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

An opportunity: Motherwell v Celtic

Strange things happen – take Hearts beating Aberdeen last night for instance. This result wasn’t totally unexpected to be honest and once more another indicator of a title race full of twists.

For Celtic that means seizing yet another opportunity to widen the gap at the top the league. A win today at Fir Park would put Celtic 8 points ahead of Aberdeen but nothing is guaranteed.

Motherwell will be out in force today. Ronny Deila can expect no favours from Mark McGhee.

This could be bad day for Celtic, it could be a great day. Right now I wouldn’t bet any money on them though.

For every good result there’s a bad one. Good performances a have been few and far between.

If Celtic want to win this league they are going to have to win it themselves. Last nights result at Tynecastle was favourable for us but lets not throw away a good opportunity.

Today, Deila must pick his best team based on form and opponent. If that means dropping underperforming players then I have no problem with that.

We need calm, authoritative players, particularly in the middle of the park. Wholesale changes are risky at this stage of the season but no less risky than underperforming seasoned campaigners playing week in week out.

Here’s how I think we will line-up today:

Gordon, Lustig, Tierney, Boyata, Mulgrew, Brown, Bitton, Rogic, Mackay-Steven, Johansen, Griffiths

Here’s how I think we should line-up today:

Gordon, Lustig, Tierney, Boyata, Mulgrew, Bitton, Armstrong, Rogic, McGregor, Roberts, Griffiths.

There’s no way Deila will drop Brown though, even though he’s been awful recently. He’s not alone in below par performances though.

As long as we get the result today, I don’t care who is on the park. We just don’t want to blow this one.

Step it up Bhoys.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Hearts had the possession, but goals won the game for Celtic

Celtic scored three goals and took all three points from Hearts yesterday. This was a game that was far from a foregone conclusion though.

Hearts took the lead in the 5th minute with a fine goal from Jamie Walker after being played in by Juanma. That silenced the home crowd and had many wondering whether Celtic had it in them to turn things around.

That collective thought was answered when Gary Mackay-Steven pounced on a badly cleared header from creater-turned-offender, Juanma. The ball was controlled and smashed home from the edge of the box to level things in the 15th minute, the only real contribution by the former Dundee United player if I’m being honest.

From thereon in both teams tussled but Hearts had the lions share of possession. Ronny Deila’s choice to go attack minded didn’t pay off the midfield battle but it did produce the goals.

On 35 minutes a superb piece of individual work by Tom Rogic allowed him to slip through a pass to Patrick Roberts. The Manchester City loanee was bearing down on goal and chipped the ball past Neil Alexander to give Celtic the lead.

Having gone a goal down early and now heading in at half-time in the lead, it set things up for a good second half. Celtic weren’t playing at their best but the game was by no means dull and Hearts were giving it their all.

Celtic rubber stamped their authority 3 minutes after the restart with another superb goal from Roberts. This time the winger had the ball himself and as he ran into the box he unleashed a left foot strike early to beat any defensive challenge and ease it past the goalkeeper who had only begun to position himself.

At 3-1 and playing at home you would think you are safe but Hearts were still posing a serious threat in terms of possession and goal mouth chances inlcuding a free kick which came off the top of the bar. Celtic had their chances as well, but Leigh Griffiths, so desperate to score against Hearts, was out of luck.

The in form striker was unlucky not to score with two great free kicks. From open play though he was not getting his way and was later substituted for Colin Kazim-Richards who despite his lack of game time had more physical presence than Griffiths.

In fairness to Neil Alexander in the Hearts goal, he is a good keeper and earned his wages despite conceding three goals. Hearts gave a very good account of themselves and were unlucky not to get anything from the game.

The only real fly in the ointment for Hearts was the performance of Juwon Oshaniwa. Although Hearts were playing a physical game, something I have no problem with, Oshaniwa was taking matters a little too far.

He ploughed dangerously into Tom Rogic which resulted in head injuries to both players and the Aussie having to be substituted before the end of the first half. During that clash of heads, an all out brawl was close to occurring as well.

The matter was sorted promptly when Griffiths and Prince Buaben were both booked, the former’s booking rather harsh in my opinion. Later on in the game and having already been booked for a bad foul in the first half, Oshaniwa was shown a second yellow in the second half.

It was nothing less than the Nigerian international deserved though. There is nothing wrong with being committed but he was veering more on the side of headlessness in this match.

Even though Celtic’s midfield was misfiring throughout the game, hindered by an out-of-sorts Scott Brown, the defence was relatively solid. Overall, the difference between the two teams were the goals and they were all fine goals at that.

Robbie Neilson should be proud of what he has achieved with this team in such a short space of time and on such a small budget. Unless something horrible happens, his players should be pushing not just Aberdeen next season, but Celtic as well.

Now the ball is in Aberdeen’s court today for their home tie with Hamilton Accies. The pressure is on the Dons to keep up with Celtic, but I don’t think this is a game they will throw away.

They can’t afford to let Celtic move too far ahead or allow Hearts to catch up. Hamilton Accies may have other ideas though as they attempt to stay out of the playoff spot in the Scottish Premiership.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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

Capital gains

Whilst Aberdeen showed real character in the second half of yesterday’s match at Pittodrie by fighting back for a draw, they passed up the chance to go top of the Scottish Premiership. Now the day has arrived for Celtic to respond to that missed opportunity by taking all three points at Tynecastle.

Yesterday I mentioned pressure and the ability to handle it. Aberdeen failed to deal with the pressure that awaited them before yesterday’s game kicked off and ended up putting themselves under further pressure, the result of which they overcame.

Now Celtic must rise to the task of beating Heart of Midlothian away. The Edinburgh club came back to the top flight this season (after learning a valuable financial lesson and going about recovery with professionalism) to give a very good account of themselves by keeping up with the best in the league.

Recent form has not been great for Hearts though. It is five games since they recorded their last victory back in early November againt Hamilton Academical.

Don’t be fooled by this spate of form though. Hearts pose a serious threat for Celtic and in an intimidating atmosphere as well.

Tynecastle is one of the few Scottish grounds that offers an atmosphere. The tight pitch and proximity of the fans to the action can make this a hostile environment.

Today it will add to the pressure Celtic are already facing. Supporter withdrawl, an under fire coaching team and below par performances from key individuals are the self made pressures at Celtic.

Winning the treble and winning all your games are the domestic pressures imposed by the fans, the media and the pundits. Not just this season, but every season.

Are they handling it? Well you’d have to say yes because they are still top of the league, still in the fight for the treble and this is all being done with some inconsistency.

Two losses is by no means a disaster for Celtic. Nor are the three draws they’ve picked up from eighteen games – the halfway mark of the season.

I’m more concerned by how unconvincing Celtic are at home. They look nervous in front of their own fans.

Do they feel supporter pressure? Well they should do because that’s your yard stick to how well you are doing.

Performing in front of them should be the motivator that drives you on. We’ve seen Celtic give more of a battling account of themselves away from home which is why I think they will win at Tynecastle this afternoon.

It’s a mouthwatering tie in Edinburgh and is a key marker in the current campaign. What better challenge than to overcome the pressure of Tynecastle and start putting some distance between you and your rivals?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Pressure from above and below

Saturday afternoon coughed up a few surprises in the Scottish Premiership. One of these would result in the first managerial casualty of the season.

Jackie McNamara has had a difficult start to the season. Yesterday’s defeat at the hands of 10 man St Johnstone appears to have marked the end his tenure at Dundee United.

Take nothing away from Tommy Wright’s players because they have shown some grit and determination when you least expect it. For Jackie, it has not been so productive on the pitch.

If only he could have pulled off the kind of result John Hughes did over Derek McInnes’s Aberdeen. That may have only delayed the inevitable because after nine games, one win, two draws and six defeats his time is up.

For a team who have sold quite a few of their best players in the last couple of years, it isn’t hard to work out what has gone wrong. It is one thing to sell your best players to bigger clubs, but you have to replace them as well.

Celtic are no different when they’ve sold Hooper, Foster, Wanyama and more recently van Dijk. These guys made a bigger name for themselves in Europe with Celtic and that bought them a ticket to England, but it is Celtic’s responsibility to bring in guys of the same potential.

You’d be better placed to ask a Dundee United fan if their club have done that. Personally I don’t think they have, but the difference between Dundee United this season compared to last is a whopping 14 points who were also sat at the top of the Scottish Premiership this time last year.

Since then, Celtic took three of their best players off them. How much of that was reinvested?

John Hughes pulled off the result of the day with a 2-1 win over Aberdeen. His Inverness side have also suffered a bad start to the season compared to last but Saturday’s result was a real shot in the arm.

Beating the unbeaten moved them up into eighth place in the Scottish Premiership on 10 points. However, they are still 7 points worse off from the same stage last season.

Elsewhere, Martin Canning’s Hamilton side got a win over Gary Locke’s Kilmarnock, pulling them up into fourth in the league on equal points with Hearts. Having had a couple of spells at the top of the league last season, it is familiar territory for Hamilton.

They should make use of the early misfortunes of Dundee United and Inverness. These were the three teams occupying the top three positions for the first quarter of last season.

Jim McIntyre’s Ross County and Paul Hartley’s Dundee played out a high scoring 3-3 draw. That result allowed Hamilton to skip into fourth so Ross County move down one place to fifth whilst Dundee remain in sixth.

Motherwell notched up only their third win of the season at home to Partick Thistle. That enabled Stephen Craigan’s side to move up to ninth but for Partick it is yet another day of woe.

Alan Archibald has yet to win a match this season. Having earned only three points via three draws, will he be next on the managerial casualty list?

For Celtic, they had a hard time trying to break down Hearts at Celtic Park. With home advantage and umpteen chances at goal, Neil Alexander and his defenders did their job well in earning a point.

Given that Hearts had three straight defeats going into this game, you can forgive them for not coming out to play. A more deadly Celtic attack may have broken through the barrier the Edinburgh club put up though.

Efe Ambrose’s red card at the end of the match was necessary. Anyone who has played the game will know that was the correct thing to do and I have no beef with him about it.

Sam Nicholson may have been able to score, he might not have. In those dying minutes though, it was a red card that saved a potential mishap.

Ronny Deila might be frustrated but with Aberdeen losing, Celtic still moved a point closer to top spot. With results like these, this makes the Scottish Premiership much more entertaining.

Many will still assume that Celtic will win the league. Even so, there is pressure from above and below.

Who says Scottish football is boring?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The story so far…

After eight Premiership matches this season, Celtic find themselves five points better off than at the same stage last season. By contrast, Aberdeen are a staggering eleven points up from the same way point.

For both clubs, this is an improvement on last season, a huge one for Aberdeen. Celtic had a game at hand in their locker during that period last year but that was never a guaranteed three points.

And here’s the funny thing, neither team sat in the top four spots at that time. Celtic didn’t even break into third place until 1st November and finally first, eight days later after beating Aberdeen at Pittodrie.

Throughout the time Celtic had been trying to get to the top, Aberdeen had kept them company around fifth and sixth place in the Premiership. Celtic had ascended quicker, ousting Dundee United, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and even Hamilton Academical from the berths above them.

Aberdeen lay in wait that bit longer and came gushing into second spot as Christmas came upon us. The gap was narrow but Celtic would prevail.

The story so far this season is somewhat different. Aberdeen have the upper hand and that’s what makes it really interesting.

Celtic are playing catchup to the team that ran them close last season. Derek McInnes is trying to eradicate last year’s errors and so far so good.

Today it’s back to league duty for everyone after a midweek of League Cup ties. With Aberdeen dumped out of that competition at the hands of Hibernian, they’ll be fully focused on the Premiership.

They’ll still be included in the Scottish Cup when it comes along but you can Derek McInnes will be making a bid for glory here. For Celtic though, they’re battling things out in four competitions.

Ronny Deila isn’t expected to win the Europa League. He is expected to win the treble though.

No rest for the wicked. Ronny Deila has had his work cut out him.

Yes, he has the superior squad, finances etc, etc. He’s also trying to change things at Celtic for long-term.

If it were simply a case of winning the league, double or treble then you would assume that whoever takes the helm at Celtic could achieve one of those quests. Ronny Deila is changing the entire culture at Celtic though and as he pointed out to the media, even with a league and cup double success from last season, he hasn’t won over all of his players.

In comments made to the media he stated that not every player has responded to his methods and targets. So even though guys like Bitton and Griffiths are examples of those who have conformed, some have found themselves on the fringes of his plans.

That being the case, it is not simply about winning the league. He has still to achieve an influence on his entire squad.

It certainly doesn’t sound as if he has lost the dressing room. Merely that some players are simply not up to the task.

In our hearts and minds I think we can work out who those players are likely to be. So there is another arc in Celtic’s progress this season especially with new players establishing themselves as well.

At this point in the season, it is still very early but as the end of 2015 comes, we’ll see who has earned themselves a regular spot and who has not. There is also a prime importance for Ronny Deila to establish a back four.

With Virgil van Dijk sold to Southampton and Jason Denayer back at Manchester City, it is a whole new central defence. Dedryck Boyata I have yet to be convinced by and I don’t think he’s looked anywhere near as good as Jason Denayer but he still has time on his side.

Jozo Šimunović has come with a huge price tag and a lot to prove. Ronny Deila has outlined him as a very good player but with only one game under his belt it will be some time before we know if the £5.5M paid was worth it.

On loan from Manchester United is Tyler Blackett and after a few games is also still finding his feet. His ability to play at left back or left centre back makes him useful as there is little cover for that position but just how much of an impact he will have is hard to tell at this stage.

Saidy Janko also came in from Manchester United and has looked good to me. I think his signature could turn it to be one of Deila’s best.

Kieran Tierney has also thrown his hat into the defensive ring this season and the signs are encouraging. The youth player has been given a few outings at left back under Deila and played well so I expect to see more of him throughout the season.

As for our more established defenders, you have Mikael Lustig, Efe Ambrose, Emilio Izaguirre and Charlie Mulgrew. When fit, Lustig could easily play for any team in Europe and if he can stay injury free he will be a key player for Celtic this season.

Ambrose fell out of favour last season and despite naturally fit player, he can still be held back by his decision-making and ability. Izaguirre is still an important player for Celtic and the challenge of Tierney and Blackett will keep him on his toes.

Mulgrew has seen himself back in defence more recently and is always an option for left centre back or left back. That will always depend on the opponent but he is equally utilised in the midfield.

What needs to be pin pointed is the central pairing in defence. Once established, Deila can make that partnership stick and when the need comes to make a single change, it should not be so disruptive.

Who those two players will be we have yet to find out. It will be key to Ronny Deila’s success this season on the domestic and European front if he can find a pairing that works.

So to today and Celtic host Heart of Midlothian at Celtic Park. Last seasons runaway Championship winners sit four points behind Celtic in the Premiership.

Their last three league matches have all been defeats and will be hoping to avoid a fourth today at the hands of the current Champions. Celtic utilised fringe players midweek against Raith Rovers but you can expect a strong team for today’s game.

Celtic need to win this one to keep pressure on Aberdeen. The Don’s are away to Inverness Caledonian Thistle and if it were last season I know who I’d put my money.

As it is, Inverness have had a poor start to this campaign with only one win in eight games. Pitting that statistic against an unbeaten Aberdeen gives you a rough idea where your money should go but you just never know when a form team can hit the skids.

Midweek was a slip up for McInnes but not for John Hughes, Ronny Deila or Robbie Neilson. All eyes will be on these two fixtures.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac