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

 

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“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

Hot in Baku

In terms of qualifying for the Champions League group phase, it’s half time for Celtic. Tonight they take on Qarabağ in Azerbaijan in the second leg of the third qualifying round.

This will be Celtic’s first ever visit to the country and conditions are said to be hot. The playing surface has been under scrutiny but both teams will have to play under the same conditions.

Playing surfaces have been a topic for Celtic in the past, particulary in European competition. In the last round of qualifying they played on a 4G surface in Iceland which was both fast and slow in places.

This evening will present another challenge but in football you can’t always guarantee a bowling green surface. Playing on red ash for most of my youth, I can’t say I have any sympathy!

The players will have a practice on the park and deal with it as expected. Deila has already iterated that there will be no excuses based on the playing surface.

With only a 1-0 lead from the first leg, Celtic should be seeking an away goal. Though not at the expense of leaving themselves open to the opposition.

Qarabağ will obviously need to score but whether they stick to the style of play seen last week or try something different we can only guess. I figure they will keep it tight but try and hit on the break a little more than they did at Celtic Park.

For that reason alone Celtic must stay organised and disciplined from back to front. No defensive mishaps, no misplaced passes.

Good positioning, patience on the ball and real decisiveness when on the move will be more effective when dealing with Qarabağ. They make use of the ball and their space well so we have to counter that by being just as organised.

I’ve got no idea how Ronny will set up for this but I’m champing at the bit for 5.30pm already.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A hard graft for Griff

Winning on flag day at Celtic Park is always a good way to start the domestic season. The likelihood of a mishap is extremely slender.

There have been a few draws on the opening day of the season down the years. However, you would have to go back to the 1997-1998 season to find Celtic’s last opening day defeat.

Remarkably, it was one of most pivotal seasons in Celtic’s history for many reasons. Despite the disastrous opening day defeat at Easter Road, you may recall a Celtic debutant by the name of Henrik Larsson.

After replacing Andreas Thom in the 59th minute, the Swede earmarked his debut by supplying a misplaced pass to Chic Charnley who duly drove home a 20 yard winner. I recall watching the game live on TV whilst away for a weekend with friends.

One of those friends (a Rangers man) gleefully laughed his socks off whilst my other friend (a Celtic man) stared at me in disbelief. If any of the three of us sitting watching that knew then what we know now, all the roles would have been reversed quite severely that day.

Winning the league was our priority of course and this would be the season which would see the Celtic put a halt to their old rivals dominance on Scottish football. None of us had a scooby how good Henrik was going to be though, especially after that debut!

Unfortunately we don’t have anyone of his class banging in the goals for the Hoops these days. He was a one-off that served the club very well indeed and almost irreplaceable.

The task that Celtic’s current crop of strikers have is not to fill those shoes. It is merely to do a good job.

Having lost John Guidetti to greed, Celtic’s best striker right now is Leigh Griffiths. His maturity and application these past twelve months have been a central to his recent success.

n he came to the club with a troublesome tag.

Despite coming to the club with a troublesome tag, every man and their dog is fully aware of Griffiths’s ability but he is not an automatic pick for Ronny Deila. Since the arrival of Nadir Çiftçi, Griffiths has found himself playing second fiddle, in Europe anyway.

Much of that of course is be down to the fact that Çiftçi is banned for six Premiership matches. If you’re Griffiths, you would understand his frustration given that he has applied himself, done what was asked of him in training and scored goals.

What is even more impressive is how Leigh has handled all of that. His responses to criticism and disappointment are genuinely a big step up in maturity.

If he continues to deal with the knocks as he has of late he will grow into an even better player. In fact sometimes I think Ronny Deila is being harder on him to mould him into a better player.

I don’t have any evidence of that but we all know what the boy can do. Sure Çiftçi brings something else to the game, like Samaras used to, but the Turk is currently short of fitness, getting used to a new kind of set up and of course a totally different player to Griffiths.

If fit for Wednesday, I’m sure Leigh will be hoping to get chosen. The odds are that Çiftçi will get the nod as he needs games and at this point in the season is the only competition he’ll get them in.

You can expect Griffiths to be disappointment by that outcome but he continues to say and do the right things. His first ever goal in Europe came against Stjarnan in Iceland and his first league goal came against Ross County at the weekend.

Çiftçi can only dream of that right now. Just keep doing what you’re doing Leigh and your chance will come.

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

Third qualifying round in the Qarabağ

Celtic marched into the third qualifying round of the Champions League last night with 4-1 victory. There was an initial scare for Ronny Deila though as the Hoops conceded a sloppy goal in the 7th minute.

I’m sure there were a few fans out there last night who had a bad feeling at the moment that ball pinged past Craig Gordon. It is easy to be drawn into doom when error is made and lets face it this was an ‘error’.

Celtic were dominant throughout the match though. The first half was a little sloppy as Celtic strived to control the ball on the artificial surface.

Stjarnan didn’t really make better use of it to be honest. The ball didn’t zip along the surface as quickly as we are used to seeing on grass.

Equally, the ball appeared to require extra touches to control and move it around. This all contributed to the tacky play we saw last night.

Aside from that 7th minute opener, Celtic were still the team with all the possession though. Then came the equaliser courtesy of a Nir Bitton header.

The corner from Stefan Johansen found the head of Bitton who finished from close range. Stjarnan’s goalkeeper Gunnar Nielsen came for it but was impeded by his own team mate who had fallen right in front of him but Bitton was too far in front of him to be beaten anyway.

The timing was good for Celtic who despite going a goal behind continued to press. After half-time Celtic were beginning to look even more in control and it wasn’t long before they took the lead.

Before the match, I think a few fans were questioning the selection of Charlie Mulgrew. Was he a better choice to play the defensive role rather Emilio Izaguirre for this game?

He certainly wasn’t think defensively in the 48th minute when he latched on to a square ball. As the ball arrived at his feet he drilled it low and hard to the goalkeepers far post to give Celtic a 2-1 lead with a superb finish.

The next goal came from Leigh Griffiths who had come on as a substitute in the 62nd minute for Stuart Armstrong who had been having a fine game himself. Johansen slipped the ball through to Gary Mackay-Steven in the box who squared for Griffiths and finished unchallenged from close range

That goal was a first for Griffiths in the European stage. To retain a place he will want to be doing that a lot more.

I had expected him to start last night but Nadir Çiftçi was given the nod. The Turk offers a different style of play to Griffiths but was largely unsuccessful in this match.

For once I actually agree with what Chris Sutton said in the studio. That Çiftçi has more body strength and can be more involved but for me this was a game Griffiths was better suited to.

There was an element to Çiftçi’s game last night that I didn’t enjoy. A series of lightweight dives were visible and even if the referee didn’t see them as I did, I’d prefer that he cuts out the diving or does it more convincingly.

I do think he will be a good player for Celtic, but that will take a bit of time. I can understand Deila utilising him now because of his domestic ban but Griffiths is in the mood right now and should be given that chance.

To wrap things up, Johansen got his name on the score sheet as well. A through ball from substitute Tom Rogić found Mackay-Steven who laid it on for Mulgrew and squared for Johansen who had made a run into the box and a good finish.

The final whistle cam shortly after that and it was job done. That 7th minute scare was a distant memory though I am sure Ronny Deila will bring that up to Dedryck Boyata who was the main offender in that incident.

Celtic have one more friendly before they face their challengers in the next round of the Champions League. French Ligue 1 outfit Rennes come to Celtic Park on Saturday and it will be another opportunity for some players to sharpen up.

Come Wednesday, Qarabağ visit Glasgow in the first leg of the third qualifying round at Celtic Park. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions that this encounter will offer a more spirited opponent.

For starters, the Azerbaijani team have far more experience in European competition that the Icelanders did. Only last season, they competed in the Europa League group phase.

They were pipped to second place by eventual finalists Dnipro in group F. Unlike Celtic, that would be the end of their season in Europe.

However, like Celtic they had also gone through qualifying rounds for the Champions League that year beating Valletta 5-0  on aggregate then succumbing to Salzburg 3-2, who would eventually go on to face Celtic in group D of the Europa League.

Both teams will be determined to make the play off round and hopefully the Champions League group stage. Celtic made the play off last year having been handed a second chance thanks to Legia Warsaw’s error.

Despite that they still lost and parachuted into the Europa League. With both Celtic and Qarabağ missing out on the Champions League last season, this will be a hotly contested two legged affair.

Qarabağ appear to have the ability to score away from home though not always convincing at home. Their group F stats from last year are W1 D3 L2 having qualified for the group stage on away goals 1-1 against FC Twente.

There is a stubbornness and unpredictability about this team. They do have good experience in European competition though.

Their squad is mainly composed of Azerbaijani players but they also have three Brazilian’s amongst a few other nationalities. The most significant of these appears to be Reynaldo who scored in last nights away win over FK Rudar.

He will be the one to watch but there are plenty of other candidates in that team willing to make a name for themselves. That is why Celtic will need to be at their best on Wednesday night and take full advantage of playing at home.

It will be a totally different type of game I am sure and certainly a more physical encounter. Not something Celtic are unfamiliar with.

For now it is job done and on with the preparations. Let’s hope to see some other players get a chance against Rennes.

It was good to see Stiliyan Petrov on the studio panel for last nights game. He was one of my favourite Celtic players of the modern day.

Although I was deeply disappointed in him and his decision to leave Celtic in 2006 it is very good to see him in good health and talking about Celtic.

There was also a nice message from Stjarnan about the good experience against against Celtic and the people of Scotland. They excluded the Daily Record from that thank you which is always nice to hear.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac