

Many expected Flora Tallinn to see off the Gibraltarians after winning 2-1 in Estonia. However, Imps had other ideas and won 2-0 on home turf.

Now Celtic will be heading out there on Tuesday 12th July to face them in the first leg. The Hoops wrap a positive preseason tour on Saturday against European qualifying rivals Maribor.

The team have been going through their paces for just over two weeks now. With one more friendly before their first competitive match, Brendan Rodgers will be looking for some players to get a full 90 minutes under their belts.

Whether Celtic feel they urgently require a player or two to face Lincoln Red Imps is uncertain. With Euro 2016 close to finishing, transfer business will start begin moving again.

Friday 8th is the deadline for this round of the qualifying campaign so if Brendan Rodgers feel he can’t get through with what he has got right now, the window of opportunity is very small indeed. Personally, I would think that if the current team can’t get through this round then there is trouble at mill!

I wouldn’t argue that the team need two or three additional signings, maybe more if we sell any of the rumoured players. However, the bigger games are beyond this round and that is where you need to be better.

Rodgers only real worry is central defence and Kolo Toure is the name being banded around as is Shane Duffy’s. We’ll see if anything transpires in the next 24 hours.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Celtic, Scotland and Andy Murray

I dunno. You go away for a few weeks and all your sporting interests lay in tatters.

Having spent the grand majority of my holiday in the wilderness of Canada, I’m just getting round to processing all that I’ve ‘missed’ over the last three weeks. It seems like the bottom has fell out of my world of sport.

This misery I speak of has a pecking order of course. With all of this bad news stacked up it makes it a little bit harder to digest.

In the grand scheme of things Andy Murray’s early exit from the US Open pales in comparison to my interests primarily in Celtic and secondly Scotland. All put together though it’s one big pot of pish.

Celtic’s exit from the Champions League play-offs was a sore one. I missed the first leg whilst on a flight but managed to tune in live for the second leg on TSN the following week.

Despite the sunshine, heat and humidity of that afternoon whilst on holiday, it turned out to be a dark and dismal day as the Champions League door closed on Celtic once more. In many ways being so far away helped me avoid the aftermath even if those in my immediate vicinity attempted to trivialise my pain.

So I ended up losing myself in a work of fiction called Ready Player One (recommended to me by a good friend, fellow geek and Hoops fan). In doing so I locked myself away from wife, child and in-laws simultaneously.

It offered a little escapism but my soul was hurting and my mind kept wandering back to the result. My next visit to planet Celtic came via my sister in law’s weak mobile signal just so I could check our Europa League fate.

I couldn’t stand not knowing our opponents. Group A will be a stern test for Celtic but I guess that’s what you want from European football right?

Having exited one European competition and parachuted into another it was inevitable that Virgil van Dijk would depart. Champions League football was the only ticket to keep him at Celtic Park this season or at the very least until January and as Ronny has said, Virgil unsurprisingly wanted to go last year.

Having played in 114 matches for Celtic and scored 15 goals his presence in the Celtic defence was significant and will be sorely missed. £13M is a good return and he has served Celtic well so I wish him all the very best with the rest of his career.

Staying with transfer news I was surprised by the amount of additional movement made by Celtic. More players out on loan and more players coming in.

Firstly was the acquisition of Jozo Šimunović. For an under-21 international defender £5.5M makes him either a signing coup or a modern day Rafael Scheidt.

I’m not trying to pre – judge the guy. I don’t know anything about him.

The price vs age bells are ringing in my head though. On the other hand it is good to see Celtic reinvesting some of the dough made from the sale of the Dutch player.

It is a positive sign from the board so hopefully this is money well spent. The club have shown further backing by bringing in two more defenders in Tyler Blackett and Ryan Christie.

The on loan Blackett will provide support to the defence and challenge for a spot next to Dedryck Boyata. With Christie being loaned back to Inverness he will not have a say any time soon.

Although not a total surprise, I thought loaning of Stefan Šćepović was questionable. Despite misfiring for Celtic no replacement has been acquired.

With Anthony Stokes staying put for now, Celtic have three active forwards. My issue with Stokes is that he’s been frozen out and more importantly not an out and out striker.

I consider him more of a wide player or playing off the front man. Therefore Leigh Griffiths and Nadir Çiftçi must bear the responsibility as the club’s only strikers.

Young Eoghan O’Connell’s loan to Oldham will do him the world of good. A chance at regular football and still a very good prospect for Celtic.

I was a bit disappointed with Darnell Fisher going on loan to St Johnstone though. I rate the guy and he has done a good job when called upon so not to see him challenging for the first team this season is a bit of let down given the work he’s put in these last few years.

Dylan McGeouch’s permanent switch to Hibs was no surprise though. His loan spell was relatively successful and he will be pleased to be able to focus his career after not really getting an opportunity at Celtic.

He began his career at Celtic, left for Rangers then was brought back by Neil Lennon. You can decide whether he was barely given a chance or wasn’t good enough but I though the guy had talent.

So now Celtic are now set up for the next few months with a fairly solid squad. What of Scotland and their quest for France 2016?

Well that’s hit the skids hasn’t it? I haven’t seen any footage, just heard the backlash.

It was all going so well but that Georgia result was a shocker. The Germany game can be forgiven being that they are World Champions.

In order to remain in with chance of a play off spot, Scotland need to close a gap of four points. Republic of Ireland stand in their way and have the tougher games but this is an all too familiar scenario for Scotland fans.

We’ve been in this situation as far back as I watched the games with my dad. I still think Gordon Strachan is the man to get us to a finals but we shot ourselves in the foot with this campaign after doing so well.

It ain’t over till it’s over the say. Well, I won’t get my scants in a twist if we don’t make a play-off spot but I’ll be presently surprised if it does go wee Gordon’s way.

Back to the here and now though ad tomorrow’s game against Aberdeen. We’ll be able to see how far Derek McInnes and his squad have come from last season.

The Dons ran with Celtic most of the way in the Scottish Premiership which was good for the league. However, they failed to beat Ronny Deila’s side on four meetings, having lost all four to the Hoops.

We’ll see just how far they’ve come since then. Most of all, I’m looking forward to casting my eyes over our new players.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac