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

Thistle get stung by Celtic

soccer-pa-45Celtic tucked away a 4-1 victory on Friday night at Firhill. Partick Thistle missed opportunities but they didn’t really trouble Celtic enough to alter the destination of the game.

Brendan Rodgers made some personnel changes and the football wasn’t as fluid over the 90 minutes as we’ve seen of late. However, after going out of Europe with a spirited display on Tuesday night you could forgive the squad for displaying some fatigue.

There weren’t too many talking points from this game apart from the goals which were all of good quality. Stuart Armstrong sent home his first goal six minutes from the interval thanks to a great square ball by a hard-working Leigh Griffiths.

Armstrong was front and centre once more in the second half as he received yet another assist from Griffiths in the 49th minute. A free kick from the right hand side of the Thistle box was knocked low into Armstrong who controlled and finished calmly.

Griffiths then turned from provider to opportunist a minute later. It was a reminder of what he is great at when capitalising on hesitant opponents by notching up his first and Celtic’s third, after some quick-wittedness in the danger zone.

Thistle then pulled one back after a solid header from a free-kick beat Craig Gordon. Celtic were sloppy on this occasion but the a Jags weren’t.

The Firhill players then sensed another opportunity and almost did the same again with a near identical free kick and header. Thistle weren’t as fortunate with offside given on this occasion, but if they had been the game may have looked very different from this point on.

With Thistle not giving up, Callum McGregor had come off the bench to secure the win for Celtic. A delightful ball in from cut back on the touch-line by Emilio Izaguirre found McGregor who slotted it ball home from close range.

There has been criticism on Callum McGregor and his finishing. Yet, he’s scored twice in his last two games and as Brendan Rodgers says, he’s always good for a goal.

I think he is a magic wee player who has a role to play. Goals and guile he has in abundance and is a good squad player.

The one key talking point for me in this match was the foul/penalty claim by Ade Azeez. I didn’t see much contact when it happened in real-time and when the replay was shown, I couldn’t see much more either.

Chris Sutton was keen to see the replay and the different camera angles but he along with the rest of the pundits were convinced Gordon had taken Azeez out of the game. Well, I’ve looked at it several times and I still can’t see any contact in or outside the box and I am by no means in denial.

I don’t think any of the replays show contact and for once I’m not hearing too much from the media suggesting that Celtic got away with murder. Despite this not being a polished display, there were some very good performances at Firhill though.

I thought the Partick Thistle keeper Tomas Cerny was great to stop Leigh Griffiths from helping himself to more goals. In turn, Leigh Griffiths was instrumental in practically every forward move.

He demonstrated his full skill set in this match. His footwork is unbelievable at times and has proven time and time again that he can provide assists as well as goals.

That was certainly on display at Firhill. He did so much in this game which at times even includes tracking back which isn’t something you get from a player like him very often.

And….that’s the difference between Leigh and Moussa Demeble. The French forward has been fantastic for Celtic but there are significant differences between himself and his Scottish counterpart.

They both offer something different to Brendan Rodgers and equally as effective. That is the kind of headache you want as a manager but it remains to be seen if he will ever play them together.

Out on the wings, it was a pretty quiet night for Celtic. Patrick Roberts looked decent early on but like his fellow winger, Gary Mackay-Steven over on the left, they were both having a largely unproductive match.

The same could be said for Tom Rogic but to be fair, I felt the majority of the play was coming from Cristian Gamboa and Emilio Izaguirre. Some Celtic fans have been quick to judge Gamboa but he came onto a game at Firhill.

It should be remembered that he has barely kicked a ball for Celtic this season and needs time to establish himself before we sound the horn of disapproval. On the other hand, I though Izzy was great down the left and provided a lot of support to the front men.

Armstrong was good throughout as was captain Scott Brown who continues to have a fantastic season. The Celtic defence was steady enough to see off Thistle but in terms of future proofing, Brendan Rodgers will need to establish interchangeable players for central defence.

Whilst Mikael Lustig can play in there, I still think he is better at right back or in a back three. Erik Sviatchenko is a key figure in this squad and will play there week-in, week-out but I am sure he would like to know who his partners are going to be in the long-term.

Jozo Simunovic is being used sparingly for fitness reasons which is fine but I’d like to think we can bring in one more suitable defender to do the same job. Kolo Toure brought steadiness and experience at the beginning of the season but even he is looking short of confidence right now and almost certainly won’t be here next season.

As for Dedryck Boyata, I am not sure what will happen with him. I’ve never really been convinced by him and I’m not sure if Brendan Rodgers is either.

Efe Ambrose has become a spectator and his time at the club will end in the summer if not before. So unless Eoghan O’Connell is deemed to be an option in the long-term, central defence needs another player.

However, a good win for Celtic and good to see some players getting a run out. I’m sure as the season progresses and January looms, availability for places will grow with injuries, suspensions and exits.

Eleven points clear at the top of the league, two games at hand and the rest of the Scottish Premiership in action today. The question remains, will Celtic go the distance unbeaten?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Crunch match in Germany

Celtic go into tonight’s Champions League match with three important domestic wins behind them. Those results have seen Brendan Rodgers’ side into the League Cup Final as well as extending their lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership to nine points with one game at hand.

On the European front though it has been a mixture of fortunes for the Hoops in Group C. A heavy defeat in their opening match against Barcelona, a heroic score draw at home to Manchester City and a disappointing defeat whilst hosting Borussia Mönchengladbach on matchday 3.

This evening, Celtic face Borussia Mönchengladbach once more and despite the inconsistent domestic form of the Germans, they have proven to be a more the more effective side head-to-head with the Hoops. After beating the Bhoys 0-2 at Celtic Park, ‘Gladbach will be looking for a similar, if not better result at Borussia Park.

Since the Celtic Park game, they go into this game with one win, one draw and one defeat from their domestic matches. Now the onus is on Celtic to get something out of this match or you would feel this would be the end of their European hopes.

There is nothing to say that Celtic can’t fair better in Germany than they did at Celtic Park. Even though the Germans were better organised and effective on the ball, I didn’t think Celtic played to their best on that night.

However, Celtic are without a back up striker in Leigh Griffiths, a left back in Kieran Tierney and two centre backs in Kolo Toure and Jozo Simunovic. When you are stepping into a win or bust game then this isn’t the ideal situation.

Mikael Lustig could step into central defence alongside Erik Sviatchenko, but that would mean playing Cristian Gamboa at right back. That would be a gamble and he’s had about as much match time as Emilio Izaguirre who will step into the left back berth.

Eoghan O’Connell could play in at centre back, but he is in the same boat as the two back up full backs in that he hasn’t kicked a ball for much of the season. It will be a big ask whoever steps into this match for Celtic.

With the odds now firmly stacked against Brendan Rodgers, particularly in this game, there is nothing to lose. He may as well just go for it and give Mönchengladbach a run for their money if he can.

Third place was the only realistic target and the German side are the team who stand in Celtic’s way. Beating them in Germany is the only way Rodgers will have any chance of seeing Celtic in Europe after Christmas.

I wasn’t expecting miracles from Celtic this season in Europe. The most important thing was getting into the Champions League after a two year absence and we got their.

I’d be happy if Celtic went for the jugular tonight and got beat. At least we will have had a go unlike the match at Celtic Park.

Whatever happens this evening, it can be built upon for next season.

Hail! Hail!!

Stevie Mac

Focus on the positives

Tonight Celtic face Manchester City in the Champions League at Celtic Park. After a 7-0 mauling away to Barcelona, Brendan Rodgers will be aiming to limit any damage this unbeaten City side can inflict under Pep Guardiola’s management. 

Let’s face it, this is a tough group for Celtic. They have a few things going their favour tonight though.

Leigh Griffiths

The Scottish international has returned from injury after missing four matches including the match in Barcelona. Despite Celtic not suffering too much in front of goal though, the return of Griffiths is a positive selection headache for Brendan Rodgers. If Dembele isn’t on his game it is good to know that Griffiths is available.

No Kevin de Bruyne

Manchester City may be laden with Premier League superstars such as Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling amongst plenty others, but they will be without one key player at Celtic Park. Kevin de Bruyne (along with Vincent Kompany) is in Barcelona being medically assessed by Pep Guardiola’s favoured doctor. This doesn’t mean City will struggle because they have so many good players but de Bruyne has been so influential for the Premier League table toppers and Celtic must take confidence from that.

The Paradise atmosphere

You don’t have to be Celtic supporter to know about European nights at Paradise. Just ask anyone who has visited Celtic Park as a player, pundit or away supporter on a Champions League evening. You don’t always get the result you want, especially when a good team comes to visit. What you can be sure of is that the Celtic players will have the vocal backing of the entire Celtic supporter and they will all sing their lungs out until they can sing no more. There’s no other atmosphere quite like it.

Craig Gordon

Brendan Rodgers has already stated that Gordon will play in goal against City. He dropped the former Hearts and Sunderland keeper for Dorus de Vries in the game against Aberdeen several weeks ago. Since then, Gordon has made one appearance against Alloa Athletic, where he was lucky not to see red, then at the weekend when he replaced de Vries at half time against Kilmarnock. Although Gordon has been collating faults following a highly commendable first season, he is still number one for me. De Vries has shown me nothing to suggest Gordon is finished. The fact that Rodgers has chosen him ahead of de Vries for the game against City tells you all you need to know. Overall it remains a position of weakness for Celtic, but right now Gordon is our best man.

Celtic’s goal threat

Whist Celtic have been seen to haemorrhage goals in all but three competitive matches this season, going forward and scoring goals has been very productive. In all competitions the stats look something like this:

P 15     W 10     D 2     L 3     F 41     A 22     GD +19

Take away the Barcelona anomaly and it looks even better! Celtic should be aiming to utilise their firepower on Manchester City particularly with home advantage. City might have the marquee players, but if any of our free scoring players such as Scott Sinclair, James Forrest, Moussa Dembele or Leigh Griffiths take the initiative there is every chance Celtic can get their first goal(s) and first point(s) in Group C tonight.

Brendan Rodgers

The Northern Irishman has already shaken things up at Celtic. Of the few additions he has made, Scott Sinclair, Moussa Dembele and Kolo Toure have made a huge difference to this team. However, you only have to look at Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic and James Forrest to see the influence Rodgers has had on them. They look fresher than ever before and with many players still on the fringe of the team and still to get back up to full fitness, it’s safe to say I have faith in Brendan’s ability particularly with his experience in the English Premier League.

Celtic may not qualify from Group C, but I would not criticise the effort that has gone in so far from everyone. This is season one under Rodgers and the club have fallen behind in development these past two or three seasons.

Now we are seeing Celtic getting back to where they should be after a lull in progression. This experience is invaluable for Rodgers and his players and the Champions League is just hotting up so let’s keep the faith.

On nights like these anything can happen. Believe.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Staying the course

Celtic bounced back from midweek Champions League disappointment with an….er….2-2 draw in Inverness on Sunday afternoon. Okay, so not exactly what we were all hoping for, but dropping points against Caley Thistle on their own patch is not uncommon for the Hoops.

Yes, I thought Celtic might turn Thistle over, but they didn’t. I never saw the game (some of us have to work some weekends you know!) though from what I’ve heard, read and viewed there were plenty of chances to go several goals ahead.

I take nothing away from Caley Thistle, they’re trying to pull their season together after a poor start. Celtic have for the first time in the Premiership seen just how their defensive frailties can cost themby dropping points.

There are plenty of positives about Celtic right now though. Attacking play appears to be one of them.

Brendan Rodgers weakest area is conceding goals. Whether that comes from the defensive set up or the goalkeeping position it must be rectified pronto.

I don’t think we’ve got a top drawer keeper right now. Just able, experienced keepers.

Dorus de Vries has replaced Craig Gordon and if I’m being honest, I’m not seeing any improvement with this move so far. Among our thirty something trio of keepers (including the injured Logan Bailly) we don’t seem to have the quality of a Fraser Forster or an Artur Boruc.

We don’t even know if young Leonardo Fasan can do a job. Knowing Celtic’s history we’ll probably punt the Italian and he’ll end up having a highly successful career in England.

It’s not all goalkeeping of course. The defence must do their job as well.

We have healthy individuals in defence, but the organisation must be better and more decisive. Kolo Toure, Erik Sviatchenko, Mikael Lustig and Jozo Simunovic are all more than capable of fulfilling the centre back role so the correct partnership needs to be established so that others can follow.

Players like Eoghan O’Connell can’t be expected to step in when guys much older than him can’t show him how it’s done. Brendan must establish a solid line of defence especially with so many tough European matches coming up.

Sunday was a blip but Celtic remain unbeaten. Tonight they face Alloa Athletic in the League Cup at Celtic Park.

A clean sheet should be targeted here and decent amount of goals for the Hoops as well. The course hasn’t changed – full speed ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A busy transfer window, not a miserly transfer window

I’m not going to beat about the bush. This Bhoy is satisfied with the transfer activity carried out by Celtic this summer.

Many of you will no doubt disagree with me on that,  judging by some of the reaction I’ve read elsewhere on the web. The lack of an apparent marquee signing or a creative midfielder appear to be the main reasons.

With a squad the size Brendan Rodgers has, there are still plenty of opportunities for existing players to prove themselves under his guidance. The manager has already made a huge difference upon his arrival.

Celtic have offloaded nine players with a further ten out on loan. At the same time, they have drafted in six players and renewed the contracts of two.

If that isn’t a busy window, then I don’t know what is. Come the January transfer window, I would expect to see further moves in and out of Celtic Park as well.

Celtic are already showing signs of great improvement on the field of play and that is without a fully fit squad. Now with the transfer window shut, we know who will be available to Brendan Rodgers until the end of the year at least.

The addition and impact of Scott Sinclair and Kolo Toure has been very influential and I would argue that they have marquee signings for Rodgers. New contracts for Tom Rogic and James Forrest has breathed new life into their careers at the club and on the field of play.

Moussa Dembele continues to settle in and has also made a steady impact. Cristian Gamboa’s was an unexpected purchase but with Saidy Janko now out on loan, it appears this was an area Brendan Rodgers was not happy with.

The departure of Stefan Johansen and the loaning of Scott Allan has helped the midfield in that there will be more opportunities for others. Ryan Christie, Liam Henderson and Kristoffer Ajer will be seeking to displace Scott Brown, Nir Bitton, Callum McGregor, and Tom Rogic.

There is also Stuart Armstrong and Kris Commons to consider as well. With the amount of games Celtic are set to play, I expect many will get an opportunity even if they have to be patient.

At the back, it would have been good to see the back of Efe Ambrose but he has stood firm and remains. I can’t see him getting in the team with Kolo Toure and Erik Sviatchenko as key players.

Also fighting for a place will be Dedryck Boyata and Jozo Simunovic. The jury is still out on Boyata for me but the failed transfer of Simunovic to Torino is a positive.

Having been hampered by injury, the Croatian defender has rarely had time to make a go of things and I was stunned Celtic were trying to move him on. I think this might be a twist of fate for Celtic as he will push Toure and Sviatchenko all the way.

Mikael Lustig has the benefit of being able to play right back or centre half so he is one of our more fortunate defenders. Kieran Tierney doesn’t look as comfortable in a back three as Lustig but will be a key player on the left side of defence regardless.

Sparring for that role will be Emilio Izaguirre though he is more like Gamboa as a wing back than a defender. The one player I was sad to see sign on elsewhere was Charlie Mulgrew.

Although he was still training at the club, he hasn’t been shy of injuries in recent times. Mulgrew’s versatility is one of his greatest assets which would have been great to have had in the squad.

However, if he did receive reduced terms as reported, I cannot fault the club. Given his absences in the past two seasons and his desire to secure one last big contract I can only wish him all the best at Blackburn.

On the wings we have Scott Sinclair, James Forrest, Patrick Roberts and Gary Mackay-Steven. Mackay-Steven will struggle to get into the team now, especially when Roberts returns.

Up front, Leigh Griffiths will duel with Dembele so it will be interesting to see how Nadir Ciftci handles being left in the dark. He will either emerge better or go under and eventually move on – it is up to him.

Last but not least is the number one slot. Craig Gordon has been first choice for two seasons but with the arrival of Dorus de Vries, his position is in jeopardy.

De Vries played under Brendan Rodgers previously and seems he will be given a chance to push Gordon all the way. Meantime, Logan Bailly and Leonardo Fasan have fallen further down the pecking order.

So it is an exciting time. The squad has seen arrivals and departures and judging by what I have seen under Brendan Rodgers will continue to get better.

Poor transfer window? I don’t think so.

Some further deals may have happened but for the business that has been done, I am happy. There is so much to look forward to right now and even more to look forward to in the future.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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