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

 

The gauntlet

The international break offered Celtic a chance to regroup before facing the final run of games in 2015. Despite many of Ronny Deila’s players not actually being on international duty, namely the Scottish contingent, they were held to a 0-0 draw at Celtic Park by Kilmarnock when domestic matter got under way once more at the weekend.

Frustrating as that was, Celtic have still maintained their six point lead at the top of the Scottish Premiership. Hearts and Aberdeen also drew their matches which allowed fourth placed St Johnstone to close the gap on Aberdeen to 3 points, 10 behind Celtic.

There is a more pressing matter for Celtic to to contend with though. It takes place tomorrow night at Celtic Park on the Europa League stage.

Ajax visit Glasgow for the penultimate Group A fixture. The result of this match will have a big say on whether Celtic still have a chance to progress or if the remaining fixture against Fenerbahçe is a dead rubber.

Celtic drew with Ajax in Amsterdam two months ago. Having succumbed to a late equaliser after leading the match twice, I think most would say that we reasonably upbeat about how the rest of the campaign would go.

How wrong we were. Another draw, this time at home to Fenerbahçe and two straight defeats against Molde have hurt our campaign and any morale we had left.

On Thursday win for Celtic is essential. Victory would put Celtic on 5 points and if Molde can muster another win, Ronny Deila would be in with a fighting chance of progressing.

Unfortunately for Celtic, this has been a lacklustre European campaign littered with defensive mishaps and tactical naivety. So called average clubs have been wiping the floor with Celtic for two years now and as yet we have still to see any progress from last season.

Having made the last 32 against Inter Milan earlier this year, the desire was to build upon that experience. That hasn’t happened this season and the best we can hope for is equalling that but it remains a a difficult task.

Two wins would put Celtic through for sure but having failed to notch up a single win so far, there are no guarantees the team will finally click now. They are 6 points short of earning the 8 points that got them through in second spot last season and in order to qualify it will likely take the same amount this time around.

There is a spark missing from this team right now but there are players in the squad who have the ability to deliver. We just haven’t seen it or at least not enough of it.

Among the bright sparks this season have been Griffiths, Bitton, Rogić, Tierney and at times Forrest. We need to see everyone else doing the same though and those who aren’t performing, dropped.

If Ronny Deila is to salvage any hopes of a dismal European campaign he will need to need motivate his squad, make the right selection of players and tactics and adapt within the game. It’s not too late but he to rectify a lot before we kick off tomorrow night.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Commons sense

So far this season, the Champions League has not been an easy ride for English clubs. With all of match day two fixtures of the competition done, there will be more relief than joy, particularly down Manchester way.

Despite both Mancunian clubs obtaining wins last night, they both lost their opening Champions League matches. Although they got their first points on the board last night, these were narrow victories.

Elsewhere, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea were overcome by his former club Porto. It’s a similar story to City and United with one win and one defeat so far.

Worst still is Arsenal’s campaign. After two games they have yet to get any points on the board.

What I find staggering is that all these clubs have excellent funding but star signings don’t always seem to buy them success. Is there some sort of complacency amongst the Premier League’s super clubs in Europe or are they just badly managed?

Anything Celtic can do in Europe I hold in high esteem because it is generally a bloody hard task. Celtic may be above all other Scottish clubs but in Europe it’s a different ball game.

Any club that wins their domestic league should go straight into the Champions League, end of story. Unfortunately there are more represented countries than places in the current set up but I do think this competition requires serious revision.

The Champions League continually undermines the smaller teams and leagues whilst ensuring the bigger clubs with more than sufficient funds stay on top. Celtic, whilst having a reasonable reputation in European competition, are well short of the income to compete at the top and hindered even more by going through three qualifying rounds just to get into a group phase every summer.

And yet, Celtic continue to “punch above” their weight as Martin O’Neill once said. That has continued with the managers that succeeded him.

For Ronny Deila it is still coming together. Though despite two failed attempts at entering the Champions League, he has ensured Europa League status for two years running.

We shouldn’t sniff at that. It doesn’t have the glory of the Champions League, but the tournament should still be treated with respect.

Celtic got off to a flyer two weeks ago with a near victory. That draw in Amsterdam got us our first point away from home.

When you consider points on the road are not always guaranteed, that’s a damn good start. Tonight, Fenerbahçe will be a different prospect.

Whilst playing at home in front of your own audience has its advantages, Fenerbahçe are a different opponent. They lost their opening Europa League match a staggering 3-1 at home to Molde.

Turkey is renowned for its hostile atmosphere at matches. You might have read one or two opposing players from tonight’s match stating as much.

The Norwegians didn’t appear to be too intimidated though. So credit to them for axing the Turkish runners up and their team of ‘stars’.

Amongst those plying their trade in Istanbul are former Manchester United players Robin van Persie and Nani. Both have a wealth of experience on the European stage but it doesn’t stop there.

Their team also boast international players such as Raul Meireles, Bruno Alves, former Celtic target Michal Kadlec and Simon Kjær who all have between 50 and 99 caps each. That’s without mentioning the the home grown Turkish players, four Brazilians and a Senegalese international on-loan from Porto.

One on-loan player who will miss out tonight is Serbian, Lazar Marković. The Liverpool winger is out injured but as you can see, the Turkish side have plenty to choose from.

For Ronny Deila, it’s about creating the right blend again. We have a lot of players to choose from but it is about being effective.

With home advantage, he is likely to be more adventurous. However, caution needs to be paid to the experienced players amongst the Fenerbahçe ranks.

Their European and international careers are to be respected. This will be no easy task.

One area Deila needs to consider is who fills in for the suspended Emilio Izaguirre at left back. He has several options but it all depends on how defensive or offensive he wants that role to be.

Kieran Tierney has been getting some game time lately and done well when called upon. However, Deila may feel throwing him into his first European match is a tad risky.

Saidy Janko is another option but he too has yet to play in Europe. So it is likely that he will go with Tyler Blackett given that he has more senior experience over all and has played in one Europa League match already.

The rest of the defence is likely to consist of Lustig, Ambrose and Boyata with Gordon in goal as usual. Šimunović is a doubt for this match and with Mulgrew out injured the defence has more or less picked itself.

Brown and Bitton are certain to start this one but who do you surround them with? A few players have been off the boil recently such as Johansen and Mackay-Steven.

Forrest could be given the chance to turn on the home crowd on the right and if Armstrong is fit a place on the left. That leaves the attacking midfield role.

With Johansen off the boil I think we would all agree Commons is the man for this game. He’s earned his chance and could light things up tonight.

You have to feel sorry for Rogić though. He’s likely to be on the bench for this one but he has been superb this season so far so I expect an appearance at some stage.

The strikers role should go to Griffiths as he is our best option. You can probably expect Çiftçi to be given a chance against the Turkish side at some point though.

Elsewhere in the Europa League Spurs are away to Monaco whilst Liverpool are at home to FC Sion (remember them?). I’m sure with two English heavy weights in the same competition Celtic coverage will be kept to a minimum but with maximum criticism.

Celtic made a good start against Ajax. Let’s hope we see that continue tonight at Paradise.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

Çiftçi and McGeady?

I don’t know what I am more alarmed about. That Celtic have reportedly made a bid for Nadir Çiftçi or that Aiden McGeady is rumoured to be returning to Paradise.

Firsty, lets talk about Nadir Çiftçi. On the face of things it looks like a mediocre move for Celtic.

The Turkish striker has made a name for himself at Dundee United and in Scottish football, particularly against Celtic. I’d say he is a key player for McNamara’s team but is he really up to the job at Celtic or in Europe?

Well, lets go a wee bit deeper. At 23 years old, this is a young striker playing regular football in Scotland for the last two seasons.

Prior to his arrival in Scotland Çiftçi had spells with Portsmouth, Kayserispor and NAC Breda. He has also been capped at under-17 level by the Netherlands and under-19 level by Turkey, the latter being his actual place of birth.

Ironically, he was convinced to switch allegiances to Turkey by Guus Hiddink, a Dutchman. He was Turkey manager at the time and evidently liked what he saw.

In my total ignorance before today’s blog, I thought Çiftçi was an older player but that may just be the beard! That got me thinking – does Ronny see this guy with greater potential?

Well, it still sounds like another gamble, something Celtic have done a lot with strikers these last few years. However, he does have good experience playing in Scotland which is one less risk.

Does this guy have more to offer? Are Celtic going to raise the bid?

Elsewhere, rumours have begun to circulate about Aiden McGeady. He left Celtic five years ago for a whopping fee of £9.5M.

At the time I thought this was superb business by the club. Many saw it as Celtic cashing and I had no argument about that then or now.

For me McGeady was a one trick pony who had one amazing season at the club. Despite his flare, it rarely had an end product and his place in the team was always under scrutiny.

Crossing the ball was not his thing either despite it actually being his job on matchdays. In fact, I think his best position may have been playing off the front man but I didn’t see him given that role too often.

In the back of my mind, yes it would be interesting to see him play in the Hoops again. On the other hand, has he actually improved since leaving Celtic in 2010?

As I said in a forum thread last night, if his career had blossomed since leaving would we even be talking about a potential move back to Celtic? I doubt it because he would be priced out of such a move whereas now, people think he might have to lower his demands such is his career dip.

Now after a three-and-a-half year spell in Moscow and just over a year with Everton he has apparently put in a transfer request. Given that his appearances have been limited at Everton I’d say he’s done the right thing for himself but is Celtic really on the radar or is this pure speculation?

I think McGeady will have matured in his five years since leaving Celtic. I know many would like to see him back, but there’s an equal amount (if not more) who wouldn’t.

Fancy tricks aren’t everything in this game and it doesn’t win you matches. You need to be able to deliver and that is where my frustration with McGeady lies.

Throw in the fact that coming back is rarely, if ever, a good thing and I think you have your answer. The way forward for Aiden is not the way back so perhaps this should remain a rumour.

Tomorrow Celtic take on FC Den Bosch at St Mirren Park. I’m desperate to see the Hoops play again.

I’m also looking forward to seeing some fringe players getting a chance to shine. For some players, it may be the last or close to last time we see them don the Hoops as Ronny aims to trim the squad so I’ll be tuning in for sure.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac