Hot in Baku

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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A hard graft for Griff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

n he came to the club with a troublesome tag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The stage is set

With all the presesaon dress rehearsals out of the way and the first step on the Champions League staircase done, the next task awaits Ronny Deila. Having seen off Stjarnan on their 4G pitch last week and dealt with a feisty Rennes side at Celtic Park on Saturday, the Hoops are ready for tonight’s third round of qualifying round.

Stjarnan offered Celtic their first and second competitive test of the summer but Qarabağ FK will be a different prospect altogether. With tonight’s first leg at home, Celtic will be aiming to stamp their authority on the tie before they have to travel to Baku for the second leg next week.

It’s a long trip with a time difference of four hours and whilst not nearly as daunting a trip as Karagandy was two years ago, the task is still a tough one. In the meantime Celtic must do their best to suppress Qarabağ FK’s knack of scoring and winning away in Europe.

Over the last three seasons (including the current one) their European stats read as:

HOME: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 3 Lost 3

AWAY: Played 11 Won 5 Drawn 4 Lost 2

Having lost less than a quarter of all matches, suggests they might be stubborn and hard to break down. I’ve yet to see whether Ronny Deila is prepared to alter his approach with such teams to draw them out or continue to play the pressing game.

By comparison the last three seasons (including the current one) for Celtic are as follows:

HOME: Played 14 Won 9 Drawn 1 Lost 4 (or W8 L5 if you count the original Legia Warsaw score)

AWAY: Played 14 Won 3 Drawn 4 Lost 7

At some stage in European competition, you have to know when your challenger is more capable than you and adapt. Celtic’s UEFA coefficient ranking is 46th whilst Qarabağ’s is 139th but that still didn’t prevent the Hoops being trumped by Legia Warsaw (76th) and NK Maribor (83rd) last season.

Whilst a club ranked 139th by UEFA may not seem like a threat, Qarabağ could frustrate or even surprise Celtic particulary at this stage of the season. The last thing Celtic want this evening is to lose an away goal and I’m fairly certain that will be one of Qarabağ’s objectives.

It’s fair to say that this time last year Celtic were in a state of transition and playing home ties at Murrayfield but this year everyone will be expecting better from them.That could all come down to sqiad selection and it is anyones guess how Ronny will go.

Çiftçi or Griffiths? Or both?

Janko or Lustig? Forrest or Mackay-Steven?

Mulgrew or Izaguirre? Only Ronny knows.

The stage is set and it is home advantage Bhoy’s. Take it.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Third qualifying round in the Qarabağ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Freeze out the Icelanders!

Tonight Celtic return to Iceland for the second year running for a Champions League Qualifier. Last year it was KR Reykyavik who were the opponents and the away leg came first but this year they face Stjarnan and with the second leg being away.

Celtic are 2-0 up from the first leg and as we all know the job should have been finished at Celtic Park. As it stands, Ronny Deila will need to approach this match with just the right amount of caution.

Starjnan parked the bus in Glasgow and relied heavily on their keeper. Celtic on the other hand were short of match sharpness and had they been on a higher percentage of fitness would have put the men from Iceland to the sword.

I’m not being disrespectful to the Icelandic champions, but if you come to Celtic Park and play the way they did, you deserve a hiding. Tonight I would be satisfied with a similar result though with the importance being a clean sheet.

It’s another highly important game because of the impact this competition has on Celtic’s season. To lead the way tonight my preference for the striking role would be Leigh Griffiths.

His performances in pre-season and since joining overal have been a transformation worth watching. When he first signed I questioned it but as I have said umpteen times before on here, he has proven me wrong and I am happy to accept it.

I’m sure Nadir Çiftçi’s time will come even if his domestic ban slows him down though I fancy him to feature at some point. A long suspension isn’t exactly the best start to your career at a new club but Celtic were well aware of what they were getting into before they moved for him.

However, I think this match will suit Griffiths perfectly and I’d be giving him the nod for sure. He will be keen to get off the mark in Europe and after the penalty miss of last week (thanks to Stefan Johansen) it’s a big occasion for him.

On this day last year Celtic ran out 4-0 winners at Murrayfield to KR Reykjavik with goals from van Dijk (2) and Pukki (2). This was following a 1-0 win away with the  goal coming from Callum McGregor.

He misses out tonight as does Kris Commons, both sidelined with injury. Van Dijk returns to the fold though after serving a suspension carried over from last season, but the one man who was sorely missed at this stage last season was Scott Brown.

His presence in the team, though still undervalued by many, is important. Good or bad, he is influential, he is the captain and I’d always have him in the team.

In order to progress this evening, Celtic need to keep things simple, tidy and error free. Stjarnan will no doubt have a go on their own turf but Celtic should be looking to put this tie to bed.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Winning and whining

Celtic got off to winning ways in Champions League qualifying with a 2-0 over Stjarnan FC. The score line could have been higher but as the squad continue to shape up it remains a positive result for Ronny Deila.

Throughout the match Celtic were in full control. The Icelandic side offered little in terms of offensive play which to be fair was not a total surprise.

A sharper Celtic team would have put them to the sword and I don’t mean that disrespectfully. They deployed their team to with their best strengths in mind.

Celtic could have had a better game, but they could also had a worse game. It’s only match day 1 of the competitive season though so we’re just getting started.

There were many talking points as early as Ciftci starting ahead of Griffiths and even Mackay-Steven being replaced by Forrest at the warm up stage. Then there was another pedantic penalty incident which shouldn’t even be a talking point but it was.

With new boys Boyata and Ciftci both making their competitive debuts we were all hoping for a thrilling match. There were plenty of opportunities for Celtic and a good one did come from Ciftci early in the first half but he failed to capitalise on it.

After a several chances, it would fall to another debutant to open the scoring. Boyata, lurking at the back post latched on to a cross ball to header home with no challenge to put him off.

The timing was perfect for Celtic with the goal coming just before half-time. It would have been rather frustrating to go in at the interval 0-0.

Although the Hoops weren’t exactly ticking along, there was never really any danger given the stance taken by Stjarnan even though they created decent chances for themselves. Celtic continued to attack in the second half though and came up with a second goal courtesy of Johansen who finished well from a Armstrong pass.

The tie looked to be heading into certainty late on in the match when Celtic won a penalty after Johansen was felled in the box. His goal earlier on was soon forgotten as he declared himself as penalty taker.

Griffiths, who had just come on earlier in the match was making his case as the penalty taker in chief. In the post match interviews, Deila explained who was in the right (Griffiths) and who was in the wrong (Johansen) but could not explain why the spat had occurred.

Given that Johansen has known Deila longer than anyone else in the team, you would think he’d be the first to remember the head coach orders? A wee bit disappointed with such a good player having such a schoolboy whine.

The unfortunate part was that Griffiths missed the penalty. It was bound to happen, given the distraction caused by his team mate.

So the game finished 2-0 and although it wasn’t a crisp performance, no goals were conceded y Celtic. Next week the players should be sharper and looking for a similar result if not a better performance.

By that time, Celtic will know who they could face in the next round provided they don’t mess up the second leg! For now, they need to continue their training and get their match fitness and sharpness back to where it should be.

These qualifiers are now common place in our summer schedule and there is a sense of better preparation for them. I don’t expect any hiccups next week but I’m sure Stjarnan will have a good go regardless.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

From Paisley to Paradise

Celtic edged past Real Sociedad at St Mirren Park last night in their final preparation match before they get down to competitive business this Wednesday. Next up is the Champions League encounter with Stjarnan but Ronny Deila got a chance to put his players through one more test with David Moyes’s La Liga side providing opposition.

This was Ronny Deila’s third preseason friendly and the first for David Moyes. However it was the Basque side who played the better football in the first half.

Celtic found themselves under pressure from Erreala as Ronny Deila’s player’s tried to get into their stride. They dealt with everything that came their way even if they struggled to find their own.

The second half was totally different. Celtic found themselves stepping up a gear and putting together better moves and chances.

Then came probably the moment most fans had tuned in for. The arrival of Nadir Çiftçi from Dundee United had mixed feelings amongst Celtic fans.

Now that he is here it’s about application and effort. He didn’t waste much time when he came on as a substitute for Leigh Griffiths in the 67th minute either.

Griffiths was unlucky not score. Having had one deflected wide in the first half and another hitting the post in the second half he was lively.

Within moments of entering the field of play though, Çiftçi was involved in an attacking move. After that one broke down he was straight in again assisting Gary Mackay-Steven for the only goal of the match.

It was enough to win the game but again it was more about preparation for Wednesday. Still the result will go along way to easing the fears of those supporters who get a wee bit upset at friendly defeats.

The positive sign was that Celtic upped their game second half after pressure from the opposition in the first. Real Sociedad’s player’s were a wee bit feisty throughout the match but that provided a little bit of realism for the competitive games ahead.

Next stop is Celtic Park and Champions League opponents Stjarnan. This is where our season begins.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac