A chance for fringe players but Commons won’t be one of them

screen-shot-2016-12-16-at-172908Since Celtic last played Partick Thistle, they have seen off Hamilton Academical and Dundee at Celtic Park as well as the Jags themselves on a 4-1 victory at Firhill. Tonight that unbeaten could continue, but with Brendan Rodgers hinting about personnel changes for tonight’s visit by Thistle, are Celtic jeopardising their winning streak?

Brendan Rodgers has a huge squad and not everyone has seen the light of day since he came on board. Aside from those sent out on loan he still has many fringe players who need game time as proper assessment.

It will give Brendan a chance to run the rule over some of the players without sufficient game time. In recent weeks we’ve seen one or two ease their way into the squad such as Gary Mackay-Steven, Emilio Izaguirre and Patrick Roberts.

There have been cameo appearances from Cristian Gamboa and Ryan Christie and some becoming forgotten figures such as Kolo Toure, Dedryck Boyata, Nadir Ciftci and of course Efe Ambrose. Deeper down the ranks though we haven’t seen much of Eoghan O’Connell, Jamie McCart, Anthon Ralston, Liam Henderson, Kristofer Ajer or Jack Aitchison.

Tonight some of these guys might get a nod, but I don’t see Brendan making too many changes. As comfortable as Celtic are right now, you don’t want to appear to be cocky.

A win tonight would put Celtic 14 points in the clear and still with a game at hand over second place. The long-term aim is an unbeaten run, even if it isn’t being discussed openly.

It currently sits at all 20 domestic games unbeaten, 19 of which were wins with the last 14 being straight wins. To ensure that continues, players will be champing at the bit to be part of it and keep this momentum.

One player who isn’t part of things right nowh though is Kris Commons. He has gone out on loan to Hibernian until mid-January.

The happy recipient is of course the man who brought him to Celtic in the first place. Neil Lennon will utilise the services of Commons to see Hibs through a tough spell with personnel in the Scottish Championship battle.

The Leith club are neck-a-neck with Dundee United right now, but Commons has answered the call by his former manager. Brendan Rodgers has stated that it is good for both parties, but with Commons out of contract in the summer and having never kicked a ball under Rodgers he is very unlikely to be at Celtic beyond this season.

For a player with such great talent, he has managed to find himself out of the picture with all three Celtic managers he has played under. Despite making a huge impact in January 2010 under Lennon, Commons would lose his place in the first team the following season amid rumours and speculation of a fall out, ignoring any other facts in the process.

He would later return to form and the first team which was good news for the club and the fans. Commons was a key player and had been missed by the fans.

Next came the Ronny Deila era and it wasn’t too long before he fell out of favour with the Norwegian. Deila was becoming well-known for fitness and it was almost certainly the reason behind his decision to leave Commons out of his team selections.

Although a gifted player, Commons isn’t the fastest or leanest. When a manager is focussed on certain attributes that you are lacking then they are going against their own plans to make an exception for you.

Even although Lennon and Deila would make that exception, Rodgers doesn’t appear to be of the same mind. You have to be consistent with your decisions and this loan spell may offer Kris Commons a lifeline to see out the rest of the season with Celtic, but after that I don’t see a way back for the 33-year-old.

There is no question of his affinity for the club and the admiration the fans have for him. If he is not fitting the mould of the Brendan Rodgers type player he is almost certainly a goner this summer.

I hope he does well at Hibs and we do get to see him wear the Hoops again. Tonight though, the opportunities are there for those with a longer future at the club.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Forging ahead

20150921-mind-the-gapThere was nothing scintillating about Celtic’s win over Kilmarnock last night. A single goal decided the match, but this was no easy three points for Brendan Rodgers.

In the first half Celtic were dominant with good work rates from Callum McGregor and James Forrest in attack. Despite retaining the ball for long periods though, Celtic weren’t really penetrating the Kilmarnock defence.

In fairness to the Ayrshire side, they put up a solid formation, but they didn’t sit back too much either. They hit on the break and put Celtic under pressure at times and probably could have scored a goal or two had it not been from a lack of composure or better fortune, which in this game would have made things more interesting.

Celtic had several chances themselves, but composure and luck deserted them on all but one occasion. The second half was a little more feisty with several players becoming involved in mini-tussles.

Craig Gordon had a least one blip which could have been worse and Dedryck Boyata, starting his first game under the new manager, looked shaky on more than one occasion. Gordon did recover though but I’m still no more impressed with Boyata than I was when he played under Ronny Deila.

Stuart Armstrong also found himself under pressure in the first half a couple of times. He looked like he was wearing the wrong boots….until he scored.

Armstrong, a growing presence in the Celtic midfield these days, put away a tidy finish after a good run and some neat interplay in front of him. His all round game is becoming more prominent in the team with every passing game and he showed that even after a slip up earlier in the game he can retain his composure when required.

When you have a young talented player like this in your squad, why would you even bother with Steven Gerrard? We already have one senior midfielder in Scott Brown who is playing his best football in years.

And when you consider that Tom Rogic is adding goals, pace and skill in a midfield-attack role, our midfield is looking healthy. Nir Bitton will want to sort out is ailing game and get back in the program because he is slipping down the pecking order and rightly so.

So it is another 3 points for Celtic and the gap is widening. Another clean sheet takes Celtic step closer to obtaining another Scottish league record.

The rest of the Scottish Premiership are in action this afternoon and on Monday night. Four teams will be hoping to catchup with Brendan Rodgers runaway train.

Aberdeen (2nd) have a tricky one away to Inverness (6th), The Rangers (3rd) have and easy one at home to Dundee (11th),  St Johnstone (joint 5th) are at home to Ross County (12th) today and Hearts (joint 5th) are away to Hamilton (9th) on Monday night. With Celtic are 13 points clear at the top of the league, only a point separates second, third and fourth/fifth placed teams.

It is that tight and the pecking order could change very quickly. This is an interesting battle as four teams compete to be Celtic’s real contender though at this stage it is looking like the best of the rest.

Aberdeen have been that team for a while. Hearts showed their intentions last season.

We’ll know by the end of the season just how close The Rangers are to mounting a serious challenge. Right now they are sitting third, but no team is as near as Celtic as they would like to be.

In the meantime, Brendan Rodgers will prepare for Barcelona on Wednesday night in the Champions League. Can he beat the Catalan machine on home turf as his Northern Irish compatriot Neil Lennon did in 2012?

Well, let’s put it this way, one win from the last two games is the ONLY way Celtic have a chance of qualifying in third spot. Beating Manchester City away seems like a tough one so why not Barcelona at home eh?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Sinclair breaks Hearts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nae luck wee man. Thanks for missing though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A game at hand

Aberdeen responded to Celtic’s victory over Hearts  on Saturday with a very convincing win over visitors, Hamilton Academical on Sunday. So now it is down to Celtic to finally utilise that game at hand against Dundee tomorrow night and ensure that 7 point gap between first and second place becomes a real thing.

Once Tuesday night’s three Scottish Premiership fixtures have been played, all clubs will have reached the 32 game mark. Matchday 33 is the final set of fixtures before the league split and the pick of these involves 3rd versus 2nd on Friday night.

Hearts host Aberdeen at Tynecastle on to kick off the weekend and this will be a game worth watching for two reasons. One will be that Hearts are aiming to close the gap on the Dons and the other will be the effect this result could have on Celtic’s title chances.

A win for the Jambos would put a severe dent in the Dons’ hopes of catching Celtic. Matches involving Aberdeen, Celtic and Hearts after the split will be very significant in this title race.

As for Celtic, well it’s all about dispensing of Dundee tomorrow night first. They will face a determined effort from the Dee who are battling for that sixth placed spot.

They ousted Ross County from the top half of the league after a 5-2 demolition on Saturday. Even a point at Celtic Park on Tuesday would be helpful enough to keep them as favourites for sixth place before the split.

So it is unlikely Celtic will get it easy at Celtic Park tomorrow night as it is just as important a match for both teams. Once more though, Celtic will be expected to display their title credentials.

They must respond to Aberdeen’s three goal dismantling of Hamilton in the first 33 minutes of Sunday’s match at Pittodrie. Celtic’s last meeting with Paul Hartley’s side ended in a 0-0 draw at Celtic Park and should serve as a reminder to Ronny Deila that his players will meet a stubborn side.

Celtic’s home and away stats are very similar and the same can be said for last season. Consistent yes but what we all want to see is more conviction in those displays, home or away.

We’ve fallen short in key areas this season, some being individual performances. So far we’ve conceded more goals than last season and have yet to score the same amount.

Our goals against can’t improve on last year but goals for can. And that’s what will win games, as Saturday’s win over Hearts proved.

An unsettled defence has not helped that scenario for Ronny Deila this season but there are signs that things are settling down at the back. That needs to be built upon right through the midfield to the front line.

Plans are already under way for next season already. One of those players not in the plans is Derk Boerrigter.

Finally, Celtic have ended their ‘relationship’ with the Dutch flop. ‘Sicknote’, as he is better known, is one of the worst signings ever made by the club.

Whoever scouted and sanctioned the money for this guy should be held accountable. Given his track record, this player should never have been touched with a barge pole.

Whilst I accept that not all signings will work out there were enough warning signs not to gamble with him. Celtic did though and it was an empty jersey for almost three years.

At least players like Pukki, Šćepović and Çiftçi gave more in a short space of time and have resale value. How do you sell a donkey though?

Simple, you don’t. Instead you take a financial hit and this is one error we would like to but are unlikely forget.

Thanks for the memories Derk. There’s been few.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Hearts had the possession, but goals won the game for Celtic

Celtic scored three goals and took all three points from Hearts yesterday. This was a game that was far from a foregone conclusion though.

Hearts took the lead in the 5th minute with a fine goal from Jamie Walker after being played in by Juanma. That silenced the home crowd and had many wondering whether Celtic had it in them to turn things around.

That collective thought was answered when Gary Mackay-Steven pounced on a badly cleared header from creater-turned-offender, Juanma. The ball was controlled and smashed home from the edge of the box to level things in the 15th minute, the only real contribution by the former Dundee United player if I’m being honest.

From thereon in both teams tussled but Hearts had the lions share of possession. Ronny Deila’s choice to go attack minded didn’t pay off the midfield battle but it did produce the goals.

On 35 minutes a superb piece of individual work by Tom Rogic allowed him to slip through a pass to Patrick Roberts. The Manchester City loanee was bearing down on goal and chipped the ball past Neil Alexander to give Celtic the lead.

Having gone a goal down early and now heading in at half-time in the lead, it set things up for a good second half. Celtic weren’t playing at their best but the game was by no means dull and Hearts were giving it their all.

Celtic rubber stamped their authority 3 minutes after the restart with another superb goal from Roberts. This time the winger had the ball himself and as he ran into the box he unleashed a left foot strike early to beat any defensive challenge and ease it past the goalkeeper who had only begun to position himself.

At 3-1 and playing at home you would think you are safe but Hearts were still posing a serious threat in terms of possession and goal mouth chances inlcuding a free kick which came off the top of the bar. Celtic had their chances as well, but Leigh Griffiths, so desperate to score against Hearts, was out of luck.

The in form striker was unlucky not to score with two great free kicks. From open play though he was not getting his way and was later substituted for Colin Kazim-Richards who despite his lack of game time had more physical presence than Griffiths.

In fairness to Neil Alexander in the Hearts goal, he is a good keeper and earned his wages despite conceding three goals. Hearts gave a very good account of themselves and were unlucky not to get anything from the game.

The only real fly in the ointment for Hearts was the performance of Juwon Oshaniwa. Although Hearts were playing a physical game, something I have no problem with, Oshaniwa was taking matters a little too far.

He ploughed dangerously into Tom Rogic which resulted in head injuries to both players and the Aussie having to be substituted before the end of the first half. During that clash of heads, an all out brawl was close to occurring as well.

The matter was sorted promptly when Griffiths and Prince Buaben were both booked, the former’s booking rather harsh in my opinion. Later on in the game and having already been booked for a bad foul in the first half, Oshaniwa was shown a second yellow in the second half.

It was nothing less than the Nigerian international deserved though. There is nothing wrong with being committed but he was veering more on the side of headlessness in this match.

Even though Celtic’s midfield was misfiring throughout the game, hindered by an out-of-sorts Scott Brown, the defence was relatively solid. Overall, the difference between the two teams were the goals and they were all fine goals at that.

Robbie Neilson should be proud of what he has achieved with this team in such a short space of time and on such a small budget. Unless something horrible happens, his players should be pushing not just Aberdeen next season, but Celtic as well.

Now the ball is in Aberdeen’s court today for their home tie with Hamilton Accies. The pressure is on the Dons to keep up with Celtic, but I don’t think this is a game they will throw away.

They can’t afford to let Celtic move too far ahead or allow Hearts to catch up. Hamilton Accies may have other ideas though as they attempt to stay out of the playoff spot in the Scottish Premiership.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Backtracking

From time to time we humans get things wrong. The weather forecasters, politicians, bookies and even referees.

On Friday night, Craig Thomson got it wrong at New Douglas Park on quite a few occasions. One of those particular errors was the red card on Dedryck Boyata.

Despite the risk of the tackle, he got the ball fairly. In fact, it was a superb tackle.

The only thing that took the shine off it was that he was sent off. Had he stayed on the park we would have been talking about how good a tackle it was.

In fact if had it been Virgil van Dijk or Jason Denayer making that challenge we would have been singing their praises and admiring the sheer quality. Instead it was Dedryck Boyata who has yet to reach that level of respect among the Celtic support but it was a good tackle all the same.

As a result of that red card, Celtic lost control of the game for more than half of the match and not for the first time this season either. This is something we must be more careful of in future which in fairness to Ronny Deila, is most likely what upset him on the night.

A draw was acceptable under the circumstances even though Celtic were leading 1-0 at the time of the incident. In the aftermath of the game, Ronny Deila refused to lay the blame at the door of Craig Thomson.

Instead, Ronny was critical of Boyata not staying on his feet as I said earlier. Whilst I get what he was saying and the risk that Boyata took, you cannot argue that he won the ball cleanly.

I made the point in the last blog that I disagreed with Ronny on this. Yesterday, in complete u-turn, Celtic officially announced their intention to appeal Boyata’s red card.

There has obviously been a discussion about this within the club. Now Ronny’s opinion has changed whether it his own or someone else at the club.

The bottom line here is that Celtic are correct to appeal. It is also very likely that they will win this one as well.

What won’t change is the result against Hamilton. Fortunately for Celtic, Aberdeen threw away the chance to close the gap after drawing with St Johnstone.

The Dons were 1-0 up after 35 minutes and it stayed that way for some time. St Johnstone were then awarded a penalty in the 88th minute.

Like the Dedryck Boyata challenge at New Douglas Park, there was a similar case at Pittodrie for Aberdeen’s Ryan Jack. Derek McInnes said that the penalty claim was no excuse for the result, almost like he’d been taken a leaf out of Ronny Deila’s post match book.

I think it was a harsh penalty though. Just as Boyata’s red was badly judged.

At least the gap at the top remains in tact and the title challenge continues. Tomorrow night Celtic host mis-table Dundee whilst Aberdeen travel to Tannadice.

The two Dundee clubs are almost poles apart this season. Dundee are in a respectable 6th position whilst Dundee United achored at the foot of the table, fighting for Scottish Premiership survival.

It couldn’t be more different for Celtic and Aberdeen as they slug it out for the title. All eyes on tomorrow night.

On another backtracking moment, Tom Rogić has made it known he wishes to stay at the club. Surprise, surprise, the Scottish media reporting lies.

Whatever next? A Sevco warchest?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Game Changer

Last night Celtic were going about their business at New Douglas Park when disaster struck. No, it wasn’t a slippy pitch, just an honest mistake.

Pitch-gate made way for referee-gate on Friday night in Lanarkshire. Craig Thomson, Scotland’s cream of inept officials, reduced Celtic to 10 men with a few minutes remaining of the first half.

It was a game changer and a bitter blow for Celtic. Even with a 1-0 lead courtesy of a Leigh Griffiths penalty, Hamilton were handed a lifeline before Celtic inflicted any more damage on them.

Ronny Deila hooked Kris Commons and replaced him with a more versatile Charlie Mulgrew who filled in at centre back. It was the right move and despite the one man disadvantage, enabled Celtic to keep at the home side intermittently even if they did have to surrender their 80/20 possession.

Hamilton had their own agenda though and plundered Celtic after a slip up by captain Scott Brown. His error set up a passage of play that allowed Eamonn Brophy in to level the match on 73 minutes.

The timing was bad for Celtic as the chance to pull one back became bleaker. Already down to 10 men, the Hoops earned a penalty only to see it saved by former Celtic prospect Michael McGovern.

The key talking point though was the refereeing decisions. A lack of yellow cards on the Hamilton players perhaps allowed them to carry on regardless when they should have been disciplined earlier in the match.

Dedryck Boyata’s red card was top of the pile though. After a moment of Celtic sloppiness, Hamilton were let in and Boyata was forced into making a risky tackle on Carlton Morris.

Now my first instinct was “this could go either way” because it looked as though the ball was moved. The referee, Craig Thomson, would have had a better view than the live footage I had just watched.

Having sent Boyata off I was very keen to see the replay. Based upon that replay it wasn’t a red for me.

I don’t have the rule book to hand but Boyata got the ball and the Hamilton player goes over next. It was a risky tackle because if he didn’t get the ball, he may have got the player or the player was getting away but he didn’t go through him to get the touch he needed.

For Thomson, he has to be 100% certain that Boyata made the foul and I don’t think he was because their was not absolutely no certainty about the challenge in my initial view. He didn’t have the benefit of the TV replay as I did which only made my on-the-fence view a no foul scenario but Thomson did have a closer live view so how he has arrived at that decision is beyond me.

Ronny Deila didn’t go down the road of criticising the referee last night. His view was that Boyata should have stayed on his feet and whilst that is generally true in defending, I can’t agree with Ronny’s take that Boyata was deservedly sent off.

So that ruined the game for Celtic. Aiming for 3 points quickly became I’ll take 1 point.

You never know how a game would have played if you’d kept all 11 players on the park. What I would say though is that some of our players once more were not playing at their best.

Scott Brown looked well off the pace last night as did Kris Commons. Stefan Johansen I don’t even need to comment on such is his overall form this season.

Scott Allan was very active and Gary Mackay-Steven was decent early on. The former wore himself out though and the latter faded as the game went on.

The defence did its job for the most part. Despite a misjudgement by Logan Bailly, he also had a reasonable game.

Griffiths was lively as usual and should have scored more though. The penalty miss I wasn’t surprised at all but there were other chances for him.

I thought both penalties last night were soft and have seen them waved away on many an occasion. The first one I didn’t really see as a penalty until I saw the replay so I was surprised Craig Thomson saw it at all.

The second penalty was the one that bothers me the most. I can’t remember how many times I have seen defenders manhandle the opposition in their own box at set pieces and the referee takes no action but to warn both players and then give a free kick to the defending team if the incident persists.

To get a penalty for the holding on Mikael Lustig was a surprise. Kind of like that surprise you get when a referee gives a decision against a player for a foul throw – rare!

Craig Thomson is not alone though. He comes from a long line of inconsistent refereeing in Scotland.

What used to be rife with funny handshakes, masonry, winks and lodge meetings is now just a club of incompetent individuals. I’m not putting bad refereeing as the soul issue for last nights result.

Celtic have themselves to blame as well. For not being ruthless and taking your chances against a team who have less than half the points they do in the Scottish Premiership.

Yes the red card was a poor decisions and a gamer changer though not for the first time this season. This is when Celtic have to take their chances and step up and make it count.

Leigh Griffiths stated that he should be blamed for not scoring more last night. That’s mighty big of him to do that and I respect what he himself has done to improve his career as a footballer at Celtic but this is a team game and whilst he might put his hand up, I don’t think many of his team mates did much to help him last night at all.

It’s a disappointing result but certainly not the last time we’ll see points dropped this season. Aberdeen will look to close the gap today at home to St Johnstone.

A win for the Dons would put them 5 points behind Celtic with the same amount of games played. That would leave 11 games left to play and 33 points at stake for each title challenger.

Aberdeen have already achieved what they failed to do last season and that is taking points off Celtic. Like Celtic though, they are also vulnerable.

They’ve lost two more games than Celtic have so far this season and also have a poorer goal difference. The title race remains a title race and there is everything to play for.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac