Time to tough it out 

As Celtic fans we are all concerned about the injury crisis at the club, no arguments there. Similarly, we are also distraught at the lack of cover there is for central defence.

Celtic are currently is Kazakhstan, preparing to face FC Astana in a Champions League qualifier this afternoon. Alarm bells have been ringing because Brendan Rodgers is short of capable options to play centre half.

Jozo Simunovic, Dedryck Boyata and now Erik Sviatchenko are all injured. Charlie Mulgrew’s failure to sign a new contract has also shortened the list of able candidates.

Recent addition Kolo Toure wasn’t just late to the party, but not fit for duty either. Although he has now been registered in time for the home leg as a wildcard.

So for this long trip to the Middle East (you know the Central Asian country?), Celtic’s second trip there in three years, there are few options. The only regular centre back is Efe Ambrose and we are all aware of the potential risk involved with his inclusion in crucial matches.

That leaves Mikael Lustig, who has played in central defence for Celtic in the past, and the slightly less experienced Eoghan O’Connell. I have no problem playing these two whereas with Efe, I have a huge problem.

My heart says Lustig and O’Connell but my head tells me Brendan may give Efe the nod. The only other option could be that he played all three in a flat back formation, but I doubt even Brendan would be so bold in an away match this early on.

The tie itself will be played on an artificial surface though far superior to the one we saw in Gibraltar. The question for Brendan is will he be planning to go for a goal over there or tough it out for the return leg at Celtic Park?

FC Astana are not to be underestimated and given Celtic’s first leg performance against Lincoln Red Imps, I don’t fancy our chances in Kazakhstan. Neil Lennon lost out there in 2013 to Shakhter Karagandy.

The home leg was hard-fought and saw the Hoops through to the group stage but that was a disastrous campaign and Lennon’s last season. Now we are at the beginning of a new era under another Northern Irishman.

We all have high hopes for Brendan but there has been a debate going on amongst Celtic supporters about a lack of transfer activity this summer. That supporters have been duped by the board and the new manager won’t have much to spend after all.

This is where caution is required. I’m as edgy as the next fan, but I am also a patient person (most of the time).

For some fans, their patience was worn thin during the Ronny Deila reign and I can’t argue about. With Brendan Rodgers, fans want to see signings that match the ambitions and stature of the new manager.

I get that, I really do. We could have done so much more to cover ourselves for these qualifiers.

Our squad is huge though and still requires a short back and sides. Brendan is using this squad as it should be and by doing so, further changes will happen.

We’re all concerned that the club are running the risk of another failed Champions League campaign. I said to my own friends last season that if you were to put the same group of players under new management I would be interesting to see the results.

Right now I think that is where we are at. Reviewing the rather large group of players which has been inherited by Brendan Rodgers.

This doesn’t sort out our predicament of an ailing squad though. Aside from departures and defensive injuries, Kristoffer Ajer and Stefan Johansen didn’t make the trip to Kazakhstan.

There is an ample squad size though for Brendan Rodgers to work with for this leg. I’m not predicting a win for this game, even with FC Astana’s top man out injured.

They proved their worth on home ground last season in the Champions League drawing all three matches to superior teams. Even gaining an away victory in Turkey.

The bottom line here though is that both Brendan Rodgers and his team have an opportunity to improve upon the last away match and against better opposition. With every game that goes by we should get stronger and as the squad is reshaped we will see comings and goings as deemed necessary by Brendan.

A defeat over in Kazakhstan would not be total surprise nor would it be a total disaster. Unless of course it was a significant failure.

Competing at this stage in the football calendar is tough enough without having to travel almost 4000 miles. And that isn’t even taking into consideration the time difference.

Still, I think Celtic are capable of a draw and we will should see a step up in terms of performance since the last round. Every week that goes by, the team will be getting sharper and nearing that phase where their season is really kicking off in terms of fitness.

It is still July and at this stage most European clubs are still enjoying friendlies. Well Celtic are doing the same whilst trying to save themselves for these ridiculous qualifying rounds which are quite frankly a sham for all league winners.

So go out there this afternoon and give it your all Bhoys. We’ll be cheering you on predominantly from our armchairs but you’ll have the hardcore travellers as well.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Imps dispatched, Astana await

Celtic laid to rest their Gibraltar woes at Celtic Park last night by finishing off Lincoln Red Imps with succinct victory. The Hoops continually threatened from the first whistle, but they would have to wait until the 23rd minute to do what the failed to do last week and score a goal.

In fact Celtic helped themselves to three goals in the space of six mintues. That was enough to finish the job and more importantly, exorcise last week’s result.

We saw a total change in passing quality and tempo in this match compared to the first leg. Not just the lineup itself, but the attitude, urgency, formation and of course the surface.

The game was done at half-time and we had hoped to see more goals in the second but we didn’t. Chances were missed though with Celtic still in preseason, the players are not yet functioning at the desired level.

For Brendan Rodgers, the most important factor was getting through to the next phase. Unlike us Cetlic supporters, he remained calm after last weeks result whilst we dealt with the embarassment of losing 1-0 to a semi-professional side.

Our anger was warranted, even if winning the tie overall was never in doubt for the manager. That’s not an unsual difference of opinion but we’ve already seen two failed attempts at entering the Champions League under Ronny Deila so we desperately need Brendan Rodgers to make it first time around.

As for the playing side, we still need investment. The next round is a tougher test with the away leg in a totally different time zone and at quite some distance.

Don’t expect Celtic to win that one. The last trip to Kazakhstan saw Celtic lose 2-0 in August 2013 in the Champions Legaue play off to FC Shakhter Karagandy.

Celtic overturned the scoreline at Celtic Park winning 3-0 in the second leg. That was a test of nerves but as it turned out, a pretty awful experience in the group phase.

The question remains whether we will see additions to the squad for this next round. FC Astana are a new club, having only been founded in 2009 but they reached the group stages of the Champions League last season.

Despite finishing bottom of their group, they proved to all away teams that Kazakhstan wasn’t an easy place to come to. They drew all three home fixtures against Benfica (2-2), Atletico Madrid (0-0) andGalatasaray (2-2).

Even though they managed a 1-1 draw in Turkey, they lost 2-0 in Portugal and 4-0 in Spain.That left them foot of the group but against that opposition in your first group phase it’s not too shabby at all.

So Celtic will have there work cut out for them. Some investment will happen soon but it remains to be seem if that will happen before tonights deadline even if it is just one player to shore up the defence.

Lincoln Red Imps may only have got a goal courtesy of Efe Ambrose’s comedic defending but you can be sure FC Astana will be more threatening to Celtic’s unsettled back line. Erik Sviatchenko needs someone to step in alomgside him and steady the ship.

Mikael Lustig is capable of playing centre half and may be an option should any signings fail to materialise. It wouldn’t be ideal but not a disaster either.

Eoghan O’Connell is another possibility. Even thoughhe lacks experience, he knows the team and always looks steady in that position.

I feel more comfortable after watching last night’s performance but as Chris Davies said it’s about getting the right player on the right deal. There’s no point in just signing anyone – we’ve done that before and it’s a waste of resources.

So let’s see what this evening brings. Consider the Imps dispatched. 

Hail! Hail

Stevie Mac

 

No capital gain for Celtic

The true position of Celtic Football Club was abundantly clear last night. What was on display at Murrayfield was not just devoid of passion and determination, but simple football and basic communication.

Prior to kick off there remained a chance and an opportunity to repair the damage from a week ago in Warsaw. What I saw in Edinburgh turned out to be worse than the first leg.

I’ll set aside the issue that the squad has not been strengthened for now (in fact it’s a likely to get weaker fairly soon). What I will discuss is Ronny Deila, his coaching team and the players he does have at his disposal.

Last week we witnessed a disaster. The bright start made by Celtic eventually slid in presence and quality as the match continued.

A red card and a capitulation could have and probably should have seen Celtic fighting a bigger deficit at Murrayfield last night. As it turns out the deficit was three goals with an way goal in the bag as a boost – not impossible to turn around.

Whilst others went off at the deep end, I gave Deila the benefit of the doubt. The chance to redeem himself with eleven players rather than the ten he was left with for last week’s second half was enough for me to remain optimistic but all involved would have to step it up.

What I watched last night lacked everything you need in European football. In terms of level of performance, it was a shadow of a Celtic side.

With Efe Ambrose suspended, Deila selected Mikael Lustig to partner Virgil van Dijk in central defence. That seemed like the sensible choice given vice captain Charlie Mulgrew’s surprisingly woeful stand-in (or should that be stand-up?) contribution last week, a role he won plaudits for not so long ago.

Emilio Izaguirre was back in the starting line up in his usual left back role. Adam Matthews, who deputised for Izaguirre last week (though why I still don’t know) returned to his more familiar position at right back. With Fraser Forster in goal, this is the defence most of us would have chosen and certainly one I didn’t disagree with.

Then there’s the midfield. Weakened by the injured club captain Scott Brown and lacking the kind of personnel not just to win over fans but to actually win the battle in the middle of the park.

Alongside captain Mulgrew was Stefan Johansen and the young but wilful Callum McGregor. Also in the mix was Nir Biton who if memory serves correctly has barely seen any action this summer.

In front of them was Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes. Commons is a first pick at all times but Stokes’s (unplayed last week) inclusion left me wondering once more why Leigh Griffith’s or even the ‘in form’ Teemu Pukki didn’t get the nod.

Even with this starting lineup I gave the manager the benefit of the doubt. As the match got underway it transpired that the wheels had come off, the teeth had fell out and the game was a bogey.

I’ve seen Celtic teams of the past at least show the determination and effort required to try and overcome a first leg humbling. As an example, Strachan came up short against Artmedia Bratislava away but returned to Celtic Park getting a good win only to come up short in goals scored.

Just last season saw Neil Lennon take virtually the same group of players and overturn a poor away result against Shakhter Karagandy. Lennon did manage to overturn that result, but last seasons unconvincing entry into the Champions League was a warning to the club.

Despite making the group stage last season it was a poor offering and should have been confirmation that this season would yield little more without change. Now that Celtic are out of the Champions League competition shows you that the warning signs were ignored or at the very least, accepted by the board.

You could argue that it wasn’t Celtic Park and therefore didn’t feel like a home game. We weren’t screaming about that when we put minnows KR Reykjavik to bed two weeks earlier though.

What fans are seeing is the club downsizing to the point where they are happy to do just enough to win the league. Given that grim outlook, Europe won’t be a happy hunting ground, as this Champions League “campaign” has shown as well as the one prior to this have demonstrated.

We know that Celtic are not able to compete at the top in terms of transfer fees and wages. I’m not entirely sure where we are competing though.

Lennon said after last weeks game in Warsaw that this result was coming. That the club had to spend but wouldn’t.

As much as it saddened me to hear Lennon say this so soon after leaving, left me feeling unhappy with him. To a degree he is right though, and certainly knows more than I or any other fan.

What now awaits Celtic is a two leg play off match for the Europa League. As much as I hate to say it, this might be a better competition for Ronny Deila if he is to succeed in creating his own team.

If Celtic had somehow overturned the deficit last night the next opponent would surely have wiped the floor with us. The thought of not playing in the Champions League makes my heart sink but at least I won’t have to watch Celtic get slaughtered.

Europa League football isn’t guaranteed, nor am I convinced that Celtic will qualify. If they continue to play as they are at the moment and come up against a basic team like Legia Warsaw then the club can kiss goodbye to any additional income from Europe.

Instead, Ronny Deila will spend a whole season trying to make sure he doesn’t get a hiding from Aberdeen, Dundee United, Motherwell and Inverness. When you consider that Forster, Van Dijk and possibly others might depart, I fear for the direction Celtic are heading in.

It is evident that Deila cannot just wave a wand and make things happen. He’s young, just in the door and getting to know this group of players.

It may well be that these players aren’t good enough. They might not be of sufficient quality to adjust to a new format.

Yet I still feel Deila made some poor choices as many Celtic managers before him have. Also, I can’t imagine John Collins sitting in a TV studio watching as a pundit agreeing with some of those choices either.

Would he not advise against some of Deila’s choices? Would he not moot a similar setup to Lennon’s until they had the right personnel in place?

I was also baffled by the decision to throw on Forrest when the game was already dead and buried. I mean why throw on a guy with injury problems when the match is lost?

It was stupid and put the player at risk. Even Deila himself admitted a few weeks ago that he would not rush Forrest back until he was 100%.

I can’t put my finger on the issue or the decisions. I can only endure what is to come and hope that in the long term Deila’s vision will bear fruit.

It must be said though, Europe is not the theatre to perform new tricks in. In the Champions League there is too much at stake, particularly for Celtic.

I bought into the Deila appointment and avoiding total calamity, I am still prepared to give him a season to make things happen. The question is, what are the board prepared to do to help him get there?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Once more unto the breach…

Forget about the origin of this blog’s title. This is quote is all about Celtic.

Last night Celtic were drafted into todays draw for the Champions League Group Stage. It is the second sucessive time Neil Lennon has achieved this during his management at the club.

I never got to see the first leg in Kazakhstan due to being in the Canadian wilderness for two weeks, but it was a shock to discover the score a day later in a local newspaper. I don’t think for one minute that Karagandy were underestimated but the defensive pairing from that match appeared to have supporters asking questions.

The job would have to be done at Celtic Park instead and whilst it was never a foregone conclusion that Celtic would overturn the deficit last night, they were dominant in their approach to do just that. If any Celtic supporter was like me, there would be a fair amount of prematch anxiety about the biggest game of the season to date.

The set up seemed just about right though initially I felt Mulgrew may have been better placed in the middle of defence. That opinion was proved wrong as his personal performance, as well as the whole of the defence, stood firm.

The only issue that had our hearts in our mouths was that Karagandy throw which nobody dealt with and crashed off the bar when the tie was level. From what I hear, long throws were an issue in the first leg for Celtic.

The team selection was pretty much spot on last night. The only two below par performances were those of James Forrest and Joe Ledley in the first half.

Forrest was getting no joy on the left, mainly down to his first touch. Late on in the first half, Lennon moved him to the opposite wing.

That proved fortuitous as he gave the Karagandy defence a tough time. For Ledley, it was merely a case of ‘get your act together’ which he eventually did.

He’s usually Mr Reliable for Celtic but it took him 45 minutes to wake up. I’m more than happy as supporter that he did because right now Lennon lacks midfield steel.

A goal minutes before half time and a minutes after were timely, something which Pat Bonner accurately highlighted on SSN last night. Its always good to end the first half on a high and start the second with the same reward.

It has to be said though, I had more lager in the fridge for extra time. Thankfully, my jet lag was saved in the minutes before the final whistle.

After a stunning goal by Kris Commons and a deserved goal by Georgios Samaras, time was ticking. The timing of the winning goal could not have been better.

James Forrest, whose first half performance was now a distant memory, got the goal which sealed the deal. It was a finish that had the support going mental but it was the footwork of Anthony Stokes that was mesmerising.

The match may not have been over at that point but the celebrations were reminiscent of those in 2007 when Celtic beat Spartak Moscow in penalties to qualify for the same stage of the Champions League. A spine tingling celebration memorable for the late Tommy Burns’ aerial dive onto the pile of Celtic players on the turf.

Regardless of how this tie was viewed beforehand, it has to be said that Karagandy set themselves up well enough to cause an upset. They were tight at the back and good on the break but I will save my main assement for their goalkeeper.

Some of Aleksandr Mokin’s saves were frustrating for the support. The most notable of his characteristics were the acrobatics involved.

Its been some time since I’ve seen a flamboyant goalkeeper perform over the top saves. These are usually confined to goalkeepers in previous decades (or if you’re an Italian keeper).

Despite all that, he kept Karagandy in the match based on those saves. He did his job, albeit with a desire for the flair.

In a couple of hours from now, Celtic will be drawn against three teams all seeded above them. It will be a tough ask whoever they get.

Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are potentisl opponentd currently on the lips of the Celtic supporters. Other than these clubs, I would love to see one of the English clubs in there as well.

Neil Lennon is rebuilding his squad and will be looking to secure a couple of players ahead of the transfer deadline. Celtic will need to be better equipped for this phase, especially if they aim to make it to the last sixteen or even parachute into the Europa Cup.

An influential midfielder and a dedicated hitman are important. Since the departure of Hooper and Wanyama, their positions have more often than not, been referred to by their names and not by the position.

That just goes to show how important those roles are for Lennon. Despite the income from those transfers, Celtic will remain prudent in their approach to sign replacements.

One player awaits a medical and another still top of the list. If these guys are the men to fill the spaces vacated the. We can only hope their signatures are secured before the transfer deadline.

Well done Bhoys for giving us another memorbale night. Passports at the ready.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A difference of opinion

I started writing this on my way to work yesterday. Once I got there, I read a few Celtic headlines and decided to postpone writing the blog.

When I read Neil Lennon’s post match praise of the team I thought I had been watching a different game altogether. Either that or I must have been more drunk than the hangover suggested.

To confuse matters further, Johan Mjallby was later quoted as saying the team were “utterly abysmal”. He did reserve some praise for the central defence though.

With Kelvin Wilson’s suggested departure, perhaps neither coach wanted to jinx the transfer. That deal has now gone through of course and this will all become confined to history.

The fact is that I, amongst others, felt that this was a poor Celtic performance. We may have progressed but it was a far from convincing ninety-plus minutes.

There was a time when progression in Europe was a distant memory for Celtic. Nowadays, the club find themselves in a situation where Europe is the lifeblood of every season.

Wednesday nights 0-0 against Elfsborg took us into this mornings draw for a play off spot. Now Celtic will face Kazakh side Shakhter Karagandy for a place in the Champions League group stage.

I am pleased that Celtic have made it through to the play offs. The match that finally got us there was anything but pretty though.

Samaras had a golden opportunity early on and Ledley even looked like scoring. At no time did I ever think the team looked comfortable though.

The Celtic midfield were ‘passing’ the ball like a hot potato. Misplaced passes are Celtic of old, not today.

As much as Johan and Neil praised the defence I only felt that one of these players deserved it. Mikael Lustig turned in a great performance in defence and attack down the right flank.

Elsewhere in defence it appeared that the players were all over the place. So it was anything but assured at the back.

Elfsborg were nothing special, but anytime they attacked the Celtic Iooked like they had never played together. That was my major concern.

I’m certain that Neil was trying to keep his comments positive given that the team had just progressed to the next phase. It is the managers job at the end of the day.

As I say though, I am just glad Celtic are through. It may not be the group phase, but I expect more players to come in now that we’re in a safety zone.

We’ve just seen off Wilson, our most improved player last season, so there will need to be a replacement for him now. With any luck Celtic will go for that much awaited striker as well.

Regardless of the coaching staff’s mixed opinions, it would be ridiculous to ignore the performance in Borås. Elfsborg remain unbeaten at home in two years but it is Celtic who are in the Champions League play offs.

The Europa League is guaranteed for the loser. Some may think Celtic will see this one out no problem but I like to keep things realistic.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie