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

Start as you mean to go on

Brendan Rodgers and Celtic got off to a flyer against their new Glasgow rivals on Saturday. Celtic Park was bouncing as the Premiership Champions smashed the Premiership newcomers 5-1.

The Ibrox oufit were assembled predominantly behind the ball throughout the match. However, they did put together a few decent moves with some neat passing as well.

It has to be said though, at no point did this ever overshadow what Celtic were doing. The five goals scored by the Hoops were spread out over the last sixty minutes of the match.

The goal scored by Mark Warburton’s side was merely an interruption to what Celtic were doing. In fact as was better put by my buddy, this goal sharpened the Hoops up for the second half.

Having drawn first blood thanks to Moussa Dembele on 33 minutes, closely followed by the second on 42 minutes,the Ibrox side must have been thinking they were still in with a chance when they pulled back a goal on 44 minutes thanks to Joe Garner. With no disrespect, Dorus de Vries was culpable for poor positioning.

2-1 at half time was no big issue but it kept us all on our toes regardless. The early stages of the second half saw more impetus from the away side and changes were made by Brendan Rodgers to address this.

Tom Rogic made way for Stuart Armstrong whose impact in the centre of midfield was beginning to look effective. How I have longed to see him play in that position. 

He would be involved in much of what happened since he came onto the field on 54 minutes and 7 minutes later was involved in Celtic restroring their two goal lead. Armstrong slipped the ball across to Dembele who played a neat touch through the opposition defence that found a preying Scott Sinclair to score in all of Celtic’s league games so far this season.

In high profile games, players can lose the plot unnecessarily and for Phillipe Senderos he found himself on a secod yellow card for handball,thus reducing his team to ten men. That allowed Celtic to turn the screw further on their Glasgow rivals.

Celtic weren’t finished with this game and more importantly, neither was Dembele. Having scored his first goal with his head andthe second with his right foot, he completed his hatrick in the 83rd minute with a left foot finish.

To wrap things up and demonstrate Celtic’s dominance in this fixture, Armstrong helped himself to goal number five for the Hoops in injury time. I was pleased to see him get a goal given his return to the team and impact since coming on.

This was a game with so many positive talking points for Celtic. Even the post match interviews were a good viewing thanks largely to Scott Brown’s banter and Brenda Rodgers’ respectful assessment of the game.

All the fighting talk from Joey Barton since he dismissed his claims as a Celtic supporter and joined the zombies, didnt help the fact that he was posted missing in this match. His assistant manager’s red card drew more attention than Barton’s derby performance. 

Now Celtic sit two points clear at the top of Premiership ahead of Hearts who have now moved up to second place. Celtic still have a game at hand and a 100% record in the league so they are in good form going into Tuesday’s game against Barcelona. 

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

The Champions League: a dream ticket

For two seasons, Celtic have been bereft of Europe’s most prestigious tournament. The UEFA Champions League is by far the most lucrative offering available to Scotland’s top club.

When the head was finally severed from the Ibrox club in 2012, Celtic flew the flag in Europe for Scottish clubs. It has been a lonely journey but one which continues to be solo.

Finance is the setback for clubs such as Aberdeen or Hearts. Celtic may have trimmed their own margins in recent times but they should still have been comepeting in Europe’s premier club competition rather than operating in the Europa League. 

Wherever you place your blame, Ronny Deila, the Celtic board, the scouting network, the transfer policy, we haven’t reinvested since the peak of 2012-2013. Well, not until now.

The demise of Celtic’s old rivals wasn’t just the comeuppance that they deserved for financial fraud and mismanagement. This was a signal that the immediate face of Scottish football was going to change.

Scotland has not seen top flight winner other than Glasgow’s oldest rivals for 30 years. With one of those rivals now a defunct club, how long will it be before Celtic’s reign will be broken?

With no other Scottish club able to finance a team the strength of Celtic’s (without spending money that wasn’t their own) Celtic put the brakes on.With little pressure from other teams on the domestic front, investment was reduced and certain gambles were taken.

A modern day, up and coming Norwegian manager was appointed. It was a left field approach which I backed fully but given the lack of domestic pressure, was less of a risk.

Although Celtic’s 4th and 5th title in row was achieved, it was Europe that became a declining feature of each season. Two failed attempts at the Champions League led to dropping into the Europa League twice.

The team wasn’t performing as well as they could and tactically the head coach appeared naive. I fought his corner but we saw last season that things needed to be shaken up.

As I said at the beginning, Europe is lucrative for Celtic. In fact it is essential for the club’s finances.

Dismal displays on the continent did little to woo season ticket holders and any other sales that generate revenue for Celtic. Now the club have brought in someone who can take us back to the Champions League.

Tomorrow night Celtic must hold their nerve in Israel. They have a three goal lead but that doesnt mean I’m okay with the two goals Hapoel Be’er Sheva scored at Celtic Park.

They can score again but so can Celtic. Brendan Rodgers and his players must get across the line tomorrow night.

So far I’ve been impressed with the incremental improvements. New players making an impact and established players rediscovering old form.

The UEFA Champions League is there for tomorrow night’s winners. Let’s get back to where we belong.

A dream ticket awaits those who show willing.

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

Rodgers and Sinclair reuinted for season opener at Tynecastle

Celtic have today confirmed Scott Sinclair as Brendan Rodgers’ third signing. The 27-year-old winger has worked with the Celtic manager in the past and there appears to have been some determination to obtain the services of the English winger.

From the little bit of research I have done on Sinclair, he comes with a lot of experience south of the border. That has been based mainly on playing for a long list of clubs, though only for short spells.

He began his career at Bristol Rovers where he came to the attention of Chelsea as a young boy. Having moved to Chelsea, it was there that Rodgers and Sinclair came together for the first time.

Rodgers was the head youth coach at the time and the two worked together for a number of years. Eventually Rodgers would move into first team management at Watford whilst for Sinclair half a dozen loan spells would begin.

Both mentor and pupil would be reunited once more at Swansea City in 2010 where they would enjoy very positives times in their careers. Because of the success enjoyed during their two seasons together, they would both move on.

Brendan went to Liverpool and Scott went to Manchester City. We all know about Brendan’s Liverpool tenure but for Scott his rare appearances in a Manchester City jersey led to further loan spells before a permanent move to Aston Villa.

Many have pointed out that Villa wasn’t a great success for Sinclair. Then gain, that could be said for Villa has a whole because after flirting with relegation for a long time, they now find themselves in the Championship.

Right now, I am keen to see Sinclair in the Hoops. Brendan has pursued him and looks to be one of his players.

That means he knows what he will get from him and when asked to do something, knows he will get a positive response. The only thing Sinclair needs to do is do what is asked of him.

We might get to see that today as Celtic take on Hearts at Tynecastle. With Patrick Roberts injured and Gary Mackay-Steven facing a loan spell, Celtic are light on wingers for once.

If Sinclair does play, it might just be as a substitute. Either way we are all looking forward to him help bring success to the club.

To play away from home and at Tynecastle in your first Premiership match is about as tough as it can get. Celtic will need to be at their best as I expect Hearts to have built upon last season.

There a fewer better places to play away in Scotland than Tynecastle in terms of intensity. Welcome to Scottish football, Scott.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

An opportunity: Motherwell v Celtic

Strange things happen – take Hearts beating Aberdeen last night for instance. This result wasn’t totally unexpected to be honest and once more another indicator of a title race full of twists.

For Celtic that means seizing yet another opportunity to widen the gap at the top the league. A win today at Fir Park would put Celtic 8 points ahead of Aberdeen but nothing is guaranteed.

Motherwell will be out in force today. Ronny Deila can expect no favours from Mark McGhee.

This could be bad day for Celtic, it could be a great day. Right now I wouldn’t bet any money on them though.

For every good result there’s a bad one. Good performances a have been few and far between.

If Celtic want to win this league they are going to have to win it themselves. Last nights result at Tynecastle was favourable for us but lets not throw away a good opportunity.

Today, Deila must pick his best team based on form and opponent. If that means dropping underperforming players then I have no problem with that.

We need calm, authoritative players, particularly in the middle of the park. Wholesale changes are risky at this stage of the season but no less risky than underperforming seasoned campaigners playing week in week out.

Here’s how I think we will line-up today:

Gordon, Lustig, Tierney, Boyata, Mulgrew, Brown, Bitton, Rogic, Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Griffiths

Here’s how I think we should line-up today:

Gordon, Lustig, Tierney, Boyata, Mulgrew, Bitton, Armstrong, Rogic, McGregor, Roberts, Griffiths.

There’s no way Deila will drop Brown though, even though he’s been awful recently. He’s not alone in below par performances though.

As long as we get the result today, I don’t care who is on the park. We just don’t want to blow this one.

Step it up Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Title twists

When I was writing my preview for Tuesday’s game at Dens Park, I wondered if this would be another of those ‘turning points’. Well, it wasn’t and Ronny Deila ended up with the same result when Paul Hartley brought his team to Celtic Park in March.

I didn’t see the game and I’m glad I didn’t either. Otherwise my wife would have been as just disappointed with our anniversary celebrations as I would have been with a 0-0 draw!

Worse still, Celtic blew their game at hand by dropping two points. This was a good opportunity to put daylight between ourselves and Aberdeen.

Instead, Derek McInnes will be encouraged by this slip up. He knows that if Aberdeen beat Celtic after the split they could potentially be 2 points off top spot.

With other points likely to be dropped by both teams, this makes for a nervy finish to the current season. If you’re a neutral or even interested in Scottish football it makes for good viewing.

In fairness to Dundee though they’re trying to secure a top six place. On recent performances I’d say they are on course but the truth is there are four teams in total battling it out with St Johnstone, Partick Thistle and Ross County also in the mix.

Celtic play Motherwell at Fir Park for their final match before the split. Mark McGhee has hauled the Lanarkshire club up the table to a very respectable 4th and his team will remain in the top six.

That won’t deter Motherwell from upsetting Celtic’s title chances though. We’ve been there before and they’ve also been the ones to spoil the show in the past.

Before that challenge on Saturday though, all eyes will be on Tynecastle on Friday night. With Hearts hosting Aberdeen, all Celtic fans will be hoping the Dons will drop points un the capital.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much prefer Celtic to be winning this fight on their own but it is clear that this team haven’t got it in them right now. Too many players aren’t turning up in matches and at this point in the season you need a concerted effort by everyone.

If someone hasn’t been injured, they’ve been off form. That isn’t an excuse, that’s just football.

I never expected Celtic to win all of their remaining matches. In fact I even said that if we dropped points it doesn’t mean we’ve lost the league.

What I am concerned about is the attitude and character of the players. We saw against a dominant Hearts side at Celtic Park what sort of result could be achieved even though we weren’t as good as the visitors for most of the game.

Don’t think for a second that the towel is being thrown in though. This will be a battle to the death despite how unconvincing our performances have been.

The Scottish media have rallied around the promotion of the Championship winners and the ‘boost’ it will give the top flight. Well from my perspective it seems to have been doing just fine judging by the title challenges of the last two seasons.

Of course we welcome all newcomers to the Scottish Premiership. Just don’t belittle the battle that has been going on in the last two seasons between Celtic and Aberdeen by suggesting the arrival of the new Ibrox club are here to solve all that is wrong with our game.

Scottish football suffers through the mismanagement by its authorities and a self-serving biased media. The pro-Ibrox revival is hard to miss given how many folk are licking their lips across Scottish football and the media.

As I say though, it’s nice to have newcomers to football. We’ll give them the proper treatment when the time comes.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac