After the international break

Who’d have thought it eh? Scotland record back to back wins over higher ranking teams.

We know international friendlies are meaningless but it was a bit of a surprise to see 2 wins out of 2 for the Scottish national side. Gordon Strachan remains focussed on the next qualifying campaign and he has a decent team but Scotland still lack that standout player for me.

There are some important individuals but they aren’t always available or on form. In the past there has been at least one player you might look to change your fortunes or influence the team.

Right now I’d say we benefit more from a stronger squad. The door remains open for someone to make a name for themselves on the international scene and there is nothing to suggest one of the current crop make stake that claim.

With no European Championships for Scotland though, we Scots will have to look on as all other “home nations” take part in this summer’s tournament. It is yet another opportunity missed for Scotland.

I’m pretty sure that if Strachan can’t get Scotland to Russia in 2018 he’ll move on. If he succeeds, he might just stay beyond that tournament.

There’s no doubting Strachan’s managerial ability. We saw that with Celtic.

Even though Scotland won’t be in France this summer, it will be a motivator that England, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and Wales are. We’re used to not being at tournaments since missing out at Euro 2000 but to be the only country on these isles to be staying on these isles is already a disappointment so god knows what it’s going to be like when the coverage begins.

So with that in mind, I’m glad to be getting back to club football this weekend with Celtic. The internationals have merely been a distraction this week.

On the subject of club v country interest I thought it was interesting to hear Scott Brown defend Liam Bridcutt’s tackle on Celtic team-mate, Erik Sviatchenko.

I realise that Broony is taking a Scotland captain stance and defending his international team-mate. However, the challenge was reckless and in a competitive game Bridcutt would have walked.

Sviatchenko played down the debate which was pretty decent of him. To be honest though, Bridcutt and Brown were both in the wrong.

As long as Brown and Sviatchenko are on the same page this Saturday at Celtic Park, that’s all that matters. Celtic host 3rd placed Hearts who are only 9 points behind 2nd placed Aberdeen.

Both the Hoops and the Jambos have a game at hand over the Dons. There is every chance the pecking order could change in these last 8 games (7 for Aberdeen).

Ronny Deila will be targeting maximum points. The same can be said of Derek McInnes and Robbie Neilson.

You can be sure points will be dropped by all three clubs before the end of the season though. History tells you as much.

So Celtic fans beware. We may draw or lose in these last eight games but it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll lose the league.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Celtic first, Scotland second

As a Scotsman I was totally disappointed with Scotland’s Euro exit last Thursday. Even with my Irish roots, I felt somewhat bitter and jealous toward the Republic of Ireland and their win over World Champions Germany.

Not all Celtic fan’s will be in the same boat, but that’s how it is for me. Celtic first, Scotland second and Ireland…..well if they’re in a competition I’ll back them over any other country but that’s another story for another time.

I’m a big fan of Gordon Strachan. Even before he came to Celtic, I liked the guy.

Despite our failure to reach France 2016 and yet another major competition, I would like Gordon to stay on. The job needs finishing and some progress has been made with these players under his management.

The result away to Georgia was the one that made things difficult for Scotland. Of course there were plenty of unlucky results against Poland and Germany but Georgia was a costly mistake.

I’m not going to hold that against Strachan though. He just has to move on and build for the next qualifying campaign.

And that won’t be an easy task either. In a group with England, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia and Slovakia, Gordon Strachan has his work cut out already.

A betting man would put England through as group winners meaning Scotland’s best chance is that second spot. Eight of the best runners-up from the nine European qualifying groups will go into a play off with the eventual four winners going through.

That’s a bigger task than the one this most recent of campaigns. The question is will Strachan fancy it?

I don’t think there is a better manager out there right now to do the job. Given the amount of poor managers Scotland have had in place in the past, you need to know when you have a good one.

There’s a new breed of players still trying to get a Scotland cap. Let’s work on that and start a new wave for what will be a tough campaign with more pressure because by the time Moscow 2018 comes around it will have been 20 years since Scotland’s last tournament.

In the aftermath of this campaign, it has been suggested that Scott Brown may retire from international football. Personally I’d like to see him continue until the qualifiers begin and use it as an opportunity to ‘hand over the reigns’ as it were.

By the time the current season is over he will be approaching 31 years old. The other figure I would like to see him reach is 50 caps for Scotland.

I think he has earned it and using those four caps to welcome in the next captain would be fitting. Once he has done that, he can concentrate firmly on his club career at Celtic.

It’s not unusual for players to start hanging up their international boots around this age. The demands of players such as himself as captain of club and country and playing in four domestic competitions a season is quite demanding.

I’d like to see him play for another six years at Celtic. Quitting the international scene might be the only way to achieve that.

As I said before, Celtic first and Scotland second. Unlucky Gordon, but let’s focus on the future.

Fellow blogger, James Forrest, asked recently who was the better Celtic manager out of Martin O’Neill and Gordon Strachan. Like myself in previous articles, I’ve brought to the table all of the factors into my writings.

Personally, I can’t take one over the other for a variety of reasons as they both did equally good work for the club. James makes good points about both managers and there’s no doubt that Martin had a powerful impact that helped change the direction of the club but Gordon was charged with taking that further and he did.

Martin had the better players and spent a lot of money but also benefited from Larsson. Gordon built a team with less money whilst seeing most of Martin’s players disappear.

That was a tough job and he did it without the backing of many fans. Gordon had the tougher circumstances and Martin had greater control.

We ALL wanted Martin. Not everyone wanted Gordon.

They both served Celtic well in their time and put us where we are today. Time for Ronny to make an argument for himself.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Taking stock at the international break

The weekend marked the current season as ten matches played in the Scottish Premiership. It’s also the beginning of a second international break.

For Celtic, this comes after a spell of played 7, won 3, drawn 3, lost 1 in all competitions. Before the previous international break it was played 12, won 9, drawn 2, lost 1.

So far this season it has been pretty challenging on all fronts. Europe has put Celtic under the microscope and in the league it has been a battle.

Ronny Deila has been under fire once more from fans and scrutinised by the media. The Champions League exit is in the past so it was the league position he was getting lynched for.

Now the wheels are beginning to come off Derek McInnes ‘title challengers’ and Celtic are closing a gap. Whilst the gap now stands at 1 point, I doubt there will be any praise for that because it is far too positive for the Scottish media.

The last three matches have been tough. At Celtic Park a 0-0 with Hearts (all credit to them) and a 2-2 draw with Fenerbahçe (all credit to Efe) was followed by a narrow 2-1 victory away to Hamilton yesterday. It wasn’t pretty but it was an important result none the less.

Two draws at Celtic Park are far from perfect though. Heart frustrated Celtic after they themselves had lost three games on the bounce – they needed to shore up.

Fenerbahçe came to Celtic Park in their own poor form and managed a draw. In truth, that was a game Celtic should have won.

We all know about Efe’s errors in that one. For close to 70 minutes though, Celtic were in control.

Sunday through up a stiff challenge from Hamilton and they even took the lead. Celtic fought back though and held off for the much needed win.

This has been a period of tough challenges on and off the park whilst Deila is under pressure to make his defence solid and provide a potent strike force. Neither of these have been achieved yet.

Injuries to Mulgrew and Šimunović have not helped him settle the central defence, nor has the departure of van Dijk. However, we knew Virgil was going if the Champions League was over.

Mulgrew would not be my long-term choice for centre half though he has done well in the past. Šimunović I have not seen enough of or even know much about but at the price paid for him, he will need to be the real deal.

With Efe probably close to suicide right now, the international break is has come at a good time. I don’t like to see players singled out for blame but his tendencies for costly errors are well known.

He was selected for defensive duties against Fenerbahçe because he was the most senior player available for that role. And as someone said to me after the match, you cannot account for individual errors.

Yes, Efe does make them and even Ronny said he has improved. Unfortunately just not enough.

Fenerbahçe made a tactical switch in that game last Thursday and it had the desired effect. The same error could have been made by Tyler Blackett had he been given the nod but we’ll never know.

I don’t have any issue with Ambrose being picked when we have little to choose from. You cannot consider him as a regular though because he doesn’t provide the decision making, focus and capability that is required despite being an international for Nigeria.

The other area struggling is attack. With only two strikers in the squad, one of which has still to settle in, Celtic are lightweight.

You can’t ask for much more than Leigh Griffiths is doing right now and he is on course to be even better than last season. Nadir Çiftçi on the other hand will need to start pushing himself because there is nobody else to step in when called upon and the Turk hasn’t exactly made an impact when used.

Ronny has had Carlton Cole training with the team and having a look at the former West Ham striker but any potential move is on hold for the free agent due to injury. Whether Cole is the answer I don’t know but the fact is even with a lack of form last season at Celtic Stefan Šćepović should not have been loaned out without securing a replacement.

Sure, Celtic may have been trying but we should not be embarking on European competition without sufficient players. It is short-sighted and unacceptable and that goes for the defence as much as the attack.

Any procurements made now are ineligible for Europe until the next phase. Even then, we would need to make that stage in the Europa League first.

Last season we obtained the services of John Guidetti who, before turning out to be a total knob, was on fire. He was signed too late for European deadline and so Celtic struggled up front in the Europa League.

This season we’ve got a similar issue. We’ve immediately put ourselves under pressure.

I don’t know if you blame the scouts, the board or the coaching staff. It appears nothing has been learned though.

That said, I am as ever 100% behind Ronny Deila. Yes, we can list selection or tactical errors but it is time to focus on the positives.

Celtic have played 19 competitive matches in 15 week spell. It’s more compact than that when you consider the international break in early September.

Starting in mid-July is gruelling but something are beginning to prepare for better. It is still a long road though when you consider players are still being recruited during this period.

They then have to be integrated and you might even lose some players during this spell. Then you have to face the reality of which European competition you actually made, if at all.

So when the domestic season starts, everyone else comes out of the blocks like greyhounds after the hare. Whilst Celtic are treading carefully with injuries and trying to survive in four competitions.

Consider ourselves lucky that we aren’t an English club with a multi-million pound budget and under-performing. Celtic may be more financially wealthy than all Scottish clubs but they are a lone force in Europe and against stronger teams at the best of times.

Managerial casualties south of the border are racking up. Brendan Rogers’s was long coming whilst Dick Advocaat’s was a case of jumping before pushed and Steve McLaren could be next but I don’t think Ronny is anywhere near those scenarios.

This international break, let’s take stock of the tough schedule we’ve had, the movement of players, the disappointments we’ve had and the ongoing negative press we’ve received. Then look at what is ahead and see that we’re in all three domestic competitions and still competing in Europe.

The season is only really just started. Keep the green flag flying high this international break.

As a foot note, I’d like to wish Gordon Strachan and the Scotland squad all the best this Thursday. I’ll be watching the game in an English pub which 24 hours later will be hoaching with England fans.

Once more Scotland find themselves in a difficult situation when trying to qualify for a major tournament. In all honesty Strachan should have been in a slightly better position but there is still a chance of making a play-off spot.

Part lies in Scotland’s hands, whilst other results play also play a factor. The bottom line for Scotland is to be aiming for maximum points and hoping that Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland falter.

We’ve been here before. I think we deserve a bit of luck.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Strachan v O’Neill: Round 2

When former Celtic managers Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill went head to head on their old stomping ground last November, it was Scotland who took all three points. Shaun Maloney, a player for both managers during his club career, scored a terrific goal in that game to keep Scotland on level points with Germany.

With half of the Group D fixtures now played, Scotland will be looking to increase that points total and retain 3rd place in the group to keep the pressure on 1st and 2nd. A victory is not out of the question this evening and personally I don’t think I’ve seen a more confident or competent Scotland team with potential in recent years.

What I find most encouraging though is that this Scotland squad have yet to peak. Generally you won’t get a passionate crescendo from Gordon Strachan but I do see his work ethic coming through.

Influencing the players at his disposal to flourish and flow is not far away. Who knows, we may even see something special in Dublin this evening.

Poland (1st) and Germany (2nd) are odds on to win their games against Georgia (5th) and Gibraltar (6th) respectively. So the importance of this match could not be clearer.

It doesn’t add any more pressure though. Results during group stage qualifying on the international scene can be unpredictable at the best of times.

I doubt many expected Germany to lose to Poland in October or even Wales to beat Belgium on Friday night. Strange things can and will happen as Strachan himself knows as a player and a manager.

The Republic of Ireland have home advantage and the shorter odds going into tonight’s tie. The spirit amongst the Scotland squad right now though is positive.

I have complete faith in Gordon Strachan and what he is trying to achieve. He knows what it is like to wear the Scotland Jersey and was a brilliant player for club and country.

His knowledge of the game goes beyond match day tactics and dressing room pep talks. Strachan’s analysis and perception of football comes across as simplistic and direct but it’s because of his in depth knowledge of fitness and discipline in the game.

The Scotland job is his fifth managerial role but not all jobs have been fortuitous for him. Players can go through a similar experience and sometimes you have to admit that certain relationships just aren’t meant to be.

For me, the Scotland job is ideal for Gordon as it allows him to impart a wide range of experience in a non-complicated manner during a small window of opportunity. International football doesn’t afford you the preparation time club football does so your approach must be effective and efficient.

This current European campaign is an important one for Scotland and so far I cannot complain about their efforts. The challenge of qualifying remains a tough one though and if achieved it would be the first tournament Scotland would have made since France 98 coincidentally.

Tonight’s game could go either way and I’m already on the edge. Let there be no doubt though, Scotland are more than capable of beating the odds and sealing the points.

A third place finish in Group D secures a play off place at the very least. A victory tonight would help Scotland on their way but they are still capable of finishing in the top two.

Poland have yet to lose a game with the only points dropped being against Scotland and Republic of Ireland. Both matches were draws though I’m sure Scotland will feel the happier given that they were away from home and it came off the back of the Pole’s beating Germany three days earlier.

Talking of the Germany, I expect a firm response from the World Champions now. They’ll only get stronger and having played them away early in qualifying, I’m glad the next time Scotland face them will be in Glasgow.

In fact, the same goes for Poland. When that tie comes around it will also be in Glasgow.

A good result tonight will set Gordon and his squad up for the final push in September and October. All eyes are on Dublin this evening!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

The end of the World (Cup) is nigh

On Thursday night I listened in to Radio 5 Live Sport after the England match had finished. To be honest, it wasn’t to gloat, but I was prompted to listen after reading some online content.

As one would expect, there was the usual toxic mix of substandard performances, lack of passion and poor squad selection. All of these issues come to a head when you’re team suffers a defeat.

Had England, no Roy Hodgson, picked guys like John Terry or Ashley Cole as suggested by many callers, would it really have made a difference? Maybe, maybe not, the thing to remember is that England would still have had the same manager deploying the same tactics.

So instead of complaining about lesser experienced international players, England fans would be calling for guys like Terry and Cole to retire. You’re damned if you do, your damned if you don’t.

For once in my lifetime, England went into a tournament without the hype which we’ve become accustomed to, which in return sees many Scot’s supporting every team England encounter. Because things were played down this time around, I actually found watching England that little bit more palatable and was less concerned (if at all) about the result.

Some might say, “Stevie, you’ve become an English sympathiser in your years down south” but there’s no chance you’ll never find me chanting for England. I’m just less bothered because they haven’t been bigging themselves up as is usually the case.

As one caller mentioned on the radio, Gianluca Vialli was spot on in his assessment of England. What Vialli mentioned in a BBC interview, shown last week, is something all of us know, but most England fans have yet to realise.

“As an outsider, I look and I read and I know English fans and the media, for about four years, have been a bit depressed about the national team and have very little expectations.

“But then the World Cup arrives and all of a sudden you start talking about semi-finals, the final and how this is the strongest team you’ve had in the World Cup for years. It’s quite funny.”

He may only be referring to this World Cup, but this happens at every tournament. I’ve seen better England squads than this one but even then, I’m never wholly convinced that they are potential winners but they’ll tell you otherwise.

As a Scotsman and as one of those Celtic fans who support Scotland but not Ireland, I get international disappointment on a regular basis. When Scotland play I want the best but unfortunately the national side has been on the slide for as long as I can remember.

There have been brief moments of joy but even that was quite a while ago. There is some rejuvenation going on currently but we’ll have to wait until the next Euro campaign to see how that’s going.

England should count themselves lucky that they even make tournaments. Scotland haven’t made a major tournament since France 1998 and even when we have made one, we never qualify from the group phase.

The difference is we know our limitations. What we’ve never been able to put our finger on is what the problem is and how we can resolve it.

One of Scotland’s greatest failings is the domestic game. Sure we’ve still got players dotted around the UK but the standard is pretty low.

England are blessed with better fortune in that there are better facilities and a larger population. In general though, there is more money ploughed in.

Scottish clubs are devoid of serious investors. With the exception of Celtic, nobody is willing to put money to Scottish clubs most likely because its a poor product.

Dermot Desmond is Celtic’s majority shareholder, a very wealthy one, but throwing money at Celtic can only go so far. He is a businessman and despite any genuine interest he has in Celtic as a fan, he must still balance the books and turn a profit.

In England, there is more money than sense. You have all these money men chucking money at overpriced players from other countries, paying English players the same and expecting the same output.

The truth is some of these guys look better because they have the benefit of playing with European and World class players from other countries week in, week out in the Premier League. They play in a league inflated by huge amounts of cash, globalised by a television network who virtually own it and yet supporters lack the perspective to see beyond their “best league in the world”.

England have some talented individuals but I have seen better England teams. If they want to see an improvement, they will need to take a reality check first.

It should be noted that when their World Cup group was drawn, it was widely acknowledged that England would struggle to qualify from it. Tell me something, what has changed since then?

And let’s be honest, is it really that bad? The current World and European Champions are already out so they’re in good company.

Lick your wounds England and come watch the rest of the World Cup from the sofa. Scotland, Northern Ireland, The Republic of Ireland and Wales are waiting.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie