You go away for a few weeks…

…and you come back top of the league with a game at hand. Let’s deal with a more exciting storyline though shall we?

Celtic have made the Champions League group stage for the first time in three seasons. Brendan Rodgers has achieved in his first attempt, what Ronny Deila failed to do in his two seasons in charge.

When I last wrote on here, Celtic had just beaten St Johnstone and were off to Israel for the second leg playoff match against Hapoel Be’er Sheva. Despite having a three goal cushion, Celtic had two away goals against them to be concerned about.

The first half of that match was all about the home side. In fact so was the second.

With nothing to lose, Hapoel went all out for the three goals they needed.They missed a penalty, but they would eventualy score the opening goal of the game.

The penalty wasn’t one in my opinion, nor was it a yellow card for Saidy Janko. The save by Craig Gordon was justice for the referees poor decision.

Ben Sahar, a substitute for the concussed Lúcio Maranhão, made an immediate impact with his first touch. He got away from his marker, Scott Brown, to head home from a corner.

With Kieran Tierney, who had bandoned his near post position and Craig Gordon scrambling around they both failed to prevent it from going in. It was a decent goal by the Hapoel substitute and probably deserved for his team’s efforts. 

The manner in which Celtic lost it though left me questioning our marking system once again. The way Brendan Rodgers had setup Celtic for this match it appeared to allow him to alter the team shape if needed. 

It has to be said, there was very little evidence of alteration until very late on. More on that later.

The formation would remain as it was for most of the match. Not great for the nerves it must be said.

Hapoel had their tails up and the freedom of the park. You could argue that this was to be expected given the deficit they had to overturn and the fact the Israeli champions had home advantage.

The space they had to express themselves, caused by the gaps left by Celtic was risky. In managerial terms this might be described as ‘containing the opposition’ but this isn’t something we’ve seen Celtic do too often or effectively.

The second half saw one single change. Tom Rogic replaced James Forrest, with the aim of getting higher up the middle of the park as our wide players were making little headway. 

It didn’t take long for that change to be shattered as Celtic became involved in an unmistakable calamity. Janko, not having his best of games it must be said, ploughed straight into his keeper who had just collected a crossball. 

The momentum of Janko, who was keeping up with his opponent, Ovidiu Hoban, carried him straight into Gordon, knocking the ball out of his hands. The ball dropped kindly to Hoban who probably won’t score an easier goal in Europe.

If they weren’t doing so already, Hapoel were beginning to believe. Their dream was turning toward reality whilst Celtic’s was turning into a very familiar game of European self inflicted damage.

The Israeli champions began creating more and more chances. The Scottish champions weren’t creating, just defending.

Moussa Dembele replaced Leigh Griffiths hoping to spark a revival. He came close on 60 minutes when he curled a fine effort past the Hapoel goal.

Then another chance, this time by Scott Sinclair. His shot was parried and Dembele’s follow up blocked by the Hapoel defence.

On came Erik Sviatchneko for Callum McGregor. He came on with orders as well, which he duly passed in note form to captain Scott Brown – defend even more – it transpired.

With Hapoel still on the offensive, that third goal was looking closer and closer. Celtic were clinging onto the match by the skin of their teeth.

Every time a ball was loose it seemed to fall to Hapoel, but fatigue was begnning to set in. Celtic were digging deeper and deeper.

As the clock ticked down both sets of players were displaying multiple signs of pain and weariness. For the first time in the game I sensed that Hapoel might have run out of gas.

The 90 minutes were done and 4 were added on. With 3 minutes left, Hapoel got a freekick which they put high and wide.

Gordon was booked for time wasting. All the players were dead on their feet.

The seconds burned away slowly. Then came the final whistle!

For over ninety minutes, Celtic lived dangerously. The tactic deployed to contain isn’t something I’d like to see again, not for a whole match anyway.

Hapoel Be’er Sheva weren’t a bad side, but Celtic showed them too much respect. I’d like to have seen a few spells where Celtic put Hapoel under pressure but they didn’t.

Instead we let them play the entire match breaking only when the ball allowed us to. That didn’t really work for Celtic other than the fact the avoided a narrow aggregate defeat.

I didn’t enjoy a single minute of the match. Just in case you hadn’t picked that up previously. 

Now though, we’re back where we want to be in the Group Stage of the Champions League. And with that, a very familiar opponent. 

Much to my displeasure, Barcelona head up Group C. It would have been nice to play a team that we haven’t been drawn against so many times.

On the other hand, facing Manchester City will be refreshingly new. They may have finished 4th in the English Premier League but they have Pep Guardiola at the helm and a formidably financed team.

The final piece of the puzzle was Borussia Monchengladbach who like City, also finished 4th in their league. So there are only two current national champions in Group C.

The favourites will be Barcelona whilst Manchester City will be second favourites. Borussia Monchengladbach will be aiming for 3rd place but as we’ve seen in previous Champions League campaigns, strange things can happen for Celtic.

I know very little about the German side other than that last season they were grouped with Juventus, Manchester City and Sevilla in the Champions League. They finished bottom whilst City topped that group and even made it to the semi-finals losing out at the hands of eventual winners, Real Madrid.

So with Guardiola’s City battling it out with his old club Barcelona, Celtic have to focus on pipping the German side. At this stage, 3rd place would be fantastic.

The variables in the group phase are plentiful so it isn’t impossible. And let’s face it, nobody likes coming to Celtic Park except to witness one of the best atmospheres in world football.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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“But shouldn’t you have scored against a team like that?”

Yesterday, someone implied that I must have been disappointed with Celtic’s failure to score a goal in Azerbaijan on Wednesday evening. This was in response to my comment when asked how I felt the game went.

After explaining that Celtic had taken the cautious approach to the game I got the reply: “But shouldn’t you have scored against a team like that?” I didn’t take the bait for this one and let it slide.

This didn’t come from someone with great passion for football. A mere onlooker shall we say whose interest in the sport, or any sport for that matter, is somewhat ‘generic’.

They’ll read the news and the opinions of others whilst ‘supporting’ an English club who may be further up the rankings than Celtic, but are by no means a great team even if they have a superior income. On occasion, this person watches or attends cricket, rugby, football or athletics and talk about it as general news.

That doesn’t make you an expert. It certainly doesn’t make you any more of an expert when you comment on a game you never saw or that the two teams involved you’ve probably never seen on live TV before.

I on the other hand have a personal interst in my team, the game, the competitions and a more rounded and insightful view of the game (I think). I don’t just read what the media are saying then use it as a third person remark as this person did, I actually write about it myself in the first person.

It got me thinking though – should we have scored against this team away from home? Let’s be honest, the comment made tells you just how much of a throwaway remark it was.

Did this person know anything about Qarabağ? No, and even I had to do my research to write about them before a ball was kicked.

Which led me to thinking that we should not underestimate that team. In fairness we were all thinking that and even Ronny demonstrated that with way we set up on Wednesday.

Without a reasonable understanding of the game you could forgive this person for not knowing any teams from Azerbaijan. Because of that it is understandable given their remote interest that they would assume a club like Celtic should dispose of an ‘unknown’ club.

Apart from Celtic’s current ongoing development under Ronny Deila, Qarabağ were no mugs. European football is a journey into the unknown at times, particularly when even as a national champions, you still have to jump through hoops to get to the stage your team should be given direct entry to in the first place.

Qarabağ may be ranked 139th in Europe overall – some 93 places below Celtic – but that’s far superior to any other Scottish club. The Scottish best of the rest are:

211th – Motherwell
212th – Hearts
221th – St Johnstone
257th – Dundee United
258th – Rangers (are these points even valid?)
280th – Aberdeen
305th – Inverness Caledonian Thistle
306th – Hibernian

Whilst not all of these teams are in the Scottish top flight (tee-hee), Celtic have played all of them in the last twelve months. Who would you rather play in Europe – Qarabağ or one of the above?

As it is, of the five possible opponents Celtic could face in the play-offs, most are better off in the UEFA club coefficients than the clubs above:

98th – Maccabi Tel-Aviv
122nd – Malmö FF
138th – Partizan
224th – Skënderbeu Korçë
286th – Astana

After a 0-0 draw in Finland, Astana overcame HJK Helsinki (146th) 4-3 at home. Skënderbeu won 2-0 home and away to win 4-0 on aggregate over Milsami (307th) of Moldova.

Partizan won 5-3 on aggregate after a 1-1 draw against Steau (49th) in Bucharest then taking them down 4-2 in Belgrade. Malmö FF turned around a 2-0 away defeat by Celtic’s opponents from last season, Salzburg (38th), by notching up a 3-0 home victory.

Better still were the efforts of Maccabi Tel-Aviv. After losing their home leg against Plzeň 2-1, they travelled to the Czech Republic and duly despatched them 2-0, winning 3-2 on aggregate.

As Celtic supporters I think we all know well enough not underestimate any team and not to be swayed by the UEFA club coefficient system. The names may not be well known, but some of these ‘minnows’ are well funded, in the midst of their domestic season at during summer time and can spend the same if not more than Celtic can.

The gap in European football is vast but Celtic, despite their respectable standing, are in a domestic pool that is underfunded and badly maintained. Celtic are the standard in Scotland and have achieved that by running a good business and living within their means.

For Scottish football to evolve, there needs to be an improvement with standards and a plan for the future. Until that happens Celtic will continue to fly the flag and not take risks against teams like Qarabağ.

Be it a trip to Israel, Sweden, Serbia, Albania or Kazakhstan….bring on today’s draw!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Patience and discipline pay off for the play-offs

Well, the game played out as expected last night. Even if my nerves were tested at times, this was a case of job done.

Qarabağ played exactly as I imagined they would. The big surprise for me was that Ronny Deila deployed holding tactics.

This was the right move away from home though. Qarabağ’s European results in recent years demonstrated they were not an attacking side home or away.

Although they offered more in attack in Baku last night, Celtic also allowed them more of the game. They were the ones chasing a goal to stay in the tie but their tactic appears to be drawing out their opponents and hit on the break.

Celtic didn’t play ball and both the defence and defensive midfield played a blinder. Our attack was sporadic and largely ineffective but this was not a game we had to win.

As I said from the first leg, Qarabağ make good use of the ball and postion themselves well. It’s a quality they can build on for sure but Celtic played them at their own game and even though I would have felt more comfortable with a goal we came out on top.

Bitton and Brown were fantastic, chasing down the ball, breaking up the play, taking the heat off our defence and even trying to create moves for our attack. The defence were equally effective and played a key role in keeping the goal protected and moving the ball forward and despite Gordon flapping at one cross he pulled off the save of the match.

Lustig and van Dijk were their usual selves, performing how and when it matters. I’ll single out Boyata though as I criticised him in a previous blog.

I thought he stepped up his game last night, stood firm throughout the match and kept his focus. On the left Izaguirre played a more defensive role than he normally plays but be coped well over all.

Sadly our attack was static and once more Ciftci was lacking pace and movement. Mackay-Steven, Armstrong and Johansen didn’t play badly but they didn’t over commit themselves such were the tactics deployed.

Griffiths (67), Commons (79) and Forrest (84) kept things moving as the game moved into the final third. It was hot, it was late and legs were getting tired.

All in all I think this was a test of Celtic’s patience and character. To stay disciplined and organised despite the temptation to attack showed some real maturity for what is a reasonably young team.

It wouldn’t be right if I didn’t say something about match referee Martin Strömbergsson. Tbe Swedish official was diabolical.

It’s fair to say I was tense going into this match. His blatant refusal to award stonewall free kicks to Celtic though was astonishing.

I stopped counting after 7 denials. There must have been at least double that amount by the time the final whistle came.

As it was it took until the 76th minute for the Swede to award one if those stonewallers. It wasn’t our first free kick of the game but it was the first given in an attacking area of the park, all of which were previously ignored.

In the end Celtic set out their stall to counter Qarabağ’s counter attacking style of play. Without the referee’s assistance Celtic are in the bowl for Friday’s draw.

Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Partizan (Serbia), Malmö FF (Sweden), Skënderbeu Korçë (Albania) or Astana (Kazakhstan) are Celtic’s potential opponents. At first glance I’d prefer the Israeli side or the Albanian’s not for location, just for our chances.

It will be another step up for Ronny Deila and his players as the expectations become more real. European football is secure until December but the Champions League is where we want to be.

Until Friday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac