Forging ahead

20150921-mind-the-gapThere was nothing scintillating about Celtic’s win over Kilmarnock last night. A single goal decided the match, but this was no easy three points for Brendan Rodgers.

In the first half Celtic were dominant with good work rates from Callum McGregor and James Forrest in attack. Despite retaining the ball for long periods though, Celtic weren’t really penetrating the Kilmarnock defence.

In fairness to the Ayrshire side, they put up a solid formation, but they didn’t sit back too much either. They hit on the break and put Celtic under pressure at times and probably could have scored a goal or two had it not been from a lack of composure or better fortune, which in this game would have made things more interesting.

Celtic had several chances themselves, but composure and luck deserted them on all but one occasion. The second half was a little more feisty with several players becoming involved in mini-tussles.

Craig Gordon had a least one blip which could have been worse and Dedryck Boyata, starting his first game under the new manager, looked shaky on more than one occasion. Gordon did recover though but I’m still no more impressed with Boyata than I was when he played under Ronny Deila.

Stuart Armstrong also found himself under pressure in the first half a couple of times. He looked like he was wearing the wrong boots….until he scored.

Armstrong, a growing presence in the Celtic midfield these days, put away a tidy finish after a good run and some neat interplay in front of him. His all round game is becoming more prominent in the team with every passing game and he showed that even after a slip up earlier in the game he can retain his composure when required.

When you have a young talented player like this in your squad, why would you even bother with Steven Gerrard? We already have one senior midfielder in Scott Brown who is playing his best football in years.

And when you consider that Tom Rogic is adding goals, pace and skill in a midfield-attack role, our midfield is looking healthy. Nir Bitton will want to sort out is ailing game and get back in the program because he is slipping down the pecking order and rightly so.

So it is another 3 points for Celtic and the gap is widening. Another clean sheet takes Celtic step closer to obtaining another Scottish league record.

The rest of the Scottish Premiership are in action this afternoon and on Monday night. Four teams will be hoping to catchup with Brendan Rodgers runaway train.

Aberdeen (2nd) have a tricky one away to Inverness (6th), The Rangers (3rd) have and easy one at home to Dundee (11th),  St Johnstone (joint 5th) are at home to Ross County (12th) today and Hearts (joint 5th) are away to Hamilton (9th) on Monday night. With Celtic are 13 points clear at the top of the league, only a point separates second, third and fourth/fifth placed teams.

It is that tight and the pecking order could change very quickly. This is an interesting battle as four teams compete to be Celtic’s real contender though at this stage it is looking like the best of the rest.

Aberdeen have been that team for a while. Hearts showed their intentions last season.

We’ll know by the end of the season just how close The Rangers are to mounting a serious challenge. Right now they are sitting third, but no team is as near as Celtic as they would like to be.

In the meantime, Brendan Rodgers will prepare for Barcelona on Wednesday night in the Champions League. Can he beat the Catalan machine on home turf as his Northern Irish compatriot Neil Lennon did in 2012?

Well, let’s put it this way, one win from the last two games is the ONLY way Celtic have a chance of qualifying in third spot. Beating Manchester City away seems like a tough one so why not Barcelona at home eh?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Bouncing back in Inverness

A trip to the Tulloch Caledonian Stadium for Celtic usually means a tough game lies ahead after a long trip north. With the champions sitting unbeaten at the top of the league and their opponents, Inverness, currently propping up the rest of the Scottish Premiership right now, both teams couldn’t be further apart in terms of league position.

Thistle have literally always been a thorn in Celtic’s side, but last season they slipped out of the top six prior to the split even though their final points tally would have seen them finish 5th. The season before that, they finished a very respectable third in the league behind Aberdeen.

This season hasn’t been a great start but they drew their last match away to Aberdeen which was a decent result. The game before that, they beat St Johnstone who currently sit in third place.

So after a run of four straight defeats, including a loss to Alloa in the League Cup, they are beginning to pull together just in time for the visit of Celtic. Brendan Rodgers must bounce back from defeat today but he has said that he will not make huge changes to the team.

And why would he? Going out and getting a win today would be the perfect way to exorcise the mauling of the team that played on Tuesday night wouldn’t it?

Perhaps, but we have a large squad so we might as well use it. Even if there aren’t too many changes, our formation should be less defensive.

Whilst I respect the difference between Celtic and Inverness, I think the Hoops will be too strong for Thistle today. Brendan Rodgers will be looking to maintain a winning start in the Scottish Premiership.

A victory would see Celtic move on to 15 points and 5 points ahead of nearest side Hearts with a game at hand. Creating a gap now would give Brendan Rodgers a safety buffer and with five more tough Champions League fixtures ahead, that could well come into use as the task of avoiding fourth place in Group C becomes more demanding.

I’m sure Richie Foran won’t allow his side to be pushed over easily today, but Celtic have the mentality and the squad to inflict some damage today. Based on that, I’m going to stick my neck out and go for a 3-1 win for the Hoops this afternoon with Stuart Armstrong netting at least one goal.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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

Life begins at 40

Last night was Leigh Griffiths’ final chance to hit a milestone. He required one more goal to hit the 40 goal mark and become only the eight Celtic player ever to do so.

The PFA and SFWA Player of the Year summed up his season with some fine individual footwork before popping home goal number 40 of the season in the 53rd minute. It broke the deadlock in the game and was a moment to cherish for the Celtic striker.

However, the shine would be taken off it by two of Celtic’s worst performers this season. In the minutes that followed, Stefan Johansen was caught on the ball in his own box and Steven MacLean equalised for St Johnstone.

That wasn’t the end of it though. Our old friend Efe Ambrose decided that he doesn’t need to impress whoever may take over at Celtic.

Instead he just wheeled out more of the same magic we’ve grown accustomed to the past few years. Logan Bailly, not having the best game himself, appeared to get in a mix up with Ambrose and Graham Cummins sent home the winner.

I have to say, at this stage in the season I wasn’t bothered by the result that much. With the management team departing, the title secured the only thing left to be done was for Griffiths to hit the 40 goal mark.

For those wishing to see more of Ryan Christie and Scott Allan, they got their wish. It wasn’t all that entertaining but I will not judge either player at this stage in the season particularly with their lack of first team chances matches.

The new manager can assess our squad and take it from there. Everyone gets a second chance but Ambrose needs to go.

Well done to Leigh Griffiths though on joining the elite. 50 goals next season yeah?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The sum of Ronny’s tenure, but we are the Champions!

Celtic officially claimed their fifth title in a row against contenders Aberdeen in Glasgow on Sunday. It was billed as a title decider long before yesterday, but in truth it would have taken a miracle for the Dons to claw it back.

For Celtic to lose their last three games and Aberdeen win all of theirs wouldn’t have got you favourable odds. The Dons would also needed to have overcome a 30+ goal deficit and thatbwould have been some feat indeed.

Regardless, the Hoops took the initiative and raced into a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes at Celtic Park. It wasn’t one way traffic though, Aberdeen had come close themselves and weren’t going away quietly.

Nonetheless, Patrick Roberts, a shining light for Celtic since arriving on loan, helped himself to a double. Two sublime left foot finishes put Celtic in a comfortable position going in at half time.

By the looks of things, Celtic were in the mood. The title was theirs and the team, missing both Brown and Johansen in the midfield, were actually passing to each other.

Vice Captain Charlie Mulgrew went off injured at half time leaving Efe Ambrose to fill in alongside Erik Sviatchenko. At 2-0 the game was far from over but when Mikael Lustig, deputising once more as captain, slotted home number three I was thinking maybe 4-0 or 5-0?

But no, if there was ever a game that summed up Ronny Deila’s tenure as a Celtic manager this was it. After a decent first half which produced two fine goals, the team virtually capitulated after the interval.

Despite netting a third goal (thankfully), the good work was slowly being undone by a variety of issues. Leigh Griffiths, a goal machine, couldn’t find the net.

With no real backup for his role, it is one of the many achillies heels with Celtic today. Another comes in the form of Efe Ambrose.

There was a time when we just thought his errors were random acts. They are in fact a key part of his blundering game play and he will have to leave this summer.

Over all, Celtic seem unable to kill off an opponent or stay the course for 90 minutes these days. I smelled blood on Sunday, but Celtic didn’t and in the end walked a tight rope to edge over the finish line.

I don’t think any Celtic fan would disagree that Sunday’s game is typical of what we’ve seen far too often under Ronny. In fact, it is the games where we have started well and thrown it away that have prevented us from making progress this season.

Last season we saw things turn around and this season we were looking to build on that. Of course that hasn’t happened and for that reason, Ronny is going.

So if we needed any reminder of why things have to change we got it today. Albeit, we got off lightly on this occasion.

All that is left are two games but at least we’re being saved the pain of waiting two weeks. Celtic will visit St Johnstone on Wednesday evening and then lift the Scottish Premeirship trophy for the fifth consecutive time on Saturday against Motherwell to wrap up the season.

Ronny will lift the trophy for a second and final time then say his farewells to the Celtic faithful and Scottish football. We may find out this week or the next who his successor is but we are no further forward than just rumours at the moment.

Between the bookies, the media, social media and taxi drivers, its a pretty long shortlist with no real accuracy. Everyone reckons they know something about who it will be and when it will be announced.

That being the case, Celtic’s dugout is going to be a busy place next season. Perhaps some of the safe standing area will be needed to house all these new appointments that folk seem to know about.

For now, my top three men to take over remain David Moyes, Brendan Rodgers and Michael O’Neill and in no particular order. So long as it’s the right choice and they are given what they need, I’d take whoever can help Celtic get back on the European map once more.

Hail! Hail!

The Champions of 2016.

Stevie Mac

Title twists

When I was writing my preview for Tuesday’s game at Dens Park, I wondered if this would be another of those ‘turning points’. Well, it wasn’t and Ronny Deila ended up with the same result when Paul Hartley brought his team to Celtic Park in March.

I didn’t see the game and I’m glad I didn’t either. Otherwise my wife would have been as just disappointed with our anniversary celebrations as I would have been with a 0-0 draw!

Worse still, Celtic blew their game at hand by dropping two points. This was a good opportunity to put daylight between ourselves and Aberdeen.

Instead, Derek McInnes will be encouraged by this slip up. He knows that if Aberdeen beat Celtic after the split they could potentially be 2 points off top spot.

With other points likely to be dropped by both teams, this makes for a nervy finish to the current season. If you’re a neutral or even interested in Scottish football it makes for good viewing.

In fairness to Dundee though they’re trying to secure a top six place. On recent performances I’d say they are on course but the truth is there are four teams in total battling it out with St Johnstone, Partick Thistle and Ross County also in the mix.

Celtic play Motherwell at Fir Park for their final match before the split. Mark McGhee has hauled the Lanarkshire club up the table to a very respectable 4th and his team will remain in the top six.

That won’t deter Motherwell from upsetting Celtic’s title chances though. We’ve been there before and they’ve also been the ones to spoil the show in the past.

Before that challenge on Saturday though, all eyes will be on Tynecastle on Friday night. With Hearts hosting Aberdeen, all Celtic fans will be hoping the Dons will drop points un the capital.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d much prefer Celtic to be winning this fight on their own but it is clear that this team haven’t got it in them right now. Too many players aren’t turning up in matches and at this point in the season you need a concerted effort by everyone.

If someone hasn’t been injured, they’ve been off form. That isn’t an excuse, that’s just football.

I never expected Celtic to win all of their remaining matches. In fact I even said that if we dropped points it doesn’t mean we’ve lost the league.

What I am concerned about is the attitude and character of the players. We saw against a dominant Hearts side at Celtic Park what sort of result could be achieved even though we weren’t as good as the visitors for most of the game.

Don’t think for a second that the towel is being thrown in though. This will be a battle to the death despite how unconvincing our performances have been.

The Scottish media have rallied around the promotion of the Championship winners and the ‘boost’ it will give the top flight. Well from my perspective it seems to have been doing just fine judging by the title challenges of the last two seasons.

Of course we welcome all newcomers to the Scottish Premiership. Just don’t belittle the battle that has been going on in the last two seasons between Celtic and Aberdeen by suggesting the arrival of the new Ibrox club are here to solve all that is wrong with our game.

Scottish football suffers through the mismanagement by its authorities and a self-serving biased media. The pro-Ibrox revival is hard to miss given how many folk are licking their lips across Scottish football and the media.

As I say though, it’s nice to have newcomers to football. We’ll give them the proper treatment when the time comes.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Backtracking

From time to time we humans get things wrong. The weather forecasters, politicians, bookies and even referees.

On Friday night, Craig Thomson got it wrong at New Douglas Park on quite a few occasions. One of those particular errors was the red card on Dedryck Boyata.

Despite the risk of the tackle, he got the ball fairly. In fact, it was a superb tackle.

The only thing that took the shine off it was that he was sent off. Had he stayed on the park we would have been talking about how good a tackle it was.

In fact if had it been Virgil van Dijk or Jason Denayer making that challenge we would have been singing their praises and admiring the sheer quality. Instead it was Dedryck Boyata who has yet to reach that level of respect among the Celtic support but it was a good tackle all the same.

As a result of that red card, Celtic lost control of the game for more than half of the match and not for the first time this season either. This is something we must be more careful of in future which in fairness to Ronny Deila, is most likely what upset him on the night.

A draw was acceptable under the circumstances even though Celtic were leading 1-0 at the time of the incident. In the aftermath of the game, Ronny Deila refused to lay the blame at the door of Craig Thomson.

Instead, Ronny was critical of Boyata not staying on his feet as I said earlier. Whilst I get what he was saying and the risk that Boyata took, you cannot argue that he won the ball cleanly.

I made the point in the last blog that I disagreed with Ronny on this. Yesterday, in complete u-turn, Celtic officially announced their intention to appeal Boyata’s red card.

There has obviously been a discussion about this within the club. Now Ronny’s opinion has changed whether it his own or someone else at the club.

The bottom line here is that Celtic are correct to appeal. It is also very likely that they will win this one as well.

What won’t change is the result against Hamilton. Fortunately for Celtic, Aberdeen threw away the chance to close the gap after drawing with St Johnstone.

The Dons were 1-0 up after 35 minutes and it stayed that way for some time. St Johnstone were then awarded a penalty in the 88th minute.

Like the Dedryck Boyata challenge at New Douglas Park, there was a similar case at Pittodrie for Aberdeen’s Ryan Jack. Derek McInnes said that the penalty claim was no excuse for the result, almost like he’d been taken a leaf out of Ronny Deila’s post match book.

I think it was a harsh penalty though. Just as Boyata’s red was badly judged.

At least the gap at the top remains in tact and the title challenge continues. Tomorrow night Celtic host mis-table Dundee whilst Aberdeen travel to Tannadice.

The two Dundee clubs are almost poles apart this season. Dundee are in a respectable 6th position whilst Dundee United achored at the foot of the table, fighting for Scottish Premiership survival.

It couldn’t be more different for Celtic and Aberdeen as they slug it out for the title. All eyes on tomorrow night.

On another backtracking moment, Tom Rogić has made it known he wishes to stay at the club. Surprise, surprise, the Scottish media reporting lies.

Whatever next? A Sevco warchest?

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac