A season gone and a season to come

On Sunday afternoon, Celtic put Inverness Caledonian Thistle to the sword. It was a fine way to bring the curtain down on a season which has seen Ronny Deila’s team bond and progress.

At first, most people were open minded about Deila and the swiftness of his appointment. Then a failed Champions League campaign changed that.

Some unconvincing domestic displays in the early part of the season added to the Deila doubter’s list of dissatisfaction. If that wasn’t enough, you had the media, including ex-Celtic players, weighing in with their own tuppence worth of bile.

The breakthrough for Ronny was of course the Europa League. It was an ideal competition for a team in transition and kept both the club’s and the fan’s interests in the European scene.

Good performances home and away were encouraging, even if all results weren’t perfect. It was enough to build confidence though and there were signs that some players were beginning to respond to Ronny Deila’s methods.

That kind of positivity started to populate and by November, Celtic finally reached the summit of the Scottish Premiership. Having endured several months of negative media and a portion of the team not performing well enough, the tide was beginning to turn.

There was still a lot of work to be done though. Celtic were under pressure from a few teams and that kept them on their toes throughout the winter.

It was in this period that Celtic really started to gather momentum. Finally, the team was beginning to play like a unit.

Those players who had been out of sorts were emerging from the shadows. Griffith’s, Commons and Bitton were staking a claim and it was a real shot in the arm.

The arrival of Mackay-Steven and Armstrong not only boosted Celtic’s campaign, it ended Dundee United’s. They both slotted into the squad like it was meant to be.

For some Celtic players though, their own personal situations were beginning to look bleak. Guidetti, Tonev, Wakaso and Boerrigter were all fading with varying degrees.

Šćepović was also well out of the picture but his case was somewhat isolated from the rest. He may still have a chance as Sunday’s finale demonstrated.

Later on in the season Forrest emerged from the shadows and made a good contribution to the second half of the season. His injury problems are his only hindrance and only time will tell if he has overcome these.

Another player with injury hell is Lustig. A fine player if ever there is one.

His cameo appearance against Motherwell in January where he scored an amazing double after coming off the bench remains his primary contribution to the season. Deila knows as we all do just how good a player Lustig is and he will want him available for the early Champions League campaign, particularly if he is looking to bolster the back line.

There is still cover there with Ambrose, Matthews, Fisher and Izaguirre. The central defence is the main area of concern though.

If Celtic were to lose both Denayer and van Dijk, they also lose the meanest defence in Scottish Premiership history. Having conceded only 17 goals, that is a huge void to fill.

Part of that defensive success comes down to Gordon’s amazing return to the game as well. If he was considered a gamble when drafted in after years out injured then the pay out has been massive.

Despite the ability to get a bit lonely as a Celtic goalkeeper in some domestic games, like Foster before him, he has pulled off some magnificent saves to keep the Hoops in the game. That ability was on display Europe as well as in the domestic game and it has been a fine season for the big man.

Long-term injured Mulgrew made a late return this season and despite links with clubs in the south, I doubt he’ll be heading for the exit door. He may not be a first pick, but he is a good utility player.

It will be hard to break up the current midfield but he is a big enough character to stay on. Even if Johansen and Brown are the mainstay’s of the midfield there will always be opportunities for Mulgrew to step in there or in the back line.

So where do Celtic need to strengthen? Well that all depends on movements in the current squad.

Should Zaluska go as expected, a backup will be needed. Fasan is as yet untested and it remains to be seen if Deila would be prepared to rely upon the Italian as a suitable stand in.

Central defence is top of the list. If one or both of the current pairing go, the standards will slip so rebuilding that wall and the understanding they created will be a priority, particularly in Europe.

The midfield has a wealth of options. The choices are vast and if anything, Ronny may look at the wide men.

Mackay-Steven is terrific as is Forrest so long as the latter avoids injury. If you are relying upon Forrest as a regular and then gets a bad one, you need a similar outlet.

McGregor was one of Deila’s best players at the beginning of the season and filled the Forrest void for a short time. However, he burned out before Christmas and is currently on the injury list but I don’t know if his purple patch was a flash in the pan.

Stokes, who featured on the left flank and forged a good partnership with Izaguirre earlier in the season is a potential leaver. His off the field story has kept him in the sidelines and his time could be up.

Up front Griffith’s is hit man number one. When he arrived over a year ago, I questioned the validity of his signature.

Despite one or two infractions in his time at the club, he has made me eat my words. His prowess in front of goal has earned him the right to start every game but Ronny will need someone to put pressure on him as well as being able to step in and do the same job.

Šćepović may or may not be that guy but I can’t see the summer passing by without the procurement of another striker. Be that on loan or a permanent deal, you need options in Europe.

The clear out list for Celtic is pretty big and I expect the transfer window to be a busy one. At a glance I expect to see Zaluska, Pukki, Baldé, Boerrigter, Stokes and Friðjónsson to leave.

On loan we’ve had Tonev, Wakaso, Guidetti and Denayer. All four will be gone though I wish Denayer was staying on for another season.

Loaned players McGeouch, Irvine, Henderson, Herron and Findlay are certain to be assessed as the team moves forward. McGeouch is still young but at 22 will want more games and that may only happen away from Celtic.

He has ability, no arguments there but a decision is sure to come over Celtic career. Personally, I can’t see him forcing his way into Ronny’s plans though.

As for the others on that list, I can imagine them on further loan deals. Henderson may be the only one who is retained for squad duty back at Celtic.

One player I’m keen to see more of is Rogić. The Australian joined just over two years ago and showed a lot of promise in those rare appearances.

His loan spell back in his homeland in 2014 did not offer the expected aim. He has had injury to contend with as well but there is every chance he will wear the Hoops next season.

So for Ronny Deila and his back room team, there is further assessment and decision making to be done with the current squad. Some of those decision will already have been made whilst some await the transfer window to open to have their futures decided.

After a short break, it will be back to pre season training for the Hoops. With the Champions League qualifying just seven weeks away the team will be back before your know it.

For now its been a fantastic season for Ronny and the Bhoys. Looking forward to the next one already.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

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The wind of change

The significance of events between 2014-2015 at Celtic could turn out to be a pivotal time for the club. At the beginning of 2014, the league title looked destined for Celtic Park and fans were in for another anti-climatic finish for a second consecutive season.

There were many fixtures still to be played but Celtic would tie up the league the earliest it has been done since before World War II. Having exited Europe before Christmas 2013, Celtic had maintained an unbeaten run and record amount of shut-outs by Fraser Forster (setting a new record in the process), both of which would grind to a halt against Aberdeen, their closest rivals.

In the January transfer window, Celtic bought Leigh Griffiths, a player whose off-field antics did not resonate well among the fan base, mine in particular. The timing of the move seemed unnecessary given that the league looked to be coming Celtic’s way, but he was a relatively cheap acquisition for a proven goal scorer and Celtic had limited attacking options having already lost Gary Hooper the previous summer and still without an ample replacement.

He didn’t disappoint either and since then has proven himself valuable but I can’t change my disapproval of the time. In the same window, Stefan Johansen joined the ranks and displayed the kind of energy you expect from an attacking midfielder.

His ability was recognisable as soon as he set foot in the team but there would be more come from him in the season that followed. However, it was the announcement that Johan Mjallby would depart that summer that became the focal point of Celtic’s future.

This raised concern and speculation about Lennon’s situation. With his assistant coach eyeing the exit door some felt Lennon would follow Mjallby but I wasn’t totally convinced at the time.

Lennon later announced that he would also be leaving and I wondered how long this had been coming. He had endured the worst of times as a footballer and head coach whilst at Celtic.

Death threats, bomb threats and physical and verbal attacks by opposing fans surrounded the Northern Irishman because of his nationality, religion and club of choice. These acts remain a cancer in Scotland and also its greatest shame in the modern day.

It is therefore quite astounding that Lennon left having won the biggest of battle of all – over his oppressors. He overcame all of it but I am sure the pain inflicted upon him and his family will remain forever.

As it was Lennon departed on a high having secured the league title for a third consecutive season. In the wake of his exit, Celtic are said to have courted many names, but I saw most of them as pure speculation.

I don’t doubt that initial contact was made with some potential candidates but to what extent is anyone’s guess. The man they settled on in the end was supposedly not first choice.

Realistically, a club won’t always get their first choice so that never bothered me in the slightest. In fact, if Celtic’s first choice was Roy Keane, as many have said (including himself), then I think the club dodged a bullet.

Celtic cast a net knowing that they had limited funds to offer in terms of salary, as well as for purchases in the transfer market. Yet it is no surprise that so many names are banded about given the culture, history and fan base that Celtic Football Club possess.

I think most would agree that despite the lure of such a big name, Roy Keane could have been a disastrous choice. Outside of the “favourite”, Celtic were looking at young, up and coming coaches rather than older experienced ones.

Ex-Celts would top that list if course but the man they would go for was unknown to all. Ronny Deila was a young, up and coming coach for sure but nobody had heard of him.

Again, that didn’t concern me to be honest and I was intrigued and somewhat surprised by Celtic’s bold move. This was out of character for the club but the more I read about what Deila had done since he moved into coaching, the more interested I became in who he was and he could do.

As it turned out, it would be no easy ride as some Celtic managers have found out but I remained a supporter of Ronny and his plans. He came from left field and went about getting his plan up and running but he faced many challenges.

Despite losing one of the club’s best players in Fraser Forster, the club had acquired Craig Gordon as a replacement but having been out of the game for so long could he fill the shoes of his predecessor? Deila would seek further additions to aid his quest but he would largely be assessing the current squad including Stefan Johansen who had worked under him at Strømsgodset.

Now you can make your own deduction from this story but it was speculated that Deila had initially been earmarked as a coach to come in and work with Lennon. Whether there is any truth in that or not is immaterial because the one thing we can safely assume is that Celtic had done their homework on Deila.

With the first season not even over you just don’t know how far this relationship can go but so far he has weathered the storm and come out fighting. There is never any guarantee of success when you appoint a new head coach so there is always risk.

Celtic didn’t opt for this Norwegian coach as a stab in the dark, but because his methods were fresh and new. And having watched Deila endure a slow start with high expectations, disgruntled fans and a less than supportive media you would have to say the club have stuck by their man.

He has won over most of his opponents, if not all of them. Wth the possibility of a treble in one of the most competitive Scottish domestic seasons in recent years, it will put to bed all of those doubters should that dream come to fruition.

The expectations placed upon Deila have been huge but it is no different to any other manager before him. Europe was a steep learning curve and in reality, it turned out to be a fairly positive experience for himself and the players.

Despite missing out on the Champions League, a tournament Celtic were sure to have been slaughtered in, the Europa League was an opportunity for these players to bed in under a new regime on continental soil. Reaching the last 32 was a boost for Deila and the fans and it even served up an old Italian foe.

The tie with Inter Milan gave everyone a taste of what we could expect should Celtic reach the group stage of the Champions League next season. And that has to be a target for Deila and the club because a domestic treble this season would provide the kind of momentum required to lead the team into the early European qualification round in the summer.

That said this season isn’t over as it was by this time last year, despite Aberdeen losing their own momentum in recent weeks. A gap has opened up in the Scottish Premiership but Celtic are not at a safe distance just yet.

The last eight games for Celtic will be a test of their mental and physical strength at this stage of the season, continuing today at Inverness. The squad is extremely strong right now a competition for places remains tight.

Its a healthy situation for Celtic currently and when you cast your mind back to September and October, it serves as a reminder that success doesn’t come overnight. The efforts Ronny has put in this season can only blossom in the next.

He will want to ensure he is well equipped for a Champions League quest and there is no doubt he wants it as much as the board do for financial reasons and the fans do for entertainment value. Ronny himself knows the level each player must perform at to compete with the best in Europe and the world.

This is what he has spent all season trying to drill into the players he inherited and drafted in. The players have responded to him and will be ready to take the lessons from this season into the next one.

Keeping the squad together will be the priority but a few are certain to leave which is only natural. Four of the current crop at the club are on loan whilst seven of Celtic’s are also out on loan to other clubs so there will be some movement on that front for certain.

Deila would love to keep Jason Denayer and John Guidetti, both on loan from Manchester City, but they remain uncommitted. Denayer has put in a solid season and I’m sure another season long loan would be beneficial for all parties, but Denayer has not hidden his desire to return to City.

Guidetti on the other hand made a blistering start to his loan spell only to lose his way on the park amid speculation about a permanent move. Celtic brokered a deal with City but the Swede wasn’t on board and instead made umpteen references in the media about playing for other clubs in Europe.

This led to fans turning against him and gladly seeing him out of the team. He also spat the dummy out recently during the League Cup Final when after James Forrest won a penalty, he refused to hand Guidetti the ball.

At this level of football you don’t expect to see that kind of petulance but Guidetti capped it off by storming up the tunnel at full time only to be retrieved by Mikael Lustig. That memory is embedded in my mind and despite any desire Ronny still has of obtaining Guidetti’s signature, the Swede would have a lot of back pedalling to win over the fans once more.

The other two loanees, Mubarak Wakaso and Aleksandar Tonev are certain to return their parent clubs. Neither have held down a place this season.

Aside from Wakaso’s wonder goal against Red Bull Salzburg in the Europa League, his appearances have been limited. Tonev has made even fewer appearances and became an outsider after being accused and banned for alleged racial abuse of a fellow professional despite any hard evidence.

That seven match ban pretty much put an end to his playing chances as other players were beginning to find form. Celtic stuck by the player but he effectively lost his battle in the first team.

Celtic still have to decide on the futures of their own players out on loan as well. Amido Baldé was signed as a young prospect in 2013 but has rarely been given a chance so Celtic may cut there losses with him given that his loan spells with Waasland-Beveren and Hapoel Tel Aviv have not been prosperous.

Teemo Pukki and Hólmbert Friðjónsson are currently both playing at Brøndby IF with the former doing a decent job and likely to get a permanent move. Friðjónsson may also get a deal if Celtic end their interest in him though he is still on the fringes of success.

The four remaining players out on loan are could also move on with the exception of Liam Henderson. The young midfielder has put in some notable performances this season and has been loaned out for the rest of the season for experience only I would assume.

He looks as though he can do a job for Celtic but with competition for places high, he needs games to develop. Rosenberg should give him a decent level of experience to help him compete further next season.

The only other matter are the futures of Celtic’s contracted players. Commons finally sorted out his future and Van Dijk is now displaying signs of staying for a other season at the very least.

Another player back in the fold is young Tom Rogić. He went out on loan in January 2014 to Australia hoping to imprive his international chances but injury has been a thorn in his side.

There remains a glimmer of hope for the Australian midfielder. I’m sure we’d all love to see what he has to offer if he can shrug off injuries.

I read somewhere recently (possibly just a rumour) that the club may try and move Anthony Stokes on. I’m not totally against the idea to be honest but I think I’d rather see the back of guys like Derk Boerrigter first.

“Sicknote'” has been a disastrous signing for Celtic. Whilst the club have been known for unearthing gems, he certainly hasn’t been one of them.

The very fact he came with an injury tag was a risk the club must be held accountable for. There have been too many risks and I’d hate to think that the rumoured fees for these guys were all met in full given what they have failed to do for the club.

Baldé, Pukki and Boerrigter all signed four year deals and each has failed to cut it. One man on the brink of going down the same road is Stefan Šćepović.

He too signed a four year deal with Celtic, after an on/off transfer that cast a minor shadow over the deal. He hasn’t held down a regular spot in the team or provided the fire power he demonstrated at Sporting de Gijón but there remains the possibility he may still make it as a Celtic player.

Celtic have decisions to make on all of these players and cut back on waste. When I think about the players in years gone by that Celtic failed to stump up the cash for i.e. James McFadden and Steven Fletcher, it irks me that they have spent more on players at a higher risk of failure.

Time to move on the morons and motivate the worthy. Only the best will make it in Ronny’s squad.

Eight games left and a treble is in our sights. Inverness here we come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

Tannadice Shuffle

It has been ten days since Celtic exited the Europa League at the hands of Inter Milan. Since then its been back to domestic business and the Hoops have played two matches in the Premiership.

Bouncing back from European defeat came in the form of a 4-0 thumping of title challengers, Aberdeen last Sunday. This was an excellent response from Ronny Deila’s players.

With Aberdeen put to bed for now, the midweek challenge at home to St Johnstone seemed like routine business. As it was, the Perth side had other ideas and Celtic lost to a solitary goal from outside the box.

I felt there could be a potential slip up going into that game. A home match which may have seemed like a foregone conclusion playing against a mid-tabled team.

Credit to St Johnstone for organising themselves in the fashion which most clubs do at Celtic Park these days. Its the only way they know how to avoid defeat and they got the points.

As much as it is a minor setback, Celtic must also heed the warning from this result. It would have been an opportunity to go 9 points clear of Aberdeen, but it is also a reminder that this title will not come to Celtic Park easily.

The timeliness of this result comes just before Celtic embark on a triple bill of encounters with Jackie McNamara’s Dundee United. They currently lie 4th in the Premiership but still pose a great threat to Celtic’s title and cup hopes.

First up is today’s Scottish Cup Quarter Final at Tannadice. The last visit there by Celtic ended in a 2-1 defeat.

The winner that day was scored by new Bhoy, Stuart Armstrong. He, along with Gary Mackay-Steven are both cup-tied for today’s encounter and next weeks as well.

The addition of these two players have been a fantastic boost for Ronny Deila. Like Dundee United though, Celtic will have to do without both, or at least for the next two matches anyway.

United will be looking to up there game which has suffered at the loss of Armstrong and Mackay-Steven. With home advantage they’ll be looking to inflict a similar result on Celtic as they did on 21st December.

For Celtic that means they will need to be at their best and shrug off Wednesday’s set back. Ronny Deila must shuffle the pack to bring balance back into the team which will be missing some key players this afternoon.

With injuries and cup tied players affecting the starting eleven, its time for those in reserve to step up and play their part. Stokes, Wakaso, Forrest, Fisher, McGregor and Henderson are all capable on their day and today could be the day for all or some of them to prove that.

If the treble is truly being sought then a victory on today will be a step nearer to making that happen. Further crucial matches against Dundee United await in the weeks ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie

A good start

Ronny Deila’s players kicked off their Europa League campaign with a positive result. Despite leading twice, Celtic had to settle for a draw but it was a fair result.

Celtic started the stronger and looked good for the first goal. That came true after some nice one touch passing in the final third of the field involving captain Scott Brown, Kris Commons and finally debutant Wakaso Mubarak, curling a low drive into the far corner.

Salzburg would respond some twenty-two minutes later courtesy of a deflection. That goal came during a period when Celtic were sitting back and were duly punished, albeit cruelly.

Celtic took the lead once more in the second half through Scott Brown after he latched onto a loose ball outside the box. With space and time to breathe, Brown smacked the ball home calmly, though took a touch of a Salzburg players boot en route to goal.

Later in the second half, Celtic made attacking changes. It was inevitable given that some players, young Callum McGregor in particular, were surprisingly quiet and ineffective, though he himself would remain on the park throughout the game.

Anthony Stokes and Aleksandr Tonev replaced Stefan Šćepović and Kris Commons respectively. Whilst Commons can always conjure something out of nothing, Šćepović has yet to settle into the team though he did come extremely close to scoring a long-range effort shortly before going off.

However, Salzburg came back into the match with twelve minutes remaining. A free kick conceded by Celtic was sublimely placed into the goal by Salzburg striker Soriano.

Chances came and went toward the end of the game but it finished a stalemate. The main talking points were positive in my view, though I still question Efe Ambrose’s placement at right back.

With injuries to Lustig and Matthews, Ambrose’s experience has won over Ronny Deila. For me though, it is Darnell Fisher who should filling that position for now given Ambrose’s lackadaisical performances.

On a positive note Scott Brown’s return to the midfield was warmly welcomed in European competition. His influence and determination is important amongst these other midfield players who do not possess ability but perhaps not that same aggression and spirit.

For Callum McGregor it was not such a fortuitous night but Ronny Delia has a great deal of belief in him. I wouldn’t disagree with him either as McGregor is easily one of Celtic’s best players right now.

I save my main praise for goalkeeper Craig Gordon though. Celtic’s decision to bring him to the club (not Ronny’s) left me with mixed feelings, particularly as it meant a certain exit for “La Gran Muralla”, Fraser Forster.

Delia has given Gordon the nod and he has not let the team down. In fact, Delia said that Gordon’s influence in the dressing has been substantial.

On the field of play he evidently more vocal than Forster was and has a few years more experience as well, even though he has been out of the game for so long. He himself has indicated that he needs to improve more which is welcome, though for now he his doing a fine job.

His efforts last night kept Celtic in the game when they could quite easily have conceded. Disappointment was visible on his face at both goals but knowing that he does has room to sharpen up those reflexes and that decision-making is heartening given that he is also one of Celtic’s best players right now.

As far as the result goes I would have taken a draw before kick off. This competition may not be the Champions League but it doesn’t mean Celtic will walk it.

Ronny Deila has only obtained key players at the eleventh hour of the transfer window. Only now can he carve his vision onto the field of play with the squad he has.

That will take time and patience so in Europe particularly Celtic will need to tread carefully. Its as much a learning curve for Deila as it is for this squad.

It can be a platform to better things but should also be approached with greatest respect to the opponents in Group D. Nobody will be a pushover in this tournament but for me it is an excellent opportunity for Celtic to make a run.

The sad thing is that John Guidetti is one player we will not see in the group stage. If Celtic make it beyond Christmas in the Europa League, we might just get that wish.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie