From Hamilton to Rennes: Celtic embark upon Europa journey against familiar opponents

Celtic 0-0 Stade Rennais in July’s freindly in Glasgow

After a dull international break I’d been looking forward to Celtic playing Hamilton Accies last weekend. The match wasn’t glamorous yet the scoreline translated as a Celtic victory.

The important thing was the win. Maintaining a 100% record in all domestic games for the time being.

Having managed that after an international break is to be commended as their was a concern momentum may be lost. Hamilton were stubborn and Celtic didn’t get the second goal that would have eased everyone’s minds and made the result look a little more conclusive.

Yet there was very little wrong with what Celtic did. It wasn’t glossy or polished, but it kept Celtic’s noses in front as they prepared for a European week.

We were introduced to Mohamed Elyounoussi who provided the assist for James Forrest’s goal. The only goal of the game which came in the fourth minute.

The Southampton winger was substituted in the 67th minute for Tom Rogic. Rogic has been out for a while, but his return signifies the depth and quality we possess given that Ryan Christie has practically stolen the number 10 role in his absence.

Odsonne Edouard was also involved in the first goal, providing a nice lay-off for Elyounoussi. The Frenchman was replaced by Vakoun Bayo in the 77th minute with Celtic still in the hunt for the second goal.

With four minutes of the six added on remaining, Jonny Hayes came on for Christie. The aim was most likely to unlock the Hamilton back line as he did at Ibrox the other week.

There was some concern for Christopher Jullien when he got a head knock. He eventually played on, but in the aftermath it transpired he’d blacked out which means he probably should have been taken off.

It wasn’t the best game of football I’ve seen against Hamilton, but the result was important. Straight wins from your opening five league games hasn’t been done since 2010.

With another three points in the bag, Celtic embark upon their Europa League Group Stage campaign this evening. Stade Rennais are a familiar face to Neil Lennon having just played them in a summer friendly.

That tame friendly ended as 0-0, but Lennon’s first encounter with the French club was back in 2011 in the Europa League. After FC Sion were thrown out of the competition, Celtic took their place alongside Atletico Madrid, Udinese and Stade Rennais in the group stages.

Results against the French side were good. A 1-1 draw in Rennes followed by a 3-1 win at Celtic Park meant that Neil Lennon’s side had bested the the French club over all but three draws and one defeated elsewhere meant settling for third place in Group I.

Fast forward eight years and the two clubs find themselves up against one another once again. There are no survivors in the Stade Rennais side from that era but Celtic have James Forrest and Fraser Forster who played in both games.

Club captain Scott Brown was absent for the entire group phase that season. So although he didn’t take part, he was very much part of the squad back then.

Stade Rennais currently sit in second place in Ligue 1 behind PSG who they beat 2-1 last month along with Montpelier and Strasbourg. However, in their last two league matches they lost at home to Nice and drew away to Brest.

Celtic are going strong with five out of five wins in the league, a win in the League Cup and just the one defeat in all European qualifiers. Stade Rennais of course, didn’t have to undertake any qualifiers to make the group stage.

Last season they finished in 10th place with Julien Stephan taking the reins in December last year. He took the team to the French Cup Final and won on penalties against PSG.

That earned them automatic entry into the Europa League group stage. Meantime, Celtic had to slog it out in eight qualifiers, despite having won a domestic treble for the third season in a row.

Whilst the team from Rennes have overcome PSG twice in their last two meetings, Celtic have been playing well. And things are still developing under Neil Lennon.

I think tonight’s match is a hard one to call. Celtic will not be phased by those results their opponents got against PSG – they will be ready.

Neil Lennon has put in a lot of hard work over the summer against European sides, recruiting a mixture of youth and experience, as well as changing the way Celtic play. I don’t think a result is out of the question for Celtic this evening and as Lennon himself has already, “the group is open and every team will be looking to have a say.”

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Former Ibrox favourite loses his six year battle…

Today it was announced that former Rangers and Netherlands footballer Fernando Ricksen passed away. His battle with motor neurone disease (MND) finally came to an end after six years.

After being diagnosed with the disease, also know as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), support came from far and wide including former team mates, former rivals and fellow professionals. He also began a charity in his own name to help find a cure for the disease.

I think it is fair to say that many of us were devastated and saddened to see Fernando’s decline. MND/ALS is a disease that was well known to Celtic fans when it claimed the life of Lisbon Lion, Jimmy Johnstone in 2006 at the age of 61.

Fernando enjoyed success in his career with Fortuna Sittard, AZ, Rangers and Zenit Saint Petersburg. Wherever he played he made a name for himself on and off the field.

The contrast between the player who often courted controversy and the man he became after his diagnosis in 2013, made his health even more of shock to people who knew of him. It put everything in perspective with regards to the petty squabbles that we often see in the game of football.

He fought bravely as many other MND sufferers do and we can only hope that he is now at peace after showing a willingness to battle on. One thing we can say for certain about Fernando Ricksen is that he gave everything throughout his career and we applaud him for his contribution to the game and bringing awareness of this disease to the wider public.

Research into MND, which took him at the age of 43, will continue. If you ever wish to donate to the cause, Fernando’s charity can be found here as well as the MND Scotland charity.

Hail! Hail! Fernando.

Stevie Mac

Scotland humbled, Celtic return this weekend

I had hoped that when Steve Clarke stepped down from doing a fantastic job at Kilmarnock that Scotland would benefit from his coaching skills. With two defeats from his opening three games and a third against Belgium last night, qualifying from Group I is dead.

To be fair, the damage was pretty much done under Alex McLeish thanks to an away defeat to 48th ranked Kazakhstan earlier in the year. A glimpse of hope remained when Clarke was installed before the double header against Belgium and Cyprus in June.

Beating Cyprus in his opening match in charge was much needed, but losing away to Belgium was pretty much guaranteed. That meant a good result against the Russians at Hampden was required, but that did not materialise on Friday evening.

With the Belgian’s firing four past Scotland without reply, Clarke is now focussed on the play-offs in March. Next month Scotland will travel to Russia where a draw is the best hope though defeat is more likely.

The group fixtures will then conclude with San Marino (H), Cyrpus (A) and Kazakhstan (H). Clarke has stated that 12 points are up for grabs, but I think 9 is probably more realistic for Scotland.

Before the qualifiers commenced, the pecking order of this group would most likely have put Scotland in third place behind Belgium and Russia. That is now Clarke’s target in the remaining four games.

The SFA botched matters after Gordon Strachan left. Appointing McLeish was a shocking piece of recruitment.

I like Steve Clarke a lot and were it not for his miserable demeanour I’d love to have seen him at Celtic. Realistically, I don’t think he has what it takes to manage a club like Celtic because it is more than just coaching players, which is why I think the Scotland job is probably good for him.

I’m prepared to see how he fairs in the play offs in March. Between now and then he needs to forge a team that is stronger than the current one.

With the international break almost over we can look forward to having our players return to the domestic fold and for Celtic push on this season. On Saturday, the Bhoys are back in action away to Hamilton.

The game is live at midday and the Lanarkshire club will be looking to get some more points on the board. In all likelihood I can’t see that happening against Celtic.

The Hoops are three points clear at the top after putting two past the Ibrox club just over a week ago. That result and the manner of the performance laid down a marker.

Having taken so much flak from Celtic fans, the media and the pundits, the critics were silenced. It was a measured performance by Celtic on September 1st and was a reminder to all, who the best club in Scotland actually are.

Yes, it was a frantic game and yes, the opposition had more possession. The truth is though, Celtic saw that coming, allowed them space and time to play and dealt with it.

The Ibrox club were always going to come out of the traps for that match. In the end, they did very little with the ball in the final third.

The game was won by better quality players. The next match against them will be very interesting indeed.

However, in the weeks and months ahead we have a treble to defend and Europe to conquer. The season is really just beginning.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

A demonstration of strength

I had aimed to publish this on Monday, but with the transfer window closing yesterday, my attention was elsewhere! So here goes.

Before kick off on Sunday I had no inkling as to how the match at Ibrox would play out. Only because over the last twelve months our stock had fallen under Brendan Rodgers and the spoils between each club and each manager were shared.

What I saw in the ninety-plus minutes on Sunday lunchtime was a measured performance by Celtic. They allowed possession to their opponents, pressed when it suited and defended when it mattered.

Let me just get it out in the open. Under Steven Gerrard, the Ibrox club are a much more organised team than they were under Ally McCoist, Mark Warburton or Pedro Caixhinha.

Gerrard, or at least his back room staff, have assembled and drilled this squad in a better fashion than their predecessors. But in terms of quality and style, Celtic are still way ahead.

Many thought after the summer of discontent that Celtic were falling apart and that with the defeat at Ibrox in December the gap was closing. After Sunday, it doesn’t seem so.

When they had as much of the ball as we did, they didn’t know what to do with it. It reminded me of the movie quote: “I’m like a dog chasing cars, I wouldn’t know what to do if I caught one, you know, I’d just do…things.”

And you know what? They didn’t know what to do.

It was very scrappy at times by both teams. I’d even go as far to say it was cagey.

They were the home side though, sloppy in possession and wasteful. There isn’t a single Rangers player I’d consider a threat or able to get into our team.

I don’t say that disrespectfully. I’m being genuine.

I recognise their organisation and effort under Gerrard and his team because it has got them wins where they have faltered in the past. On Sunday though, it confirmed to me that Celtic are still the superior side by far.

I said before the game that I was pleased with the way we were playing overall under Neil Lennon. That continued on Sunday.

With Elhamed at right back, Jullien and Bitton at centre back and Bolingoli at left back, they all put in a great shift. This was a back line that hadn’t played together or in this fixture with the exception of Bitton.

Brown and McGregor were tireless in the midfield. Christie worked his socks off not as a number 10, but as a number 8.

Whilst Forrest struggled to get into the game on the right, Johnston was effervescent on the left. And as for Edouard, he is on course for big things at Celtic and beyond.

Forster, back in his first Ibrox match since the 1872 club were liquidated, had virtually nothing to do all game. To be fair, the same can be said of his opposite number with the exception of picking the ball out of the net twice.

I even applaud the efforts of Bauer, who was summoned with 24 minutes of the game remaining, to make his debut. He played his role well, even though he was chopped down by an opponent, who turn received a red card as well as a long term injury for a reckless challenge on the Austrian right back.

Ntcham had a big hand in Celtic’s final push towards the end of the game too. He was instrumental in much of the link up and recovery play when he came on.

And what about Jonny Hayes? On in 84 minutes to seal the fate of the home side just seven minutes later.

A wonderful moment for the Irishman. He kept his head and enjoyed his moment.

Neil Lennon spoke to the media afterwards and laid it out straight. Before kick off, most people, even the bookies, favoured Steven Gerrard’s side.

Nobody had given Celtic a hope of winning. Lennon stated “maybe now people will respect us.”

I don’t just think that was aimed at the media. That goes for the fans too.

Because after the Cluj result, many had the knives out. I wasn’t short of criticising Lennon myself, but I certainly wasn’t calling for him to be sacked.

We have been playing well over and above that one blip. A huge blip, but a blip nonetheless.

Transfer activity has been slow over the summer. Look at yesterday though.

Three out, three in. All of our positions are covered for the season ahead.

Yes, we perhaps didn’t move on all of the players we had hoped, but I’d rather have that than have a weak squad. We can offload as the season progresses if need be.

The most important thing is that Neil Lennon has us playing good football. The football people were berating him for when he came in last season was not his.

He said it often enough, but it wasn’t within his remit to change things. Just to steer the ship home with a treble on board.

And he delivered, even if it was ugly. Now though, we are seeing his football.

We have a good squad and are undefeated at the top of the league. We are in the group stages of the Europa League with a very good chance of making the last 32.

There are players coming through the ranks who in the future will carry on the great name of this club. They are being integrated and developed with the additional talent we have recruited.

In the last 48 hours I have been really pleased with what has happened at Celtic. We’ve had to wait, but on the face of it we’ve topped off a great result at Ibrox with a great end to the transfer window.

Now there’s a bit of a break and a chance for Celtic to take a rest from what has been a very hard two months at home and abroad. I look forward to the next chapter in this season.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie mac

Team news and stats…

Today’s lineup….

In the next half hour, Celtic will walk out onto the Ibrox turf. One or both teams will drop points for the first time this season.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s blog, both teams have maximum points from their opening three Premiership matches. With both teans enjoying an equal share of the spoils last season as well, this game is a difficult one to predict.

Before the defeat at Ibrox last December, losing to Rangers seemed unthinkable. Brendan Rodgers lost at Ibrox and so did Neil Lennon, but they each won the games at Celtic Park.

As managers, Lennon and Gerrard have faced each other four times. Lennon drew with Rangers twice whilst at Hibs last year, won one at Celtic Park and lost one at Ibrox with Celtic.

In terms of stats it is honors even. Predictions for these matches aren’t generally my thing.

I don’t think I can call this one. With that element of domination not in place any more it is anyone’s guess.

What I will say is that I like what I see from Celtic. Yes, we’re disappointed with that Cluj game, but that aside we’ve been playing well.

We’ll know very soon who, if anyone, has come out on top of this one. Come on the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Europa Report

When you get paired with a team from Europe who, last time around got the better of you, there’s often a feeling of dread that history may repeat itself. For Celtic though, this is a chance for retribution after the Europa League draw was made on Friday lunch time.

Celtic were plucked from pot two and placed into Group E but it was pot four that had folk rolling their eyes. Because the team drawn from pot four was none other than CFR Cluj.

For all the misery that the second leg at Celtic Park delivered for Celtic fans, the Romanian champions were not an unbeatable side or indeed a very good one. On the contrary, Celtic pretty much handed the second leg at Celtic Park to Cluj on a plate.

Transfer and injuries aside, Neil Lennon had more than enough to overcome Dan Petrescu’s side. Tactical errors and mishaps by Scotts Bain and Brown cost us a play off spot in the Champions League against Slavia Prague.

We may or may not have got past the Czech champions, but we’ll never know. What we do know is where we are now and that is in Group E of the Europa League with Lazio, Stade Rennais and of course Cluj who failed to overcome the Slavia Prague themselves.

Group E is not a bad draw to be honest and we stand a good chance of making the last 32. In the next couple of days though we need to ensure we have plenty of cover to assist us with the challenges ahead before the transfer window closes on Monday.

Lazio and Celtic have never faced each other competitively, but Neil Lennon and Celtic are very familiar with Stade Rennais and CFR Cluj. Celtic seem destined to play the same teams in Europe over and over again.

The first encounter with the French side was back in 2011, ironically in the Europa League group stage. It was Neil Lennon’s first season in charge and he won 3-1 at Celtic Park and drew 1-1 in Rennes.

Fast forward to 2015 and Ronny Deila took them on in a pre-season friendly, winning 2-0 at Celtic Park. This summer they were back in Glasgow for a feisty friendly which resulted in a 0-0 draw.

Cluj we know all about from this summer of course, but Lennon and Celtic faced them in a preseason friendly back in 2013 as well. That was in Austria when Celtic were at their pre season summer camp, losing the game 2-1.

Now they will go face-to-face again. We can only hope that the mistakes from the game at Celtic Park do not rear their ugly head once more.

Lazio will be a tougher encounter, but they are by no means an unbeatable side. They claimed a place in the Europa League by winning the Coppa Italia, but they finished 8th in Serie A last season.

Like Celtic, they finished second in their Europa League group stage last year and also exited in the last 32, with Sevilla – prolific winner of the trophy – being their conquerors.

These are the confirmed dates and times:

So with the odds very good, there is more reason to feel optimistic. That being the case, the club must capture the players required to make this team fully functional.

Last night Mohamed Elyounoussi signed on a one year loan from Southampton. The left winger wears the number 11 jersey for the Premier League club, but at Celtic that shirt is currently worn by Scott Sinclair.

Sinclair, has been practically frozen out despite the club extending his contract by another year at the end of last season. Most assumed that was to allow the club to consider their options and possibly still make a profit from a summer sale, but with the English transfer window shut a move to any other country looks unlikely.

So now Neil Lennon has a lot of midfield and attacking options. Defensively though we are all still hopeful of one or two additions.

It doesn’t have to be a stupid amount of cash. We just need some quality to provide depth and cover.

Left back remains a key area of concern as currently we have one player in Boli Bolingoli for that role. There is no backup or challenger for the position vacated by Emilio Izaguirre and Kieran Tierney this summer.

You could also question that the central defence options are also low if any injuries and suspensions occur. I have a feeling though that Bitton and Elhamed will be included in those numbers along with Jullien, Ajer and Simunovic with Hendry a possible candidate to go out on loan.

We could also still see some other Celtic players go out on loan, but time is running out. January will give us another chance to buy and sell if we are still in the Europa League, but we need to ensure the squad is strong on all fronts now.

The gap was closed on Celtic last season, but despite that yet another treble was achieved. I don’t think that’ll happen again this season, though that’s what I said last summer and look what happened!

Critically, our neighbours across the city will be occupied on Thursday evenings until Christmas as well. Their late winner at home to Legia Warsaw saw them through to pot four of Friday’s draw and face a group that includes Porto, Young Boys of Berne and Feyenoord – good luck with that one.

Knowing that they will have the same amount of breathing space that Celtic do for domestic games, you can be sure there is no advantage across the city. That could turn out to be crucial in this seasons campaign if Celtic are also fighting the cause in Europe.

Speaking of our neighbours, we are set to face them for the first time this season on Sunday. Neither Glasgow club has dropped points this season, the only clubs in the Scottish Premiership still with maximum points.

Right now, the bookies odds favour the Ibrox club. Last season, both clubs won their home ties against each other which is probably how they’ve sorted those odds.

Gerrard and Lennon have each strengthened their teams. We’ll see who wins this one tomorrow lunchtime if indeed there is one!

Then we’ll just have to wait and see if Celtic do any more business over the next few days. Do use proud on Sunday, Bhoys!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Stockholm or bust!

Celtic gave their European campaign a shot in the arm with a 2-0 win over AIK last Thursday at Celtic Park. The performance and scoreline was positive and though it didn’t kill off the tie, it was a decent first leg.

Having brushed aside Hearts at the weekend (with the aid of two own goals) Neil Lennon has maintained a 100% domestic record before taking his players to Stockholm for the final hurdle that can secure European football until Christmas. The Europa League play off tie is far from over and it is merely half time between both clubs.

The stakes are high because whilst the Europa League may not be as prestigious as the Champions League, European football is what we live for every season. I’ll take Thursday night European ties over no European football at all.

Reaching the group stage will allow Celtic to pit themselves against better opposition than they play most weekends. Last season they faced Salzburg, Leipzig and Rosenborg in the group phase of the same tournament and finished second.

That allowed them to make the last 32 and if we get passed AIK on Thursday that has to be the minimum we are aiming for. Celtic lost out to Valencia in the knock out stage 3-0 on aggregate but it would be good if we could get beyond that stage.

However, I don’t want to get ahead of myself. We need only think about the game in Stockholm.

AIK have played more than twenty games so far in their domestic season. They are at peak fitness and even though this is Celtic’s twelfth competitive game of the season, they are still way behind their Swedish counterparts who have played around thirty competitive games in their current season.

Celtic will be looking to score in Sweden, but knowing that AIK have to score themselves, they may allow the Swedish Champions to play a bit and hit them on the counter. AIK certainly parked the bus last week, but they will have to be more adventurous if they hope to claw themselves back into this tie.

That could play in to Celtic’s hands who have plenty of runners who can open up a defence that may be more keen to break than sit back. Unless of course AIK go for the long ball game seen last week which also played into Celtic’s hands.

Celtic don’t have home advantage but it is advantage Celtic. As I said after the second leg against Cluj, mistakes are costly at the highest level.

The Europa League may be the second string European tournament, but it is our last throw of the dice. Let’s not throw that away.

Should Celtic avoid any catastrophe’s this evening, we stand a better chance of further signings before the transfer windows shuts. Yesterday we signed Moritz Bauer on loan from Stoke City.

Some fans have baulked at this as he is out of favour with the Championship side. However, he impressed when he arrived at the then Premier League club in a six month spell and earned a five year contract despite the club being relegated.

It is understood we have an option to buy should this loan work out. I would imagine the same could occur for Fraser Forster if has a successful loan spell.

The second time Celt is about five years younger than Craig Gordon and both keepers will have a decision to make at the end of this season. Gordon’s contract will expire at the end of May and Forster’s loan will expire at the end of June.

Last season, Scott Bain shared the space between the sticks with Craig Gordon. Bain played in 32 matches whilst Gordon played in 31.

Neil Lennon is still in pursuit of other players though. Another left back is a priority and whilst rumours continue about midfielders and attackers coming on board, Celtic will also need to off load a few on loan or for sale if they are not going to get near the first team.

Once this AIK match has been settled I would imagine we’ll have a better idea of where things are going. Stockholm or bust!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac