Celtic, Scotland and Andy Murray

I dunno. You go away for a few weeks and all your sporting interests lay in tatters.

Having spent the grand majority of my holiday in the wilderness of Canada, I’m just getting round to processing all that I’ve ‘missed’ over the last three weeks. It seems like the bottom has fell out of my world of sport.

This misery I speak of has a pecking order of course. With all of this bad news stacked up it makes it a little bit harder to digest.

In the grand scheme of things Andy Murray’s early exit from the US Open pales in comparison to my interests primarily in Celtic and secondly Scotland. All put together though it’s one big pot of pish.

Celtic’s exit from the Champions League play-offs was a sore one. I missed the first leg whilst on a flight but managed to tune in live for the second leg on TSN the following week.

Despite the sunshine, heat and humidity of that afternoon whilst on holiday, it turned out to be a dark and dismal day as the Champions League door closed on Celtic once more. In many ways being so far away helped me avoid the aftermath even if those in my immediate vicinity attempted to trivialise my pain.

So I ended up losing myself in a work of fiction called Ready Player One (recommended to me by a good friend, fellow geek and Hoops fan). In doing so I locked myself away from wife, child and in-laws simultaneously.

It offered a little escapism but my soul was hurting and my mind kept wandering back to the result. My next visit to planet Celtic came via my sister in law’s weak mobile signal just so I could check our Europa League fate.

I couldn’t stand not knowing our opponents. Group A will be a stern test for Celtic but I guess that’s what you want from European football right?

Having exited one European competition and parachuted into another it was inevitable that Virgil van Dijk would depart. Champions League football was the only ticket to keep him at Celtic Park this season or at the very least until January and as Ronny has said, Virgil unsurprisingly wanted to go last year.

Having played in 114 matches for Celtic and scored 15 goals his presence in the Celtic defence was significant and will be sorely missed. £13M is a good return and he has served Celtic well so I wish him all the very best with the rest of his career.

Staying with transfer news I was surprised by the amount of additional movement made by Celtic. More players out on loan and more players coming in.

Firstly was the acquisition of Jozo Šimunović. For an under-21 international defender £5.5M makes him either a signing coup or a modern day Rafael Scheidt.

I’m not trying to pre – judge the guy. I don’t know anything about him.

The price vs age bells are ringing in my head though. On the other hand it is good to see Celtic reinvesting some of the dough made from the sale of the Dutch player.

It is a positive sign from the board so hopefully this is money well spent. The club have shown further backing by bringing in two more defenders in Tyler Blackett and Ryan Christie.

The on loan Blackett will provide support to the defence and challenge for a spot next to Dedryck Boyata. With Christie being loaned back to Inverness he will not have a say any time soon.

Although not a total surprise, I thought loaning of Stefan Šćepović was questionable. Despite misfiring for Celtic no replacement has been acquired.

With Anthony Stokes staying put for now, Celtic have three active forwards. My issue with Stokes is that he’s been frozen out and more importantly not an out and out striker.

I consider him more of a wide player or playing off the front man. Therefore Leigh Griffiths and Nadir Çiftçi must bear the responsibility as the club’s only strikers.

Young Eoghan O’Connell’s loan to Oldham will do him the world of good. A chance at regular football and still a very good prospect for Celtic.

I was a bit disappointed with Darnell Fisher going on loan to St Johnstone though. I rate the guy and he has done a good job when called upon so not to see him challenging for the first team this season is a bit of let down given the work he’s put in these last few years.

Dylan McGeouch’s permanent switch to Hibs was no surprise though. His loan spell was relatively successful and he will be pleased to be able to focus his career after not really getting an opportunity at Celtic.

He began his career at Celtic, left for Rangers then was brought back by Neil Lennon. You can decide whether he was barely given a chance or wasn’t good enough but I though the guy had talent.

So now Celtic are now set up for the next few months with a fairly solid squad. What of Scotland and their quest for France 2016?

Well that’s hit the skids hasn’t it? I haven’t seen any footage, just heard the backlash.

It was all going so well but that Georgia result was a shocker. The Germany game can be forgiven being that they are World Champions.

In order to remain in with chance of a play off spot, Scotland need to close a gap of four points. Republic of Ireland stand in their way and have the tougher games but this is an all too familiar scenario for Scotland fans.

We’ve been in this situation as far back as I watched the games with my dad. I still think Gordon Strachan is the man to get us to a finals but we shot ourselves in the foot with this campaign after doing so well.

It ain’t over till it’s over the say. Well, I won’t get my scants in a twist if we don’t make a play-off spot but I’ll be presently surprised if it does go wee Gordon’s way.

Back to the here and now though ad tomorrow’s game against Aberdeen. We’ll be able to see how far Derek McInnes and his squad have come from last season.

The Dons ran with Celtic most of the way in the Scottish Premiership which was good for the league. However, they failed to beat Ronny Deila’s side on four meetings, having lost all four to the Hoops.

We’ll see just how far they’ve come since then. Most of all, I’m looking forward to casting my eyes over our new players.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Arrivals & Departures

In preparation for Wednesday’s clash with Malmö FF in the Champions League play-off, Celtic took the initiative against Inverness at home. A 4-2 win was a good victory though shipping two goals later in the game, not so much.

As far as home matches go, Celtic went about their business with reasonable finesse. Chances were plentiful and the Bhoys were ticking along nicely.

Two late goals were a reasonable consolation for Inverness I’m sure. Even though Ronny Deila was not overly concerned given the broader picture, I’m afraid to point out once more than Dedryck Boyata was at the heart of both these mistakes.

After a solid innings away to Qarabağ two weeks ago, I took back all of my criticism of the Belgian centre half. He’d made two poor defensive errors in recent games but I wiped the slate clean after a very good performance in Azerbaijan.

If Celtic are to excel in Europe, these kind of blips need to been wiped out forever. In the bigger games, i.e. the Champions League, these mistake are very costly.

By all means, if these errors can be blotted out in the games that matter, I’ll take the domestic ones on the chin. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned though.

Considering that van Dijk is still a possibility to depart, depending on what you believe, leaving your central defence in the hands of Dedryck and Efe doesn’t make it any easier to fathom.

Should Celtic succeed in making the group phase of the Champions League then Virgil is likely to stick around for that. I don’t think I’d be comfortable without his presence.

So it was refreshing to read online, moments after I finished drafting this current blog, that Jason Denayer could be heading back to Celtic. The Belgian had a superb season at Celtic and would be welcomed back with open arms if another loan is secured.

Whether Virgil stays or goes I’d sleep a lot better with Denayer in the squad. Another rumour doing the rounds is the return of Gary Hooper.

It isn’t the first time his return has cropped up since leaving Celtic. This time there does appear to be some substance.

Despite any interest Celtic still have four strikers on their books. Griffiths and Çiftçi have a future at the club but Stokes and Šćepović are in a different situation.

Whilst Šćepović has failed to make a real breakthrough Stokes has fallen out of the picture. If Hooper was a serious target for Celtic then one or both of these outsiders would likely leave.

Deila’s pursuit of a smaller squad can only be achieved by shipping some players out. Particularly if he wants to keep drafting new blood (or old blood if there is any truth to Denayer and Hooper coming back).

Tomorrow though, Celtic will need to work with the current squad and that includes new Bhoy Scott Allan. In terms of strength Celtic have it in abundance, particularly in midfield, so these matches are about making the right selection and deploying the correct tactics.

By the time tomorrow nights match kicks off, I’ll be descending from the skies over North America for a well deserved break. That means missing out on first leg live, but I’m hopeful of seeing the highlights later on in the evening.

With any luck, I should see the second leg live despite being in the middle of nowhere. Let’s hope both matches are worth waiting for!

All the best for tomorrow. Mon the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

A week of woe, wonder and welcome.

It has been quite a week for Celtic on and off the park. Enough talking points in fact to release a box set.

After the dust settled on Celtic reaching the Champions League play-offs, there was the draw. Out of the hat for Celtic came Swedish Champions Malmö FF.

I wasn’t the worst draw from the selection but it wasn’t the best either. I’d say of the five possibles Malmö lie somewhere in the middle of my preferences.

Just as we were digesting those two European ties, Celtic returned to domestic duties by dispatching Partick Thistle in the Glasgow derby.

Hot on the heels of that victory, John Collins became the focal point of Celtic Football Club. His comments around Scottish clubs and their inability to be clever enough to beat Celtic didn’t go down that will as I’m sure you can imagine.

On the one hand it is a bit arrogant and disrespectful toward other Scottish clubs. On the other, he was merely saying what most people already know and think.

As Mark Wilson said on Sportscene on Sunday “he was only saying what people are thinking, it’s just that nobody mentions it.”

And he isn’t wrong about that. Did he have to say it though?

Well the subject matter was actually on Celtic in Europe. Upon reflection of last season and this season the topic of how domestic football affected that.

This wasn’t a singular swipe at Scottish clubs. It was more of a case that this is the domestic situation Celtic are in and this is how it affects them in Europe.

Collins’ comment brought mixed reactions though. Players, managers and of course the media all came out either to back or blast the Celtic assistant manager.

It’s a storm in a tea-cup though. If on the opposing side to JC’s comments you would have taken great pleasure in the 2-2 draw at Kilmarnock midweek.

In a game where Celtic ran the Ayrshire side ragged it is hard to believe this one finished a stalemate. There were umpteen chances to put Killie to the sword but a late penalty saved them and shamed the Hoops.

James Forrest had an absolute blinder and Nir Bitton scored a peach of a goal. This game should have been a thrashing of Kilmarnock.

Karma for the Collins outburst? I’m sure many think so.

In the midst of that story came another. This time though on the transfer front.

Celtic are never far away from a transfer rumour be that one of their own players on the move, or bringing someone in. I’d love to see the statistics on these kind of stories because it would make interesting viewing but the one rumour that came from left field was the signing of Hibernian midfielder Scott Allan.

Up until Celtic’s rumoured interest in him, he was in the sports news almost daily about a move to Ibrox. This was on the back of handing in a transfer request and his supposed love of Rangers (though which version has yet to be determined).

This move has caused more of a stir than the John Collins story, ironically a former Hibernian midfielder himself. The pain emanating from the blue half of the divide has been quite palpable.

As you might expect from this kind of scenario, there have been the mandatory bigoted and sectarian chants across social media and beyond. This one must be quite painful for the Ibrox crew to take, particularly as Celtic have sent Liam Henderson in the other direction on loan.

The young midfielder has had a fantastic year under Ronny Deila getting a reasonable amount of game time. That was followed up with a short but productive loan spell at Rosenberg and all of this has been enough for the club to sign him on a new three-year deal.

Now he will have a full year under former Celtic defender Alan Stubbs at Hibs to bolster his experience. A two-way battle with the Ibrox club for the Championship should make these encounters worth a watch alone.

I didn’t take much of the Championship in last season at all. For that reason I can’t even give you my opinion of Scott Allan or what he could achieve potentially.

Like any new player he will get his chance to prove himself. I look forward to seeing what he can achieve.

With the current personnel vying for a place in the Celtic midfield he may find it difficult to obtain a place. I do wonder what Ronny Deila’s take on this signing is.

Are we expecting a departure, is this signing with a long-term view or was it purely just to get it right up the Ibrox crew. I must say one of the best response I saw on Twitter was from @SirBroxiBear “We need to strike back here and hit them where it really hurts and book the Thai Tims for our Christmas party”.

A perfectly weighted response from the blue half of the divide to diffuse any heated moment. I know that isn’t the opinions of all but this one made me grin so well done that man.

Continuing on the contract front, young Kieran Tierney signed a new contract with Celtic. He has impressed in his appearances for Celtic and a four-year deal will see him push Emilio Izaguirre for a place.

And so to today’s match against Inverness. After Wednesday’s slump against Killie, it’s time to get back on the horse and pump the Highlanders at Paradise.

Not sure if Allan will be available to play but at least he will be unveiled at the stadium today. A more clinical end product will be required against John Hughes’ side.

Inverness were more of a threat to Celtic than closest rivals Aberdeen so the warning signs are firmly in place. Let’s get this one ironed out with no mistakes because it’s Malmö on Wednesday.

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

Forget the lying King…here’s the King of Kings

Whilst the comedy show at Ibrox continues to embarass Scottish football (I mean seriously sort yourselves out over there), the name ‘King’ has been embossed in the Scottish media almost daily. However, it was the return of the King that took my attention this week.

Henrik Larsson, the King of Kings made an appearance for Helsingborgs IF on Wednesday evening. As their current manager and experiencing player shortages, Henrik threw himself on as a substitute against Malmö FF.

As if that weren’t enough he helped himself to the last of the goals in a 7-1 mauling of their Swedish rival’s in a practice match. 43 years young and still doing the business.

We never tire of watching Henrik. It does make me wonder if I’ll ever see another player of his quality in the Hoops again during my lifetime.

Topically, a striker is one key position Ronny Deila needs to consider for next season. Leigh Griffiths has done a great job as a goal provider since his arrival in January 2014 but Celtic need something in addition.

Stefan Šćepović hasn’t lit up the forward line as we had all hoped. He didn’t even get near the brief achievements of the outgoing John Guidetti, but it remains to be seen how things will pan out for the Serbian at Celtic next season.

Celtic’s shape these days is completely different to the era when Henrik was the first name on the team sheet. Lone strikers are all the rage these days with support coming from the channels.

Ironically, Henrik used to work the channels himself (as well as other positions), particularly at Feyenoord before achieving legendary status at Celtic as a striker. Who will be our next star and is he already at the club?

When Henrik arrived we had no idea he would become the player he did. Especially after an abysmal debut against Hibs where he gifted them a goal resulting in a 2-1 defeat at Easter Road.

Some players can make that kind of error and be remembered for it for their whole career. Instead, Larsson carved out his own history at Celtic as well as Barcelona and Manchester United in the final years of his career.

To see him play is always a joy. A true legend.

Will we ever see his likes again? Well, we can dream.

Hail! Hail!