Celtic’s City Pride

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: Patrick Roberts of Celtic (L) fouls Ilkay Gundogan of Manchester City (R) during the UEFA Champions League Group C match between Manchester City FC and Celtic FC at Etihad Stadium on December 6, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Celtic bowed out of the Champions League last night with a 1-1 draw. Brendan Rodgers took his squad to the Etihad Stadium in Manchester to face Pep Guardiola’s side one more time before bringing down their European curtain for this season.

The game itself had no impact on qualification places. With Barcelona qualifying in first, City in second and ‘Gladbach in third there was nothing to play for but pride for the Hoops.

And Celtic did just that with City loanee Patrick Roberts opening the scoring within 4 minutes. City equalised on 8 minutes courtesy of Kelechi Iheanacho.

Despite no more goals for the remainder of the game, there were plenty of talking points. Top of that was Celtic’s performance.

You could argue that with the group placings already decided there was nothing to contest. When Scottish and English teams collide there is everything to play for though.

With Guardiola’s players fresh from some weekend controversy and already qualified for the next round, he made some changes. It was mentioned throughout the match on BT Sport that this was a second string Manchester City side but I will come to that later.

In all fairness to Chris Sutton, as much as he is quick to criticise Celtic players for not doing something right, he was equally adamant to point out the talent that was on the park for City, not who wasn’t. I must say, Sutton is growing on me as a pundit and what spot on when stating the facts.

I wouldn’t say he is biased, he will tell you when things aren’t right in his opinion. I will disagree with him from time-to-time, but he ironed out the facts promptly on BT Sport which is more than could be said for the commentators .

Ian Darke and Robbie Savage weren’t offering too much in the way of praise about Celtic’s goal. Their focus appeared to be more on the constant changes Guardiola makes, this game being no exception, rather than the complimenting the impact one of City’s own players had made on them.

In contrast, when City equalised the Darke and Savage were a little more buoyant. They weren’t too critical of a lapse in Celtic’s defending or that Craig Gordon should probably have made a better effort to save thea shot which was pretty much at him.

Still, by this point in the game it was looking like it could be another 3-3 affair and was developing into a great match. What a way to end our European run that would have been to have won it.

Celtic were in fine form in Manchester. To go down there with no European progression is a tough motivator but the Bhoys gave it their all regardless.

As I said before, playing an English side is generally all the motivation Celtic need. Ironically, the only English Manchester City player on the park was actually playing for Celtic.

Speaking of which, all the talent that was supposedly left of the sidelines by City were replaced by younger players. They may have been up against Celtic’s close to strongest team, but leaving value aside for one moment, the age and experience of the Celtic team wasn’t given the credit it deserved.

The average age of the Celtic starting line-up was 25 years old. City’s average player age in their starting line-up came in at 26 years old.

Yet all I kept hearing was City’s young side getting to know each other and Pep’s system. Is Brendan Rodgers in any better position at Celtic given he has been in his job the same length of time?

They failed to mention how much some of these City players are on or how much was paid to acquire their services as well. The ‘young’ lad Leroy Sané cost more than the whole Celtic team alone when you add all the fees up.

However , I digress from what was an entertaining match. For Celtic fans this was a very positive nights entertainment.

From back to front I thought Celtic were great. The passing and movement were impressive.

The team looked sharp and fluid. This was a good sign for the future.

My key men on the night were Jozo Simunovic, Scott Brown, Stuart Armstrong, Tom Rogic and James Forrest. I thought Emilio Izaguirre had a busy night, but he dealt with the pressure well considering.

Erik Sviatchenko looked a little off the pace once or twice, but he too made some timely interventions. Mikael Lustig was steady, but also tested by the young Sané at times meaning he couldn’t get forward to support or serve Roberts.

Roberts himself was in and out of the game. Despite scoring, his impact was not consistent but still a valuable contribution without a doubt.

Coming off the bench was Gary Mackay-Steven and Leigh Griffiths. Both players could have won the game for Celtic but City had their chances to do the same.

One thing is for certain about each players performance. Had they been playing more recently rather than on the sidelines, both of those strikes could have been in the back of the net.

All in all it was a fair result where either team could have nicked it. That’s despite the match officials having a poor game.

Celtic should have had penalty when Roberts was manhandled on the edge and inside the box. Worst still were the handful of offsides at either end of the park that never were.

Lots of positives for Brendan Rodgers to think about. A good crack at the top flight which he could have been luckier with but this was a tough group.

Take what we have learned from this campaign into the next. A fine effort Bhoys.

A final note to the commentary team. Despite the blatant focus on Manchester City, Ian Darke found time to mention not just the 50th anniversary of Celtic’s success in the European Cup in Lisbon, but the proximity of that home-grown squad to Celtic Park and the fact that they were the first British side to win the competition.

Credit where it is due.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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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

Killie dispatched, now City come to visit

Celtic were in mesmerising form on Saturday. The 6-1 thrashing of Kilmarnock was a welcome boost going into Wednesday’s Champions League tie.

In the aftermath of the Massacre of Matchday 1, Celtic managed a 2-2 draw at Inverness in the Scottish Premiership followed by a 2-0 win at home to Alloa in the League Cup. In truth Celtic should have won the game against Caley Thistle with several chances missed whilst the Alloa match would have been a high scoring win on any other occasion.

So beating Kilmarnock by such a large margin, Celtic have their shooting boots on again. Just in time for the arrival of Manchester City this week.

I only saw the highlights of the weekend’s game but Celtic looked comfortable and at ease. This was a good warm up with Wednesday’s game in mind.

Leigh Griffiths returned and scored after replacing Moussa Dembele who had helped himself to a brace before making way for the Scotsman. A fine effort by James Forrest, a trundled goal by Tom Rogic and a Scott Sinclair penalty all added to make this a healthy scoreline.

Sinclair kept his scoring record alive and on course for equaling and possibly beating Jimmy McGrory’s record. Dembele’s tally continues to grow as does Griffiths’ but save some praise for James Forrest who is looking like a new player these days.

He’s clearly enjoying his football under Brendan Rodgers at Celtic. In fact, the same can be said for most of the players at Celtic right now.

I always knew this team – made up largely by the previous managers – was capable of so much more. The few new additions have helped compliment the many who have been at the club for a while.

For Rodgers this is good news but this is far from the finished article. There us plenty of room for improvement.

What we’re seeing now though is breathtaking at times. We’ve not seen this kind of ruthlessness from a Celtic side for so long.

What still needs attention is goalkeeping and defending. We must be just as mean at the back as we are clinical in attack.

In time that will come I’m sure. With the added expectation and pressure of the Champions League there is little time to get that ingrained into the mentality of the team.

When Pep Guardiola brings his unbeaten team of all-stars to Celtic Park on Wednesday we could be brought down a peg or two once more. City are a high-flying team right now with one, if not the most, respected managers in world football at the helm.

The team sheet is laden with superstars thanks to being bankrolled by the very generous TV rights kitty in England and of course a very wealthy owner. By comparison, Celtic operate in a less lavish climate despite being the best team in Scotland by far and with solid business model in place.

When Celtic went to Barcelona nobody expected a result. We didn’t expect a hiding either but then we were up against the best three-pronged attack in world football.

City offer something different though. They aren’t world beaters but they are superb.

Celtic have a chance though because they have home advantage. It can count, but Celtic will have to dig deeper to stave off such a potent force.

Brendan Rodgers has instilled confidence into the Celtic team but he must sort out the goalkeeping position and organise his defenders. Dorus De Vries was subbed at the weekend, claiming he had a chest injury.

In stepped Craig Gordon for the second half. From what I’ve seen of De Vries, he has very little more to offer than Gordon does.

I’d rather Rodgers went with Gordon on Wednesday. It has to be said though that this is a position that must be dealt with swiftly.

Gordon is a decent keeper, but his form has slid since his debut season and I was already of the opinion Celtic might need to bring in someone new. De Vries was drafted in to challenge the Scotland international but I’m not impressed.

I’m not bothered by the fact he is three years older than Gordon. What I am concerned about is that we’ve brought someone in who is supposed to be challenging for the number one jersey and has so far failed to impress.

Whoever plays in goals on Wednesday night they need only do one thing – their job. In the short-term we will need to make do with the current set of goalkeeping options but looking ahead, something will need to change.

Beating Manchester City remains a tall order. They have a great squad, manager and are in top form.

Celtic must use home advantage, keep things tight at the back and have the fans in top voice. This isn’t an impossible task but it is a difficult one.

I would expect Celtic to concede as they have in all but three games this season. Scoring goals hasn’t been too much of a problem though Celtic have yet to get one in this group.

I am confident we will score against City. The question is, how many will they score against us?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

You go away for a few weeks…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac