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

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Credit for Callum

You could be forgiven as a Celtic supporter for thinking Callum McGregor’s appearances last season were a flash in the pan. Although it must also be said, there are some of the support who don’t rate the midfielder either.

In his near two seasons playing in the Celtic first team, McGregor has kept himself in Ronny Deila’s plans. As a matter of fact, it was Deila who handed him his first team debut against KR Reykjavík in 2014.

Not just his senior debut at the club, but a European debut. Into the bargain he scored the only goal of that game in Iceland.

He stayed in the team but later suffered a dip in form and found himself out of contention in Deila’s first season. It’s fair to say that indifferent form aside, a lot of changes were being made in that first year so to find himself out of the picture was not all of his own doing.

Before that first season was over, he broke his ankle in training and was sidelined over the spring and summer months. This season, he has got himself back in the frame.

So far he has weighed in with 6 goals in 26 appearances in all competitions. For a player who hasn’t held down a position for an entire season and in a packed midfield that’s not bad at all.

Despite some fans not truly believing in his abilities, McGregor has the stats to back up his inclusion in this team. Before he made his debut for Celtic under Ronny Deila he spent a year away on loan.

For some Celtic players that can mean the end of your career at the club. Not for McGregor though because he found his way back.

After playing at Notts County in season 2013-2014, he racked up 40 appearances. He also scored 14 goals to go with it, including 1 in the League Cup which isn’t bad for a 20-year-old (as he was during that loan spell).

League One may not be every boys dream but playing first team football on a regular basis is. There can be no doubt, McGregor used that season well, came back to home base and was given a chance based upon that loan spell.

Having suffered a dip in form, a serious injury and an untimely driving ban in the last 12 or so months, it is fair to say he has done well to get back in the game and reapply himself. At that age, you might expect him to go off the rails but Ronny Deila has kept him in the picture and the player has responded.

There is no doubt that Deila likes McGregor and I have to admit, he has kept at it. Has he won over all of the support yet?

Not sure about that, but he does have his fans, myself included. And let’s face it, we all love a home-grown player in the team.

What McGregor now needs to do is keep applying himself. Competition for places is tight but come the summer there will be a cull.

He will be on the right side of that I am sure. Others will not be so lucky but that shouldn’t be a signal for complacency either.

The Scottish midfielder has already surpassed last seasons stats and there are more games still to be played. With the future of players like James Forrest hanging in the balance, Ronny Deila will be happy to have a player with McGregor’s dedication, fitness, impact and youth available to him.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Hot in Baku

In terms of qualifying for the Champions League group phase, it’s half time for Celtic. Tonight they take on Qarabağ in Azerbaijan in the second leg of the third qualifying round.

This will be Celtic’s first ever visit to the country and conditions are said to be hot. The playing surface has been under scrutiny but both teams will have to play under the same conditions.

Playing surfaces have been a topic for Celtic in the past, particulary in European competition. In the last round of qualifying they played on a 4G surface in Iceland which was both fast and slow in places.

This evening will present another challenge but in football you can’t always guarantee a bowling green surface. Playing on red ash for most of my youth, I can’t say I have any sympathy!

The players will have a practice on the park and deal with it as expected. Deila has already iterated that there will be no excuses based on the playing surface.

With only a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Celtic should be seeking an away goal. Though not at the expense of leaving themselves open to the opposition.

Qarabağ will obviously need to score but whether they stick to the style of play seen last week or try something different we can only guess. I figure they will keep it tight but try and hit on the break a little more than they did at Celtic Park.

For that reason alone Celtic must stay organised and disciplined from back to front. No defensive mishaps, no misplaced passes.

Good positioning, patience on the ball and real decisiveness when on the move will be more effective when dealing with Qarabağ. They make use of the ball and their space well so we have to counter that by being just as organised.

I’ve got no idea how Ronny will set up for this but I’m champing at the bit for 5.30pm already.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A hard graft for Griff

Winning on flag day at Celtic Park is always a good way to start the domestic season. The likelihood of a mishap is extremely slender.

There have been a few draws on the opening day of the season down the years. However, you would have to go back to the 1997-1998 season to find Celtic’s last opening day defeat.

Remarkably, it was one of most pivotal seasons in Celtic’s history for many reasons. Despite the disastrous opening day defeat at Easter Road, you may recall a Celtic debutant by the name of Henrik Larsson.

After replacing Andreas Thom in the 59th minute, the Swede earmarked his debut by supplying a misplaced pass to Chic Charnley who duly drove home a 20 yard winner. I recall watching the game live on TV whilst away for a weekend with friends.

One of those friends (a Rangers man) gleefully laughed his socks off whilst my other friend (a Celtic man) stared at me in disbelief. If any of the three of us sitting watching that knew then what we know now, all the roles would have been reversed quite severely that day.

Winning the league was our priority of course and this would be the season which would see the Celtic put a halt to their old rivals dominance on Scottish football. None of us had a scooby how good Henrik was going to be though, especially after that debut!

Unfortunately we don’t have anyone of his class banging in the goals for the Hoops these days. He was a one-off that served the club very well indeed and almost irreplaceable.

The task that Celtic’s current crop of strikers have is not to fill those shoes. It is merely to do a good job.

Having lost John Guidetti to greed, Celtic’s best striker right now is Leigh Griffiths. His maturity and application these past twelve months have been a central to his recent success.

n he came to the club with a troublesome tag.

Despite coming to the club with a troublesome tag, every man and their dog is fully aware of Griffiths’s ability but he is not an automatic pick for Ronny Deila. Since the arrival of Nadir Çiftçi, Griffiths has found himself playing second fiddle, in Europe anyway.

Much of that of course is be down to the fact that Çiftçi is banned for six Premiership matches. If you’re Griffiths, you would understand his frustration given that he has applied himself, done what was asked of him in training and scored goals.

What is even more impressive is how Leigh has handled all of that. His responses to criticism and disappointment are genuinely a big step up in maturity.

If he continues to deal with the knocks as he has of late he will grow into an even better player. In fact sometimes I think Ronny Deila is being harder on him to mould him into a better player.

I don’t have any evidence of that but we all know what the boy can do. Sure Çiftçi brings something else to the game, like Samaras used to, but the Turk is currently short of fitness, getting used to a new kind of set up and of course a totally different player to Griffiths.

If fit for Wednesday, I’m sure Leigh will be hoping to get chosen. The odds are that Çiftçi will get the nod as he needs games and at this point in the season is the only competition he’ll get them in.

You can expect Griffiths to be disappointment by that outcome but he continues to say and do the right things. His first ever goal in Europe came against Stjarnan in Iceland and his first league goal came against Ross County at the weekend.

Çiftçi can only dream of that right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing Leigh and your chance will come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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

Freeze out the Icelanders!

Tonight Celtic return to Iceland for the second year running for a Champions League Qualifier. Last year it was KR Reykyavik who were the opponents and the away leg came first but this year they face Stjarnan and with the second leg being away.

Celtic are 2-0 up from the first leg and as we all know the job should have been finished at Celtic Park. As it stands, Ronny Deila will need to approach this match with just the right amount of caution.

Starjnan parked the bus in Glasgow and relied heavily on their keeper. Celtic on the other hand were short of match sharpness and had they been on a higher percentage of fitness would have put the men from Iceland to the sword.

I’m not being disrespectful to the Icelandic champions, but if you come to Celtic Park and play the way they did, you deserve a hiding. Tonight I would be satisfied with a similar result though with the importance being a clean sheet.

It’s another highly important game because of the impact this competition has on Celtic’s season. To lead the way tonight my preference for the striking role would be Leigh Griffiths.

His performances in pre-season and since joining overal have been a transformation worth watching. When he first signed I questioned it but as I have said umpteen times before on here, he has proven me wrong and I am happy to accept it.

I’m sure Nadir Çiftçi’s time will come even if his domestic ban slows him down though I fancy him to feature at some point. A long suspension isn’t exactly the best start to your career at a new club but Celtic were well aware of what they were getting into before they moved for him.

However, I think this match will suit Griffiths perfectly and I’d be giving him the nod for sure. He will be keen to get off the mark in Europe and after the penalty miss of last week (thanks to Stefan Johansen) it’s a big occasion for him.

On this day last year Celtic ran out 4-0 winners at Murrayfield to KR Reykjavik with goals from van Dijk (2) and Pukki (2). This was following a 1-0 win away with the  goal coming from Callum McGregor.

He misses out tonight as does Kris Commons, both sidelined with injury. Van Dijk returns to the fold though after serving a suspension carried over from last season, but the one man who was sorely missed at this stage last season was Scott Brown.

His presence in the team, though still undervalued by many, is important. Good or bad, he is influential, he is the captain and I’d always have him in the team.

In order to progress this evening, Celtic need to keep things simple, tidy and error free. Stjarnan will no doubt have a go on their own turf but Celtic should be looking to put this tie to bed.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Pathway to Europe

After Celtic have visited Iceland for the second year running, they will know who they face in the Champions League qualifiers next. Assuming of course that they complete the job against Stjarnan on Wednesday.

If they negotiate that game safely, they will play either Qarabağ of Azerbaijan or FK Rudar of Montenegro. That tie currently stands at 0-0 so no clear winner as yet.

Qarabağ appear to be of better pedigree with more experience in Europe. Rudar on the other hand lack a reasonable history in European competition.

Regardless, both would be tricky. Unknown quantities have tripped Celtic up in the past.

However, finishing off Stjarnan remains the primary objective. It was no disaster on Wednesday night but Celtic could have finished that one-off at home and made a few changes going into this second leg.

So the job at hand is no slip ups in Iceland. Just before that though there is a friendly encounter this evening with La Liga side Eibar.

Ronny Deila and the squad have travelled to the Basque region as part of their summer schedule. Although the competitive season is under way, this meeting offers another chance for players to build up their match fitness.

Tonight’s result isn’t of great importance. Getting into the next round of the Champions League qualifiers on Wednesday is.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac