Sinclair breaks Hearts

Just when it was looking like a draw, up stepped debutant Scott Sinclair to send Celtic fans wild. Tynecastle is a hostile environment and it rarely produces a dull match when Celtic come to town.

Sunday’s opening league match away to Hearts was always going to be a tough start for Brendan Rodgers. Celtic took the lead though in just 8 minutes as James Forrest pounced onto the loose ball Callum McGregor had been relieved of inside the penalty box.

It looked like a penalty but play continued to allow Celtic their first goal of the domestic season. Hearts were up in arms about Stuart Armstrong interfering with play (though not at the time of the incident) but whether the rules say he was or wasn’t,  McGregor was fouled for a penalty that wasn’t given so let’s scratch that one shall we?

Talking of penalties, Hearts equaliser came courtesy of a Jamie Walker dive. There was no contact with Kieran Tierney and by his own admission the referee owned up to getting that one wrong. 

Will Jamie Walker face retrospective discipline for cheating? Not unless he changes his name to Derk Boerrigter.

One glaring opportunity that Hearts should have equalised with was the free header ex-Celt Tony Watt had. Not only was he unmarked by Mikael Lustig, the goal was wide open for him. 

Nae luck wee man. Thanks for missing though.

Later on there was another penalty shout for Hearts. At best it would have been very soft and not giving it was the correct decision, most likely aided by the Hearts spot kick awarded in error earlier in the match. 

Like Wednesday night against FC Astana though, this match produced a winning moment from the bench. I don’t know if ‘Mystic Mick’ McManus saw this in his crystal ball, but Scott Sinclair seized his opportunity to win the match for Celtic. 

Celtic broke down the left hand side after a Hearts move broke down. The ball was chased down by Leigh Griffiths who, after fending off his pursuers, squared the ball long and low to the onrushing Sinclair who finished neatly inside the box.

What a start for the English winger and what an end to a fiesty match. Celtic deserved their victory, even when you take into account all of the right and wrong decisions.

Robbie Neilson, a good young coach, sadly had a touch of the Jim Jeffries about himself post-match. Being a sore loser and not understanding the rules of the game only makes you look like a bit of a fanny, so only whinge when your facts are solid.

On the subject of fannies, Sportscene was back last night and in glorious er…SD. We were told of this new time slot and promised longer coverage.

What about the Scottish Championship coverage though? Why would they ever have dropped that segment for this season I wonder?

Still no post match interviews from Ibrokes for the BBC. I guess Sportscene will need to try even harder though I doubt their two bob mixture fund will stretch any further.

The Scottish Premiership’s first timers might have failed to speak to the grovelling BBC, but it wasn’t because they drew with Hamilton Accies at home. It’s all historical, though given their history only goes back to 2012, not that historical.

Elsewhere the Dons drew with St Johnstone in a 0-0 thriller. Having gone out of Europe to Celtic’s old foes Maribor midweek I thought Aberdeen would come out of the traps at the weekend.

So none of Celtic’s so called ‘contenders’ managed a winning start. I guess that’s because only Celtic have a £4M player on the bench eh Robbie?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Mystic Mick

He called it, I wasn’t buying it. In the end big Mick was right though. 

Moussa Dembele’s name wasn’t all over this match in terms of minutes on the park. He was the orchestrator of the move which brought about Celtic’s second penalty though which he slotted home nicely to score his first ever goal for the club. 

The big fella came at a small price, but the expectation was high. To date, and bearing in mind it’s only 3rd August, he hasn’t produced anything of note.

Co-commentator on Celtic TV, Stephen McManus, said this match had Dembele’s name written all over it. Just as he said that my mate and I exchanged puzzled glances. 

Throughout the match Big Mick was cramming so many euphemisms into his commentary we were barely holding it together as it was. To come out with this superlative about Dembele just about finished us off.

And so to the game. Celtic looked alive from the start and were making inroads. 

They lost the services of Patrick Roberts midway through the first half. For me this match had his name written all over it, but that all changed when he went off injured.

Celtic’s first goal came courtesy of a stonewall penalty. Kieran Tierney  was chopped down just inside the box and the rookie ref made no hesitation. 

The penalty from Leigh Griffiths was perfect. Not just the finish but the timing of it on the stroke of half-time.

We expected Celtic to come out and finish off the job in second half. Instead we made heavy weather of it and allowed Astana into the game. 

The warning signs were there for Celtic. So when Craig Gordon rushed out of his box to head the ball clear it was no surprise when Agim Ibraimi, one of Celtic’s Maribor tormentors from last season, would pounce upon the gaping goalmouth. 

This equaliser meant the aggregate score was also level on away goals. I was in disbelief that had Celtic found themselves in this position. 

The tie could have and should have been tied up earlier in the game. But no, no Celtic have to do it the hard way!

So the opportunity then arose for someone to step up and be the hero. The thought of extra time and penalties filled me with dread. 

When Moussa Dembele came on in the 75th minute I was so consumed with the unthinkable that I’d dismissed Mystic Mick’s prediction. Then it came like it was written on some stone tablet in Big Mick’s hometown of Lanark.

After some tidy footwork out wide and a neat interchange with Griffiths, Dembele was taken out by enemy number one Igor Shittov. For the second time in the game Astana had given away another cast iron penalty. 

Shittov walked, and not before time either. Dembele stood over the penalty spot in the second minute of injury time and tucked home a brilliant penalty.

If someone had told me before kick off that Celtic would score two penalties I wouldn’t have believed them. As it is I’m still processing Mystic Mick’s prediction!

Now Celtic are in the pot for Friday’s Champions League Playoff draw. The opponents for that round could be Dinamo Zagreb, Ludogorets, FC Copenhagen, Dundalk or Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

Hapoel replaced Legia Warsaw on that list following Olympiakos’ exit at the hands of the Israeli Champions. You could say a bullet dodged but the gun is still very much loaded.

The most important thing is Celtic are through. Now it’s time to open the cheque book and draft in players to play in European competition and move on the rest. 

Hail! Hail! 

Stevie Mac

Euro 2016 almost at an end, but Europe is open for Celtic

Commiseration to Wales in last nights European Championship Sem-Final. It was a cagey first half from both sides though both had chances to score as well.

Despite being slightly better in the first half, Wales succumbed to the threat of Ronaldo. It took the wind out of the Welsh sails early in the second half and the closely followed up second goal from Nani was a deadly blow.

Every effort was made to claw something back but the Portuguese had their tails up. This has been a valiant effort by Wales and they can go home with heads held very high indeed.

Tonight of course we will find out who joins Portugal in the final when Germany face host nation France. It’s a hard one to call but Portugal will find it a tough final no matter who they get.

Once Sunday’s final is decided, the European battleground awaits Celtic. They travel to Gibraltar to face Lincoln Red Imps in the Champions League second qualifying round.

Many expected Flora Tallinn to see off the Gibraltarians after winning 2-1 in Estonia. However, Imps had other ideas and won 2-0 on home turf.

Now Celtic will be heading out there on Tuesday 12th July to face them in the first leg. The Hoops wrap a positive preseason tour on Saturday against European qualifying rivals Maribor.

The team have been going through their paces for just over two weeks now. With one more friendly before their first competitive match, Brendan Rodgers will be looking for some players to get a full 90 minutes under their belts.

Whether Celtic feel they urgently require a player or two to face Lincoln Red Imps is uncertain. With Euro 2016 close to finishing, transfer business will start begin moving again.

Friday 8th is the deadline for this round of the qualifying campaign so if Brendan Rodgers feel he can’t get through with what he has got right now, the window of opportunity is very small indeed. Personally, I would think that if the current team can’t get through this round then there is trouble at mill!

I wouldn’t argue that the team need two or three additional signings, maybe more if we sell any of the rumoured players. However, the bigger games are beyond this round and that is where you need to be better.

Rodgers only real worry is central defence and Kolo Toure is the name being banded around as is Shane Duffy’s. We’ll see if anything transpires in the next 24 hours.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Room at the top

A few weeks ago I offered the opinion that John Kennedy could retain a position as first team coach. If not permanently then possibly in a role to bring first hand knowledge of the senior team to the new manager, Brendan Rodgers.

Of course, Brendan brought in his own men in the form of Chris Davies as assistant and Glen Driscoll as Head of Performance. Bringing in colleagues he had worked with before were key appointments as Brendan gets to grips with his large squad and John Kennedy provides an inside angle to that.

However, my suggestion was met with strong opposition by those who commented on my blog. Kennedy has since been given another shot and I don’t think it is such a bad idea.

John’s presence may remind Celtic fans of the Ronny Deila era, but under new management there is an opportunity for everyone to move forward. Kennedy is as honest as the next guy and his role will be of the new managers choosing.

The other week we got an overview of next seasons fixtures. This week preseason training got underway and more importantly the draw for the club’s first Champions League qualifier was made.

Whilst it’s been quiet on the playing front, plenty has been going on off the field. Celtic said goodbye to Derk Boerrigter some time ago but since Brendan Rodgers has arrived he has overseen the departures of Calum Waters, Tyler Blackett, Anthony Stokes, Colin Kazim-Richards and Carlton Cole.

The club are still top heavy with players so more could follow. We’ve already seen one addition in Kristoffer Ajer, a deal that was done earlier in the year.

So far there is no sign of any further signings, just speculation. For me, it is more likely that new players will appear later in the summer and Brendan has certainly acknowledged.

With a large squad already at his disposal, Brendan Rodgers is certain to get to know his players first. Until he does that, he won’t know exactly what he needs.

We are all craving a landmark signing and in time I’m certain that will happen. Right now though there is enough in this squad to get us started.

If the new manager can’t get what he needs out of a current squad member then it’s time to ring the changes and bring in another. What if Brendan somehow gets more out of someone though?

That’s a result right away don’t you think? It’s no guarantee and if it did occur, the law of averages tells us that it won’t happen to all those who are awaiting judgement.

Still, it is worth waiting for. Even if that is one or two weeks.

With the Euros is full swing it can hinder early transfer business. The waiting game will need to played particularly if any of your targets are playing in France.

Major signings may only occur on the strength of Champions League qualification . However, I am banking on one or two key signings for Rodgers to get his revolution under way.

Perhaps not for the first round of European fixtures but for the next. The emphasis is to get the current squad playing Brendan’s way.

Right now though preparations are under way for the preseason tour of Slovenia. The team will take on NK Celje, Sturm Graz (in Austria), Olimpija Ljubljana and old foes NK Maribor.

Once things are wrapped up there, Celtic will embark upon Champions League qualification once more. So far we know only that it will be either Flora Tallinn of Estonia or Lincoln Red Imps of Gibraltar.

Neither team should pose a serious problem for this Celtic squad, but all the same no chances will be taken in the approach. Brendan has a huge task ahead of him as far as Europe goes, just like any Celtic manager before him.

I am confident Brendan will get the best out of this squad and discard those who don’t meet the grade. That’ll be an ongoing process but hopefully in the early days will offer a good enough assessment to bring in a player who will be a key signing for him and this team.

This squad can do a lot better than they have done. With a little bit of help they can go even further.

In the last 24 hours we’ve read about a two year deal on the table for Charle Mulgrew. He should take it and allow Brendan Rodgers to use his skill set.

Today we discovered that Kieran Tierney has penned a five year deal. Two players at either end of their careers working for one of the best young managersin the UK.

There’s alwas room at the top for the best. More good things are coming.

I wanted to make a special mention to Euro representatives Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales. They’ve all battled to get through to the last sixteen but it was the diehard performance of Martin O’Neill’s that brought me close to tears.

We all know of his passion. He demonstrated that for five years solid.

It was a remarkable end to the game against Italy and a well deserved victory. My wee cousin remarked that it was a typical Martin O’Neill performance and he as on the money.

Equally, it was the heroics of former Celtic goalkeeper Michael McGovern that helped keep the deficit down in Noerthern Ireland’s final group game against Germany. I don’t think he’llhave any problem finding a club this summer.

The EU may have been dealt a blow today, but at least we’ve still got Euro 2016. It’s short term but I’ll take it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The stage is set

With all the presesaon dress rehearsals out of the way and the first step on the Champions League staircase done, the next task awaits Ronny Deila. Having seen off Stjarnan on their 4G pitch last week and dealt with a feisty Rennes side at Celtic Park on Saturday, the Hoops are ready for tonight’s third round of qualifying round.

Stjarnan offered Celtic their first and second competitive test of the summer but Qarabağ FK will be a different prospect altogether. With tonight’s first leg at home, Celtic will be aiming to stamp their authority on the tie before they have to travel to Baku for the second leg next week.

It’s a long trip with a time difference of four hours and whilst not nearly as daunting a trip as Karagandy was two years ago, the task is still a tough one. In the meantime Celtic must do their best to suppress Qarabağ FK’s knack of scoring and winning away in Europe.

Over the last three seasons (including the current one) their European stats read as:

HOME: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 3 Lost 3

AWAY: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 4 Lost 2

Having lost less than a quarter of all matches, suggests they might be stubborn and hard to break down. I’ve yet to see whether Ronny Deila is prepared to alter his approach with such teams to draw them out or continue to play the pressing game.

By comparison the last three seasons (including the current one) for Celtic are as follows:

HOME: Played 14 Won 9 Drawn 1 Lost 4 (or W8 L5 if you count the original Legia Warsaw score)

AWAY: Played 14 Won 3 Drawn 4 Lost 7

At some stage in European competition, you have to know when your challenger is more capable than you and adapt. Celtic’s UEFA coefficient ranking is 46th whilst Qarabağ’s is 139th but that still didn’t prevent the Hoops being trumped by Legia Warsaw (76th) and NK Maribor (83rd) last season.

Whilst a club ranked 139th by UEFA may not seem like a threat, Qarabağ could frustrate or even surprise Celtic particulary at this stage of the season. The last thing Celtic want this evening is to lose an away goal and I’m fairly certain that will be one of Qarabağ’s objectives.

It’s fair to say that this time last year Celtic were in a state of transition and playing home ties at Murrayfield but this year everyone will be expecting better from them.That could all come down to sqiad selection and it is anyones guess how Ronny will go.

Çiftçi or Griffiths? Or both?

Janko or Lustig? Forrest or Mackay-Steven?

Mulgrew or Izaguirre? Only Ronny knows.

The stage is set and it is home advantage Bhoy’s. Take it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Back in training, back in Iceland.

Celtic will return to Iceland next month to face Stjarnan F.C. The draw for the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League has paired Ronny Deila with Icelandic opposition for the second year running.

With neither team having faced each other before, both will be doing their homework with European football at stake. Many will feel this is a tie Celtic are more than capable of winning comfortably but Stjarnan will be using last seasons Europa League qualifiers as a base to progress.

Stjarnan F.C. overcame Bangor City, Motherwell and Lech Poznań only to exit at the hands of Celtic’s Europa League victors Inter Milan in the play off round. However, Celtic swept aside KR Reykjavík at the same stage of Champions League qualifying last season and will feel confident they can do the same to the current Icelandic champions.

The Icelandic season runs from May to September and as a result, Stjarnan have already played 8 league matches. They are currently sitting in sixth place having won 3, drawn 2, lost 2 with 10 goals for 10 goals against.

Despite winning the Úrvalsdeild title for the first time in 2014 their league form won’t be of too much interest to Celtic. It is the fact that they will have better match fitness by the time they face Ronny Deila’s side.

As for Celtic, they will be looking to be more convincing in qualifying than they were last year. Despite winning by a 5-0 aggregate score over KR Reykjavík last summer, Celtic were beaten comfortably 6-1 by Legia Warsaw in the round that followed.

It was only the incompetence of the Polish champions fielding an ineligible player that bought Celtic another crack at qualifying for the Champions League. Even that wasn’t enough, as Ronny Deila’s side lost out in the second leg at home 0-1 after completing a respectable 1-1 draw in the first leg away to Maribor.

As disappointing as that was, there was still Europa League football to be had. This was also a much more suited tournament for Celtic at this point as much as it may have been hard to admit at the time.

With a change of manager and a serious modification to the way players trained, ate and slept, the Champions League could have been a total disaster. One year on, I think both Ronny and the players are now ready to field last seasons progress against the best.

I will highlight the fact that Celtic are not the finished article and still require a handful of players to make the team a solid force. These players now have a season under their belts though and have made some headway.

We’re all desperate to hear that music again. There can be no doubt it is what the Celtic family want to be involved in every season.

The challenge is to face the best and match them on the night. Special things can happen on the Champions League nights, especially at Paradise.

A solid qualifying campaign and a few extra signings before deadline day will be most welcome. As the players were back in training today they will be thinking about that.

Before that we will have the chance to see the Bhoy’s in action against FC Den Bosch, FK Dukla Prague and Real Sociedad de Fútbol. All ties are to played at St Mirren Park whilst Celtic Park has some stadium work carried out.

The most important thing is that Celtic will be back at Paradise for any of the home legs in the qualifying rounds. Although it wasn’t the reason behind last years dismal showing, I think many would agree that they’d rather have seen Celtic stage a revival at Celtic Park than Murrayfield.

So now it is down to the Bhoy’s to get stuck in at training and get some practice in these upcoming friendlies. There’s a pot of gold waiting for the club in September but they’ll have to work hard to get there.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Progress and Silverware for Deila

Celtic kicked off a busy weekend of sport on Friday night. By Saturday, they had won the title without even kicking a ball.

After beating an uninspiring Dundee side 5-0 at Celtic Park, it was a case of sitting back and seeing how the Dundee United v Aberdeen match turned out. The Dons failed to keep the title challenge up by losing 1-0 to Jackie McNamara’s side and in doing so, gift wrapping the title for Celtic.

It would have been a huge match to have gone to Pittodrie next weekend and tried to seal the league there. Though I can’t imagine any Celtic player or official is too disappointed that the hard work put in this season has paid off whilst they were on a rest day.

Celtic are champions for the fourth successive season. For Ronny Deila, it could be the first of many.

The best thing about this seasons title is that it did not come easy. It has been a season of change and improvement under new leadership.

In the early days of Ronny Deila’s tenure it was about preparation for the long road to European qualification. Four friendlies in nine days before taking on KR Reykjavik in a Champions League qualifier was the initial task for Celtic’s new head coach.

He overcame that first hurdle home and away before falling at the next. We all know the story of the Legia Warsaw ties.

They left a scar on proceedings for the months that would follow. Any further slips by Deila would be referenced with the matches against Poland’s champions.

Even with a second bite at the cherry, Celtic came off the worst. They lost to NK Maribor at home after earning a draw away in the first leg.

For many Celtic fans this was unacceptable. It was a closer affair than the Warsaw results but the outcome was an unhappy one for the support.

The European story didn’t end there though. Another opportunity was secured by parachuting into the second tier of European club competition.

Far from the arena most football fans desire, the Europa League was probably the best option for a team in transition. This wasn’t the view shared by all Celtic fans but it was most definitely mine.

The Champions League is where it is at but in my opinion it was too early for Deila and his plans. It may have brought big cash, but it may also have delivered further humiliation.

On the domestic front Celtic had won their first two matches but would drop points in four of their next ten games. That and the games at hand scenario left Celtic in an unfamiliar position in the league table.

This also left many Celtic supporters in no doubt that Ronny Deila should be shown the door. Despite that opinion, Celtic stuck by Deila and showed no sign of disenchantment.

When Celtic players spoke of Deila in interviews, they too demonstrated support of his methods. A lot of tinkering was being done with the squad as the head coach was getting to know the personnel and their strength and weakness.

Again, this made Deila unpopular as he was leaving out guys like Kris Commons, a fans favourite. What many of the Celtic support were lacking though was patience and seeing the bigger picture.

It wasnt as though Celtic were in a drastic situation. They were still in four competitions.

What I had read about Deila and his methods was fascinating. I knew that there would be a lot of work going on in the background, even if the supporters weren’t seeing it.

That was why I was prepared to hold fire until Christmas and see what would come of the work being done behind the scenes. Whilst some of us waited patiently, the media attacked and mocked with some fans buying into what the media sell to them.

Enduring that has he did, only made me respect Ronny Deila more as he handled all who opposed without offering an opinion. I watched the media goad him and some fellow supporters call for his head but I was encouraged by his focus on raising standards even if it wasn’t on show just yet.

In Europe, Celtic were earning points in the Europa League and keeping in with a chance of making the last 32. Then came a game that would be pivotal in  Celtic’s domestic progress.

That twelfth game of the season up at Pittodrie was significant as Celtic rose to the task. A 2-1 away win over Aberdeen finally put Celtic at the summit of the Scottish Premiership.

It had taken a dozen games to get there but it was a breakthrough for Ronny Deila. Despite going into an international break after this, it would be a spring board for the rest of the campaign.

I knew there would be points dropped as the season continued but the hard graft was beginning to pay off. Changes began to take place in the team and there were positive signs that the players were beginning to tick.

The end to 2014 saw Celtic lose and draw their final two games of the year but things were still on the up. A last 32 spot against historical rivals Inter Milan awaited us in February and the league title was anything but the foregone conclusion it had been for the last two seasons.

At last Ronny Deila was beginning to see some of the hard work he had put in pay off. Positive player attitudes were now growing within the squad.

Kris Commons, Nir Bitton and Leigh Griffiths were three of the best examples of players who had knuckled down. Commons signed another contract after it looked as though he was on his way out, Griffiths made himself a serious contender for first choice striker admist former favourite Guidetti whoring himself to any club but Celtic and Bitton embossed himself as a regular starter for midfield.

The tide was turning and even though all were not aboard the Deila bus, the silence was deafening. Where were the Ronny haters now?

With a treble still on the cards and Europe still on the fixture list, 2015 was looking pretty good. The additions of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven from Dundee United made Celtic an even stronger unit.

As the weeks rolled by and the results came in Celtic were purring along nicely. Exiting Europe at the hands of Inter Milan by a very narrow margin was tough to take but Celtic pursued that first trophy of the season.

Having disposed of Rangers in the semi final, Celtic took on Dundee United in the final of the League Cup. This came amongst a run of four straight fixtures against the Terrors and despite having to replay a Scottish Cup quarter final, Celtic emerged triumphant.

With the first of the silverware already residing at Celtic Park, Ronny Deila set about obtaining the remaining two. That required focus and determination which Celtic had plenty of by this stage in the season.

The league was taking care of itself but the Scottish Cup offered a different challenge altogether. The semi final against Inverness Caledonian Thistle would throw up one of the major talking points of the season.

As we are now aware, the farce that surrounded that ‘honest mistake’ cast a shadow over the reputation of Scottish footballs already deplorable standards. The fact that Celtic asked for clarification on the match referees actions demonstrated just how bad the media are in Scotland with their personal criticism of Peter Lawwell.

The negative press levelled at Celtic is nothing new but they should have focussed more on just how catastrophic an error it was. An error missed by not one but two match officials each with a clear line of sight.

No matter, for Celtic went about their business in a professional manner for the rest of the game. Despite that incident and Celtic’s own red card, I take nothing away from Inverness or their Scottish Manager of the Year, John Hughes.

The treble was not to be but the double is now in the hands of Celtic. With three games remaining it has been a challenging season across four competitions.

Celtic have emerged from early season trauma to cross the finish line with the most important of domestic silverware, the Premiership title. Ronny Deila, who was back in his homeland for a family celebration when the Aberdeen result came in must have been ecstatic.

He has proved the doubters wrong and the best thing? Ronny’s just got started.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie