A game of chess?

Celtic go into Wednesday’s Champions League away leg against Rosenborg with a 3-1 advantage. Barring any major slip-ups, a place in the Third Round against AEK Athens awaits The Hoops.

It isn’t all plain sailing for Celtic though. No, no, we wouldn’t want that at such a crucial stage in our season would we?

With still so many players unavailable, Brendan Rodgers is likely to go with the same team that played in Glasgow. The only thing that shoyld change is the initial setup.

The manager put his hands up last week and said he got the tactics wrong. That was put right midway through the first half in that game.

With fitness, injury and suspension currently restricting defensive and attacking options, it is unlikely we will see any changes in Trondheim for those areas. At the same time, we will be hoping for zero mistakes.

One error cost Celtic a goal last week. The same kind of blip could cost Celtic a lot more away from home.

It is make-or-break for Rosenborg though. They have to win 2-0 or better otherwise it is the Europa League for them.

Celtic will not be risking a draw or dare not to attack either. They know they can score over there and they have already conceded an away goal so this will be a very competitive match by both teams.

Like I said before last week’s game, as weak as we are for certain positions right now, we have plenty of talent to turn over the Norwegian champions. The character displayed by Celtic after going a goal down in the first leg is a testimony to that.

Ironically, due to current personnel issues, Brendan Rodgers could well have a headache on the horizon when players start to become available again. Should Ajer and Hendry acquit themselves in an error free manner at the Lerkendal Stadion, then Boyata, Compper and Simunovic will all be judged against the up-and-coming centre backs.

Similarly, the efforts of Gamboa last week has put him in a good place going into the second leg. If he turns in another good performance against his old club, he may find himself in the running for right back this season.

Barring injury or suspension, Lustig has been the regular choice under Rodgers and his predecessors. Coincidentally, when the Swede left Rosenborg in January 2012, Gamboa was later acquired as his long-term replacement.

As well as them both being ex-Rosenborg players, now vying for the same position at Celtic, they are both out of contract at the end of the season as well. It will be interesting to see if either gets a new deal.

They are in the same company as six other first team players though. The likelihood of all eight of them extending their current deals is slim and I would say the services half will be retained beyond next summer.

So that means players running their contracts down, securing new deals or being shipped out this summer. Broony and Forrest are a cert to get new contracts, but the rest I am not so sure about.

De Vries will probably see out his contract unless he gets an offer elsewhere. Christie and Allan have spent more time on loan than in the first team and Rodgers has made no guarantees they will get a chance this season so I can see one of them staying at the very most.

Lustig and Gamboa I have already covered – age may play a factor in that decision. The remaining question mark is over Boyata.

The World Cup has put him in a very strong position. If there is any interest out with Celtic Park then he is in a good place to negotiate a better deal than he is currently on.

What will be interesting to find out is whether Celtic want to cash in on that now or make him a top earner at the club because he won’t stay for buttons. There is no doubt that Boyata did well in Russia, but I am still on the fence about his overall ability.

If Celtic can get £7M for Armstrong in the final year of his contract, what can they get for Boyata in the final year of his? Personally, I’d take the money if it was anywhere near that.

Equally, he will have benefited hugely from the World Cup experience and that might just be worth utilising. Either way, we can’t lose.

If Celtic progress in Norway, there are still two more rounds to navigate. Based on the current predicament of certain players, do we still need to strengthen?

Absolutely, but so far we haven’t been overly active this summer. We don’t need a flurry of players either because our squad is fairly strong.

There is no getting away from the fact that there are positions with questions marks over them though. Defence is that one area which is of concern.

With the exception of Tierney, the young guys we have at the back are largely work in progress. Of the players who are considered senior, we are far from certain they will be here for the whole season or if they are indeed the answer (or the problem) to our defensive problems.

At the same time, I get the impression our a squad represents a chess board. If we were just to get shot of those players who have no future or want to move on then we would know what places to fill.

And that is just it. We don’t appear to know what is happening.

If Boyata goes south or abroad we need to fill those shoes. Simunovic is in a similar situation and fast becoming a fall guy.

Compper I don’t even want to talk about. Until one or more of those players departs, I don’t see Celtic signing another centre half.

At right back I don’t see us signing anyone either. Gamboa or Lustig might get a new a new contract with Ralston as the understudy or we’ll bring in someone totally new in January or the end of the season, but not now.

Tierney could do with some cover on the left because he is doing it all himself right now. Miller is not the answer in my opinion and asking someone to play out of position in KT’s absence is far from ideal especially if you have European aspirations.

Our midfield is well equipped and our forward line is looking very strong when all fit. An understudy in that department wouldn’t go a miss though.

On the right wing we have James Forrest, but if he was to get injured we’d lose his form and the goals and assists that come with him. His only cover would be a fit Jonny Hayes who is currently on his way back from injury.

From what I can see we won’t be making any more signings unless players move on or we advance in Europe. And in Norway tomorrow night, we will need to progress first.

Not what we all want to hear, but that is the reality of things right now. For now, it’s all about progress.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Change of shape secures win for Celtic

Celtic put one foot in the Third Qualifying Round of the Champions League last night with a win in Glasgow. Things did not start as they wanted though.

It was already widely known that Brendan Rodgers was without nine first team players. Defensive and attacking positions being our weakest areas.

There was still plenty of talent in the available squad to get a result against familiar opponents though. However, it would be the Rosenborg who would draw first blood.

After a surge forward by the repositioned Jack Hendry as far as the opposition’s 18 yard box, he lost the ball. Rosenborg quickly broke forward and after a series of unsuccessful blocks and challenges they scored.

It was a stupid goal to lose but a great start for the Norwegians. That made Celtic a little bit jittery for a while afterwards, but then things would change.

There was nothing totally unexpected about the starting lineup. What was abundantly obvious was that Celtic’s shape was all wrong from the start.

Tierney was static at left back, Forrest was in lost in the middle of the park, Gamboa was bombing down the right and Brown, Ntcham and McGregor were all over the place.

Brendan himself put his hands up to in the post match media conference that he got it wrong – fair play. However, he did change it eventually and that delivered an equaliser shortly before half time.

Edouard showed some calmness and close control to slot home from close range. Sinclair had threaded the ball through to him, but the space was tight and for a big guy he did very well to tuck it home.

The second half looked more like situation normal. Ntcham showed more presence and some delightful play outside the opposition penalty area.

He rinsed his oncoming challenger with a nifty piece of footwork, sidestepped him and curled in a belter. What this guy is capable of at this age is incredible at times.

Celtic continued to press and attack for the remainder of the game. The best was yet to come though.

A through ball from Forrest to Edouard found the Frenchman one-on-one with the Rosenborg keeper. He retained his composure and chipped it over the diving keeper to make it 3-1.

There would be no more goals in the game, but there should have been. Aside from what looked like a decent penalty claim on Ntcham, Celtic hit the woodwork countless times.

If it weren’t for the Norwegian’s goalkeeper, we could have been looking at a much higher scoreline. Celtic had too much in the tank for Rosenborg, but the home side didn’t really get under way until Rodgers changed the setup.

I don’t think it has harmed Celtic’s chances too much. A 3-1 lead is good, but a clean sheet would have been better.

On the plus side, we can score over there. And hopefully we won’t have a rookie official either which was glaringly apparent last night.

Inexperienced referees should not be allowed to officiate matches where so much is at stake. Wrong decisions in these matches can be financially costly for clubs.

Thankfully, Celtic came good and there were some notable performances. Gamboa was good throughout the game which makes you wonder why the guy has barely been seen in a Celtic jersey.

Overall, I thought the defence was good as well. Hendry had two carbon copy errors where he marched into the 18 yard box and lost the ball.

It wasn’t his 18 yard box, but it was the initial error that caused the goal. However, it is his first game at centre half and he will learn from those mistakes and it is his best position.

I think himself and Ajer had a decent game and long-term will do well. I don’t have any problems with them at this point, but we still require experience and seniority in that position.

Ntcham demonstrated his class once more. He also took his goal very well.

Edouard was such an important player in this game. He isn’t suffering from the price tag either.

For a big lad he has great control and balance. There were many reports comparing him to Larsson last night and even among those I was watching the game with as well.

It certainly was a Larsson style chip. Perhaps too early to be labelling the guy just yet though.

Eddy is establishing his own character and so far it looks pretty good for us. He is but one piece of the puzzle though.

We need all our players playing like that. We also need him to do more of the same next week in the second leg in Trondheim.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Familiar foes and old acquaintances

Phase two of Celtic’s European mission begins tonight in Glasgow. Rosenborg are in town for the second year running as Brendan Rodgers hopes to reach the Champions League Group Stage for the third straight season under his management.

Despite home advantage, Celtic are without the services of nine first team players. That is made up of injuries, general fitness, suspension and leave.

So that means the recurring theme of going into European qualifiers a bit light on personnel. Do I think Celtic have enough to beat Rosenborg though?

Yes, I do. I really do.

Not because of the Norwegian’s sudden change in management or the fact they may not be the team they once were. Or even that we overturned them last season with a solitary away goal.

For me it is because we look very sharp right now, even with the missing personnel. Back in the fold will be two of our World Cup players in Cristian Gamboa and Tom Rogic as well.

Could we have played without both players? Yes, I think in this leg for sure, but at the same time always good to have both players available.

I had felt that Anthony Ralston would be given the chance especially after signing a new deal at the turn of the year. He hasn’t had the first team opportunities since then as he was out on loan, but I thought this game would have been perfect for him at home in front of his own fans.

Gamboa does have more career experience, but he’s played less first team football than Ralston in the last year. The Cost Rican made three appearances last season compared to the Scot’s seven.

Ralston also made fifteen appearances for Dundee United whilst on loan. It does appear the Brendan isn’t willing to gamble on youth though.

Gamboa has been thrown in at the deep end before, particularly in Europe. He’s only played three times in Europe for Celtic with the opposition consisting of Borussia Mönchengladbach, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

He has also played in the Europa League once for FC Copenhagen and coincidentally, tonight’s visitors Rosenborg on ten occasions. It is perhaps that knowledge and experience, coupled with his World Cup form that has helped him move up the pecking order ahead of Ralston.

At the other end of the park, Odsonne Edouard will be our only proper striker. Up until recently, we’ve predominately deployed a lone striker, but as we’ve seen over the summer, Edouard has been paired with Moussa Dembele.

Tonight, he’ll either go solo or have the assistance of an attacking midfielder or winger alongside him. Scott Sinclair has played up front before as has James Forrest.

Neither, I would suggest has been a great success and is not, repeat not, their role. It would be more useful to leave these guys out wide and to come in-field which is where their strengths lie.

If Tom Rogic is also involved there will be a sufficient attacking threat from a diamond formation at the front of our line-up. That would leave a holding midfield of Scott Brown being paired with Callum McGregor or Olivier Ntcham.

Going by the players rumoured to play, Celtic are likely to start like this:

Gordon

Gamboa       Hendry    Ajer      Tierney

                    Brown   McGregor/Ntcham

Forrest          Rogic          Sinclair

Edouard

I’m sure Brendan will be looking to avoid last season’s slip up of a 0-0 draw at Celtic Park. He will want to go out to Norway next week in a much more comfortable position.

Roll on 7.45pm at Paradise.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Armenia, Norway and if we’re fortunate…Greece.

Celtic and Rosenborg were in the first ball out of the bowl for the Champions League Third Qualifying Round draw. They were immediately followed by AEK Athens of Greece who will play the winner out of the Scottish and Norwegian champions.

AEK haven’t had the previous rounds to contend with. If Celtic get past Rosenborg they will face the Greek Champions.

There were better draws that could have come out of the bowl, but if you want to earn your place in the group stage you must walk the path. Right now it’s only about the two Rosenborg games though.

Deal with those matches and then we can start thinking about the Greek capital. Next stop, Paradise and Rosenborg.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Three and easy – 10 man Celtic progress

So Celtic made it into the second qualifying round with relative ease last night. It was not without incident though.

Moussa Dembele scored a hard worked effort in the seventh minute to get things under way. Four minutes later, Jozo Simunovic saw red for a high boot – I’ll come back to that later.

There’s no doubt this had an impact for the remaining seventy-nine-plus minutes of the match. Celtic remained composed though and continued to play their game and with some verve too.

From the first minute it was clear how sharp we looked. What was even more impressive was how we managed to maintain that for the remainder of the match with a one man disadvantage.

On nineteen minutes Dembele converted a penalty to make it 2-0. Then on thirty-five minutes, following a brilliant breaking move, James Forrest latched onto a great pass to make it 3-0.

By this point Celtic were still dominating play. Alashkert were hardly a threat.

The second half saw more of the same from Celtic. Good moves, dominating possession and still with a one man disadvantage.

Brendan made some changes bringing on Scott Sinclair for Odsonne Edouard, Ryan Christie for Moussa Dembele and Mikey Johnston for Forrest in the second half. There will be concern about Dembele’s hamstring with so many important games coming up, but the manager said it may not even be an injury and just some tightness.

What will be on his mind are his defensive options for next week. With Simunovic banned for the first leg, Marvin Compper injured again, Cristian Gamboa, Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata still to return from their World Cup rest periods all our hopes lay with youth.

Last night Jack Hendry, Kristoffer Ajer and Kieran Tierney held the back line for most of the match with Forrest filling in at right back. Next week we could potentially be looking at Anthony Ralston coming in at right back, Tierney in his usual role with Hendry and Ajer as the central pairing.

Hendry has not convinced some folk, but it’s worth remembering he’s also been played out of position since his arrival central defence is his preferred role. The options and experience may not be what the fans wished for, but it is what we have at this stage.

The option to recall any of our World Cup players to help out may be an option as pointed out by Brendan. It could also present a risk though if they haven’t had a sufficient rest period

As I said in my last blog though, Boyata and Gamboa haven’t played since the group phase and Lustig since the last sixteen. So anyone of them could be called upon if required.

On the plus side, the first leg of the second round is at Celtic Park next week. With home advantage the risk of playing an inexperienced back line would be somewhat lower and this might be the opportunity to field a future back-four.

Tierney has almost thirty European games to his name and is way ahead of Ajer who is now approaching double figures. It is Hendry and Ralston who have to catch up with only two games each in their locker.

Is this a back line you’d be happy with though? I’d be happy to blood them now, but in the later stages you need more experience and we will.

Rosenborg will provide a threat having won in injury time last night in their tie against Valur. Celtic faced the Norwegian champions in last season’s third round of the competition so they know each other well enough.

On that occasion Celtic won the round 1-0 on aggregate thanks to a James Forrest winner in the second leg over in Norway. However, it’s worth noting that Celtic played without a proper striker in both of those games last year.

Whilst Leigh Griffiths is injured and Dembele needs to be assessed, we still have Edouard ready to roll. And with the entire team looking sharp I am not too concerned about which players we utilise for this one as long as it is our strongest available one.

Before I finish up, I wanted to mention last nights performance. Celtic were scintillating.

I know Alashkert are relative minnows in European football, but even with ten men Celtic were fantastic. Which brings me on to the red card incident.

Simunovic, by the laws of the game endangered another player with a high boot. It was not intentional or malicious and you could see that due to the quick exchange of headers he had his eye on the ball all the way but it was a foul.

Could the ref have shown yellow? Yes, I think he probably could have, but as Brendan said, in European football you will get punished for that.

Sometimes you throw a high boot and can get away with it because it isn’t endangering someone else. In this case it was in a dangerous direction and that was why he was sent off.

There’s no use complaining about it. What I would say is that the referee did not show the same discipline to some of the challenges being dished out by Alashkert players who were clearly frustrated, particularly in the second half.

It was a true testament to Celtic’s pre-season fitness that they played they way they did last night. We will only get stronger as the summer months roll by.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Celtic looking to secure a second round place in the Champions League

Celtic go into tonight’s First Qualifying Round Second Leg tie in the Champions League with a decent goal cushion. Leading 3-0 from the first leg, Brendan will be looking to conclude this tie in as early as possible.

There are tougher rounds ahead, but he’ll still want a strong squad overall. The balance needs to be correct, but with a qualifier every midweek until the end of August, it will be a long slog.

With Celtic now almost certainly into the next round, it’ll either be a trip to Iceland or Norway depending on how things go between Rosenborg and Valur. The Hoops already traveled to Austria for the pre-season training camp, Ireland for a friendly and Armenia for last weeks first leg against Alashkert FC.

If previous years are anything to go by the Bhoys could end up further afield as has been the case in recent years. That won’t happen until the Third Qualifying Round if at all though.

The passage has never been easy for the Hoops, travelling such great distances so early on in the season. It is what we have come to expect though.

On the upside Brendan feels the players have come back in the best shape yet. If that is the starting point for this season then hopefully that will mean we are even sharper in the weeks ahead.

We also have to welcome back our World Cup players in the coming weeks. Tom Rogic and Cristian Gamboa will be the first to appear, followed shortly by Mikael Lustig and Dedryck Boyata.

With Rogic and Gamboa out in the group phase, they will be due back very soon. Sweden made it as far as the quarter finals, but Lustig did not take part in their final match due to suspension.

Belgium were of course the Third Place Winner having beaten England on Saturday, but Boyata only appeared in their group phase matches. He hasn’t kicked a ball outside of training for nearly three weeks so he could be back quicker than we think.

And with any luck we’ll see some fresh faces in our ranks as well. I can see one or two new players coming in, more if there are any departures.

Tonight though, it is all about wrapping things up without too much fuss. All we need to do is see this tie out with a couple of more goals and not to over do things.

There is a long road ahead.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

FC Alashkert Facts

The first game of Celtic’s season kicks off in less than an hour. But what do we know about this club from Armenia?

The club are based in the capital, Yerevan. They were originally founded in 1990 and based in Martuni, but were dissolved in 2000.

In 2011 they were refounded by the current owners. That makes them slightly older than the current Ibrox club.

Since then they have relocated, moving to the current stadium in 2013. They have won the Armenian title three times.

In 2015, they made there first appearance in Europe. The first qualifying round of the Europa League paired them with St Johnstone who they beat on away goals.

That lead them to the second qualifying round against Kairat. The Kazakh team put the Armenian newcomers out 4-2 on aggregate.

The following season they entered the Champions League first qualifying round for tge first time. Santa Coloma were their opponents and beat the Andorrans 3-0 on aggregate. In the next round they faced Dinamo Tblisi who won 3-1 on aggregate.

Last season Alashkert played Santa Coloma once again. On this occasion it was a 2-1 aggregate victory for the Armenians.

Next up was BATE Borisov who like Tbilisi won the second round of the Champions League qualifier 4-2 on aggregate. And that brings us to this season and Celtic.

There’s no doubt that this is the toughest first qualifying round Alashkert will have had. That doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park for Celtic either.

It is the first time Celtic have faced an Armenian club. As @SPLstats pointed out on Twitter, Celtic have now played clubs from 42 of the 55 UEFA nations.

The Alashkert squad is largely made up of Armenians, but they also have Russian, Serbian, Mexican and Brazilian nationalities within their setup. The latter stems from their partnerships with Brazilian clubs Botafogo and Fluminese.

For both teams, it is the first game of the season. So there is no advantage in terms of preparation.

Celtic are missing players through injury and World Cup duty. They have a team more than capable of making progress though.

The season starts today in Yerevan. Come on the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac