Tears from Astana

The campaign to have Leigh Griffiths banned from next week’s Champion League Qualifier has failed. UEFA threw out FC Astana’s complaint and despite the social media campaign they ran, I’ve yet to see this as a red card incident.

Firstly, Igor Shitov deliberately obstructed Leigh’s run into the box, extending his arms backwards. The two entered into a tussle with the Celtic striker ‘winning’ and Shitov going to ground.

Griffiths appears to raise is hands during the tussle but so too does Shitov. At no time is there a punch in the footage that I have seen.

The smart thing to do of course is to keep your hands down but neither player did. Shitov went to ground easily and Griffiths was shown a yellow card.

For a player whose team were happy to dish it out for over 90 minutes, it is somewhat ironic that Astana chose to cry wolf. The whole incident was handbags and the other way to look at it was that Shitov was trying to get Griffiths sent off.

It’s a desperate quest by a the Kazakh Champions and one which will stir things up for the return leg at Celtic Park. Astana make the long journey to Glasgow with the only disadvantage for them being the time difference.

The first leg kicked off at 3pm Celtic Park time but for Astana it will be like playing in the early hours of the morning. Even still, Celtic must be vigilant against the attacking threat posed by Astana and of course, their tough tactics and play acting.

Astana got away with quite a few challenges in Kazakhstan. Most of that was down to the Italian referee so we can only hope the official for the second leg won’t be so lenient.

I don’t expect an easy game despite playing at home and on grass. The job is half done and we have an away goal but we need to be sharp and take our chances.

With the turnaround seen in Kazakhstan, I feel confident in the players and Brendan Rodgers to step things up. Saturday will allow some other players to get a run out but no risks will be taken with injuries and fitness currently affecting the squad.

Barcelona and Celtic meet in Dublin and despite the level of opposition in this International Champions Cup match, Brendan Rodgers won’t be putting too many players at risk. Kolo Toure is said to be remaining in Glasgow to work on his fitness.

Whether that means he won’t be available for Wednesday as well remains to be seen. I can only imagine he would be pitched in against Astana if Mikael Lustig, Eoghan O’Connell or Efe Ambrose get injured.

Should Celtic progress to the Champions League Play Off round on Wednesday night, further moves and changes are likely. Things are moving forward a bit at a time as I expected they might.

We are seeing some progress for the first time in a long time. That has to continue in the games that lie ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Honours even

​So Celtic began this Champions League qualifier away from home the way we’re well accustomed to as supporters. Giving away cheap goals is a European trait for the Hoops and goes hand in hand with calamitous defending. 

The goal scored by FC Astana in the 20th minute was an open invitation from a corner. Up stepped Logvinenko to head home the first goal of the game unmarked and unchallenged.

There are a number of areas you can examine for this error. All of which play a role.

Craig Gordon came for the ball and failed to collect it. This was mainly down to the presence of an opponent between himself and the ball.

In that wide open space there was no Celtic player to speak of either. That was why Gordon came for it in the first place.

If this gap was as a result of zonal marking then it was breached. Much criticism has been levelled at Celtic for deploying such a tactic, but it is widely used in the game and this isn’t the first Celtic manager to utilise it either.

It could also be agrued that Eoghan O’Connell wasn’t doing his zonal job. I’ve much confidence in the youngster and if I am being honest, acquitted himself well for the 90 plus minutes played bar a lapse in concentration late on in game and this goal.

FC Astana played it hard and fast from the start though. Celtic were on occasion showing signs of setting up a shot on goal but were disappointing in the last third.

The linkup play was poor in the first half and the midfield weren’t protecting the defence either. I wasn’t totally surprised to see Brendan Rodgers go with Lustig, Ambrose and O’Connell and overall they did a decent job as one unit.

The big change was reshaping the midfield in the second half. Callum McGregor wasn’t at his best and Stuart Armstrong was equally unimpressive before being replaced.

As the second half unfolded, so too did the changes. Moussa Dembele was replaced by Nir Bitton, James Forrest for Armstrong and Tom Rogic for McGregor.

This made a difference and even Scott Brown was getting forward. This was largely due to Bitton’s presence. 

Forrest was getting some joy down the left and Rogic’s linkup play was filling the void. It would be the superb performance of Patrick Roberts though that would help unlock the Astana defence and provide the one shot on target Celtic managed all afternoon.

Following a mix of determination and skill Roberts robbed his marker before playing in Leigh Griffiths. He took one touch – which at the time I thought was one too many – and with the second found its way calmly into the net.

It was a goal Celtic worked hard for and I felt were capable of getting even in the first half. Astana were stunned and Celtic were on the hunt for  winner but with time ticking away it finished a 1-1 draw.

Brendan Rodgers will be pleased with the attitude of his players, especially after going a goal down. With an away goal, a good away performance and a positive response from his squad, the second leg at Celtic Park is looking good for progression.

The job is far from done though. We saw how quickly Astana got forward and Celtic will need to be alert to that on home territory. 

The expectation will be for Celtic to flex their own muscle at Paradise. The stage is set for players to make a name for themselves.

Moussa Dembele, looking almost uninterested at Celtic’s equaliser whilst sat on the bench, should be aiming to break his duck at Celtic Park next week. There are high hopes for the free scoring youngster and where better to do it than in front of your home crowd and help take your club into the next round?

Celtic have done the hard bit and with a depleted defence. They did a good job, even Efe, though many will have overlooked his failure to deal with the square ball that led to Lustig knocking it out for a corner.

The result of that was of course the free header that produced FC Astana’s goal. For now, we have a good away result and by the time Astana come visiting we could have Kolo Toure available for selection.

All in all, a good repsonse. Saturday will see Celtic head out to Dublin to face Barcelona in the International Champions Cup.

It’s another road trip we could do without but it is an opportunity for some players to get a run out. Toure will be one of those players and will help put him in contention for Wednesday.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac 

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

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

 

“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

Once more unto the breach…

Forget about the origin of this blog’s title. This is quote is all about Celtic.

Last night Celtic were drafted into todays draw for the Champions League Group Stage. It is the second sucessive time Neil Lennon has achieved this during his management at the club.

I never got to see the first leg in Kazakhstan due to being in the Canadian wilderness for two weeks, but it was a shock to discover the score a day later in a local newspaper. I don’t think for one minute that Karagandy were underestimated but the defensive pairing from that match appeared to have supporters asking questions.

The job would have to be done at Celtic Park instead and whilst it was never a foregone conclusion that Celtic would overturn the deficit last night, they were dominant in their approach to do just that. If any Celtic supporter was like me, there would be a fair amount of prematch anxiety about the biggest game of the season to date.

The set up seemed just about right though initially I felt Mulgrew may have been better placed in the middle of defence. That opinion was proved wrong as his personal performance, as well as the whole of the defence, stood firm.

The only issue that had our hearts in our mouths was that Karagandy throw which nobody dealt with and crashed off the bar when the tie was level. From what I hear, long throws were an issue in the first leg for Celtic.

The team selection was pretty much spot on last night. The only two below par performances were those of James Forrest and Joe Ledley in the first half.

Forrest was getting no joy on the left, mainly down to his first touch. Late on in the first half, Lennon moved him to the opposite wing.

That proved fortuitous as he gave the Karagandy defence a tough time. For Ledley, it was merely a case of ‘get your act together’ which he eventually did.

He’s usually Mr Reliable for Celtic but it took him 45 minutes to wake up. I’m more than happy as supporter that he did because right now Lennon lacks midfield steel.

A goal minutes before half time and a minutes after were timely, something which Pat Bonner accurately highlighted on SSN last night. Its always good to end the first half on a high and start the second with the same reward.

It has to be said though, I had more lager in the fridge for extra time. Thankfully, my jet lag was saved in the minutes before the final whistle.

After a stunning goal by Kris Commons and a deserved goal by Georgios Samaras, time was ticking. The timing of the winning goal could not have been better.

James Forrest, whose first half performance was now a distant memory, got the goal which sealed the deal. It was a finish that had the support going mental but it was the footwork of Anthony Stokes that was mesmerising.

The match may not have been over at that point but the celebrations were reminiscent of those in 2007 when Celtic beat Spartak Moscow in penalties to qualify for the same stage of the Champions League. A spine tingling celebration memorable for the late Tommy Burns’ aerial dive onto the pile of Celtic players on the turf.

Regardless of how this tie was viewed beforehand, it has to be said that Karagandy set themselves up well enough to cause an upset. They were tight at the back and good on the break but I will save my main assement for their goalkeeper.

Some of Aleksandr Mokin’s saves were frustrating for the support. The most notable of his characteristics were the acrobatics involved.

Its been some time since I’ve seen a flamboyant goalkeeper perform over the top saves. These are usually confined to goalkeepers in previous decades (or if you’re an Italian keeper).

Despite all that, he kept Karagandy in the match based on those saves. He did his job, albeit with a desire for the flair.

In a couple of hours from now, Celtic will be drawn against three teams all seeded above them. It will be a tough ask whoever they get.

Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are potentisl opponentd currently on the lips of the Celtic supporters. Other than these clubs, I would love to see one of the English clubs in there as well.

Neil Lennon is rebuilding his squad and will be looking to secure a couple of players ahead of the transfer deadline. Celtic will need to be better equipped for this phase, especially if they aim to make it to the last sixteen or even parachute into the Europa Cup.

An influential midfielder and a dedicated hitman are important. Since the departure of Hooper and Wanyama, their positions have more often than not, been referred to by their names and not by the position.

That just goes to show how important those roles are for Lennon. Despite the income from those transfers, Celtic will remain prudent in their approach to sign replacements.

One player awaits a medical and another still top of the list. If these guys are the men to fill the spaces vacated the. We can only hope their signatures are secured before the transfer deadline.

Well done Bhoys for giving us another memorbale night. Passports at the ready.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie