The mother of all Sundays

On Sunday, Neil Lennon will be back in the dugout for his first Celtic v Rangers match in almost seven years. Of course, back then it was the old Ibrox club and were in administration.

Rangers had won 3-2 at Ibrox on 25th March 2012 under Ally McCoist. Just over a month later on 29th April, Celtic ran out 3-0 victors in Glasgow’s east end, driving another nail into the coffin of Rangers 1872.

The Celtic team on that day was:

Fraser Forster, Adam Matthews, Glenn Loovens, Charlie Mulgrew, Emilio Izaguirre, Scott Brown, Victor Wanyama, Joe Ledley, Kris Commons, Georgios Samaras and Gary Hooper.

Tony Watt, Anthony Stokes and Paddy McCourt all came off the bench for Hooper, Samaras and Commons respectively.

The goals came courtesy of a diving header from Mulgrew (17), a chip over Allan McGregor by Commons (31) and a net burster from the edge of the box by Hooper (54). With the exception of Broony, the rest of the team moved on in the years that followed, Izzy returning for his second spell last summer.

Neil isn’t going up against the same Rangers, but it is a Rangers team he knows. As Hibs manager, he’s played them half a dozen times in the past two seasons.

His record is P6 W3 D2 L1 against Pedro Caixinha, Graham Murty and Steven Gerrard. This season he drew both matches against Rangers under Gerrard.

What can we expect from this match then? Well it’s been more or less business as usual for Celtic and they’ve already increased their lead over Rangers since Neil arrived.

Neil will want to win this one. Gerrard will too.

They’ve faced each other in the midfield during their playing careers. So it will be a highly contested match by both managers.

Home advantage will have some impact, but Neil will also need his players to be at their best. Technically, it’s a last throw of the dice for Gerrard.

Celtic lost their last game to Rangers back in December just before the winter shutdown. I’m still trying to figure out Brendan Rodgers’ team selection and tactics for that one.

In hindsight, perhaps there was something in that after all. However, I digress.

The players will be looking to put that result right fir themselves, Neil and the supporters. To date, it’s the only defeat to Rangers 2012 Celtic have suffered in 90 minutes or indeed, the league.

Neil will have more players to choose from for this one. Will he take any gambles now though or keep things the same.

One thing is for certain, he’ll keep everyone guessing. He’s a different type of manager to Brendan and he’ll have his own approach with this set of players.

It could be the mother of all Sunday’s. As well as Mothering Sunday of course.

May the best team win. That’s Celtic, by the way.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Football Forecast

Brexit is a hot topic right now. People are also sick to the back teeth of the ongoing circus.

So to lighten the mood, I thought it might be a bit of fun to bring out the crystal football and gaze into the future. I’ve mentioned a couple of times that Lenny is probably getting the Celtic job full-time, but what else is going on in the world of football?

Managers are always getting the sack these days. Sadly, not all the ones that deserve to be.

Take Alex McLeish for instance. A man who should never have been given the Scotland job primarily because of his receipt of almost £2M as part of the EBT scandal.

His friendly connections with SFA President Alan McRae smoothed the passage into the job, thus allowing him into a well paid job to help pay back all that tax. Corruption is alive and well in Hampden, which we knew already.

So what is it going to take to get rid of McLeish? More bad results will help, but we might have to wait until September.

The embarrassing defeat to Kazakhstan and unsurprising win over San Marino doesn’t appear to have been enough to see him leave before another campaign falls over for Scotland. Even the fall out between James McFadden and Callum McGregor demonstrated a lack of harmony in the camp.

Scotland play Cyprus at home and Belgium away in June. I expect Belgium to wipe the floor with Scotland so the only way McLeish will get the boot sooner rather than later is by drawing or losing to Cyprus which is probably unlikely, even at home.

So fast forward to September when there is a double-header against Russia and Belgium at Hampden. Normally, these would be mouth-watering fixtures for Scotland fans, but these are the matches that will probably get McLeish fired.

By which time of course, the campaign will be over. Are the SFA willing to wait that long?

Ideally I’d hope he loses to Cyprus and Belgium so we can get a new manager in before September. I’m just not sure that’ll happen, but if it did I’d get Steve Clarke on the blower pronto.

I’d love to see him as Celtic manager, but that doesn’t ever look likely following his post match comments about the sectarian verbal abuse he received from Rangers fans. I’ve never really been convinced that Celtic are remotely interested in him either.

He may well be evaluating his future in Scotland completely. Though the prospect of international job could give him the best of both worlds given the time involved and his family south of the border.

If he’s not interested, then I think the next best candidate would be David Moyes. He has a lot of experience, will be looking for a project that could put him back in the game again and I’m certain he would have the respect of the entire squad.

After that you are talking about candiates way out in the wilderness or untested younger managers. That could be even more risky.

Another manager who might be assessing his future is Steven Gerrard. He’s not done a bad job to be honest, but the question is can he do any better?

Rangers are so far behind Celtic as a club he is never going to catch up without more funding. They Ibrox club are already in debt and unlikely to be able to fulfil any ambitions for a long time.

I’d suggest that if a club in the English Championship came calling, Gerrard might be tempted to continue his career south of the border. He won’t want to sit and watch Celtic walk to nine or ten in-a-row and it won’t help his career prospects if he fails to land a trophy in Scotland either.

The only casualties in the Premiership are likely to come from those in the relegation zone. Hamilton, Dundee and St Mirren are all fighting to stay up, but at this stage I’d say only Oran Kearney is at risk.

Down south, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer was today confirmed as Manchester United’s permanent manager. A no-brainer you would have to say, but there will be other moves in the Premier League this summer for sure.

Maurizio Sari and Rafa Benitez are but two managers who could depart their respective roles in the summer. There will definitely be some moves going on around Europe as well.

Meantime, Celtic have yet to make their announcement. I don’t see that happening until the season is over.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Bookies odds are narrowing, but do Celtic have their next manager in place already?

The bookmakers have had odds running on Celtic’s next permanent manager for a while now. Despite the odds shortening on a few candidates and others widening, do Celtic already have their man?

Other than having a sense of déjà vu, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I am convinced Neil Lennon will be Celtic’s next permanent manager. All signs are pointing to that happening and I just cannot see past it any more.

I said recently about the convenience of his Hibs departure and the abruptness of Brendan Rodgers’. The two occurrences are just way too convenient.

Even with the outrage we supporters had for Rodgers’ sharp exit to a mediocre Premier League club, the Celtic board didn’t appear as disgruntled. Yes, they made a nice wedge of compensation, but the club have taken it all very well.

Was that Hibs exit orchestrated with Brendan’s impending move to Leicester on the horizon for longer than we thought? There’s certainly been enough chatter in the last year to suggest that this may have been the case.

Many predicted Brendan would be gone in January with rumours abound that some players knew well in advance. This appointment must have been in the ether longer than the period between Claude Puel being sacked and the Midlands club approaching Celtic.

Does Neil still have to prove himself though? Of course he does, though to be fair he was doing a good job with Hibs and I’ll admit, I’ve said I’d take him back no problem.

What I didn’t bargain on was it happening like this or as soon. Neil said the same and most of us have been thinking that perhaps an alternative long term appointment would be more progressive for the club.

The other names mentioned go from the sublime to the ridiculous. The top three are Neil Lennon, Rafa Benitez and Roberto Martinez right now.

Marco Rose and David Moyes are set adrfit. It’s all conjecture really.

I’ve seen Neil’s name at 11/10, evens and odds on. Martinez has had steady odds of around 5/1, but Benitez is now as short as 5/2.

Even with this recent change, I don’t think the Newcastle or Belgium managers will be the next appointment. Neil is well in with the club and I’m certain his appointment has been paved long before Brendan walked away.

I have mixed feelings about this because whilst I love Neil and think he can have a huge impact on the team and the fans, I want to see things develop in Europe. I don’t want to dismiss Neil’s efforts at Hibs or indeed Celtic the first time around, but would it be a backwards step?

The club have taken steps to improve fitness, health and training – with the exception of our injury list. Ronny and Brendan helped evolve things behind the scenes from the point Neil left.

Would all that work be abandoned? And would we have something better to take us forward?

I have no doubts that Neil has more experience now. He has done a good job at Hibs after having a disappointing time at Bolton.

Celtic have to keeping making progress though and I don’t want to go backwards or sideways for that matter. Every time we make a bad appointment we lose ground in Europe.

Benitez would not be a bad choice at all. Martinez I’m a little less enthused about.

If we’ve yet to see Neil Lennon MkII then I welcome it. Let’s not take the easy road for the sake of it though.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Time for a breather

After four games in charge at Celtic, Neil Lennon will be glad of the international break. It’s been a bizarre year for the former club captain.

First came the unusual and protracted departure as Hibs manager at the end of January. Then, less than a month later, he is back at Celtic.

It’s probably one of the most swift and seamless managerial transitions at Celtic in the modern-day. Yes, people were shocked and even angry at Brendan Rodgers leaving, but the club found themselves with an instant solution.

You would be forgiven for thinking that they already knew this was all coming. Some people even claimed well in advance that Brendan Rodgers could have been gone in January.

Fact or fiction? Well it certainly seems entirely likely now.

It appears somewhat convenient. Don’t expect the truth to come out though.

Right now, Neil Lennon has a job to complete on behalf of the club. After a whirlwind start to his second spell as interim head coach, he’ll be taking a bit of a breather to assess the games ahead for Celtic.

It’s been three wins and one draw since his first game at the end of February. Zero defeats and just one goal conceded.

At the weekend, Celtic took advantage of the Premiership stalemates in the top four and extended their lead in the league to ten points. It didn’t come easily though and it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

The Bhoys made heavy weather of things for the second week in a row. “Turgid” was the post-match buzz word.

Neil Lennon has stated that he intends to change Celtic’s style of play. I don’t know if that means before the end of the season or if the gets the job permanently – unless it is his already.

You would have to assume then that so far, he has not attempted to upset that balance too much. It’s not as if Celtic were playing poorly before Lennon arrived so keeping that momentum without altering the way that the team play would be understandable.

However, if Neil does plan to change it, he’ll need time for it to evolve. The winning formula was broken against Aberdeen and it was looking like it was going the same way against Dundee.

That was until Odsonne Edouard delivered a winning goal in the 96th minute. More importantly, Celtic are still unbeaten domestically game in 2019.

And of course, the time added on caused all manner of debate amongst rival fans and the pundits. The negative reaction to Celtic Football Club’s ongoing domination is becoming palpable.

The added time at Dens Park sparked fury with people of a certain persuasion. The reaction was over the top by many, yet if you are on the losing side, it is understandable to be disappointed in losing.

I don’t need to justify the six minutes that were added on. Others have covered this already and it is spot on.

If you’d successfully put up a gritty defence for over ninety minutes, only to lose at the death, any manager, player or fan would be unhappy. The Dundee manager was the first to air his opinion that he couldn’t fathom where the official had got those six minutes from.

He went further by saying that they “never get six minutes” when they need it. Talk about spitting the dummy out.

Of course, many have also pointed out that Jim McIntyre has a short memory. So short that he can’t remember the month of February when at 2-2 against Kilmarnock, the match went into 96 minutes at Dens Park.

Funnily enough, Dundee had a chance to win that one at the death. But Mr Kenneth Miller missed a spot kick with virtually the last kick of the ball.

I’d suggest that Dundee have had six minutes when they needed it and blew it. Mr McIntyre should review his statement because there’s nothing strange about the six minutes as they were justified by the laws of game.

There’s nobody to blame. Not even the Ibrox loving officials on the day.

Furthermore, when time is added on, is it not for both teams? The same situation you faced in February only, you failed to score the winner.

As it was, Sunday’s game actually went into the 98th minute. McIntyre himself chose to use that added time to make a third substitution in the 94th minute, thus lengthening the overall game time again.

His side also had a chance to score moments before that. Would he have felt the time was unjustified had his team pulled off a winner?

The entire matter is a non-story. Play until the whistle blows, Jim.

Perhaps the significance of this ten point lead is too much for some to bear. Especially across the city.

Whilst Celtic have had their season disrupted by last summer’s drama and the sharp exit of a dominating manager last month, they fight on to that final whistle. That spirit, no matter how poorly they play in our eyes, is what wins you titles and trophies.

Once other teams possess what we have, we can have a serious chat. Until then dry your eyes and get your own house in order.

Celtic are in a state of flux and trying to steer themselves toward an eighth successive title with a different manager. Now the international break is here, Neil Lennon and his backroom team have some thinking to do.

Change things or play the same way? How much impact Neil has had so far is unknown.

He has obviously leaned heavily on John Kennedy. What is unclear is how much he has altered things, if at all.

Against Hearts and Hibs Celtic played well and upon returning to Celtic Park we expected more of the same. That never came to pass and Neil even said the players were mentally exhausted.

Why, I don’t know? Because of Brendan’s departure or because too much was being asked of them?

I’d love to know. I really would.

As much as international breaks can be an annoyance, I think this one is timely. Some serious thought and planning must go into the remaining games.

The next match is against Rangers at Celtic Park. The coaching team must be focussed on winning that one.

I still wonder though, was this transition longer in the works than disclosed or just fortunate timing? I guess we’ll find out when the permanent manager is announced.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Time to make it ten

Rangers and Aberdeen were each held to second successive draws in the Scottish Premiership yesterday by their respective opponents. Kilmarnock continued their unbeaten run in the league against Rangers under Steve Clarke’s management whilst Livingston held on for a point at Pittodrie.

Hearts stumbled to their third defeat in five league matches against Hamilton. That win was vital to the Lanarkshire club’s hopes of staying up, but for Hearts it allowed Hibs to close the gap on them to 2 points.

St Johnstone v St Mirren was called off due to a water-logged pitch meaning the bottom side remain rooted to the foot of the table. The Perthshire club meantime have dropped to 9th in the league with Livingston drawing level on points with a better goal difference.

Which brings us to roundly to today’s match at Dens Park. Celtic make the journey to face second bottom, Dundee.

It hasn’t been the best of seasons for Dundee after they sacked Neil McCann in October last year. He had stepped in for Paul Hartley who was sacked in April 2017.

Now Jim McIntyre has been tasked with keeping the club in the Premiership. So far this season he has suffered 5-0 (home) and 3-0 (away) hammerings by Celtic.

Even with a recent managerial change by today’s visitors, it is unlikely that Dundee will prevent what should be a relatively straightforward three points for Celtic. The champions have players returning from injury at just the right time and we will continue to see Neil Lennon put his own mark on the way this squad is set up.

Despite the draw with Aberdeen last week, there is a chance to make some alterations in the starting eleven. Neil got it wrong against the Dons and he will be keen to establish a ten point lead going into the international break.

He needs to freshen things up a little. Add some vigour to see off Dundee so I reckon he’ll go with Burke and Edouard in attack.

There may be a break coming up for some of the team whilst others go off to play for their respective countries, but it would be good to notch up a few goals against Dundee. Neil is more than capable fo getting the right blend to inflict a barrage of goals against he opposition.

He is still tinkering with the team whilst utilising John Kennedy’s first hand experience with the players. Dundee will be hoping to take advantage of St Mirren’s postponed game yesterday to put a gap between them, but Celtic should also be looking to put Dundee to the sword.

Probable line-up:

Scott Bain, Mikael Lustig, Kieran Tierney, Kristoffer Ajer, Dedryck Boyata, Scott Brown, Nir Bitton, Scott Sinclair, James Forrest, Oliver Burke and Odsonne Edouard.

If the game goes Celtic’s way early on, I reckon Neil will be swift in swapping out some of his starters to allow those who have been on the periphery to be given a chance. Let’s not mess about today Bhoys and just take us ten points clear.

Prediction: Dundee 0 – 4 Celtic

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

The next four matches…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With four games left before the Scottish Premiership divides, a portion of teams will be fighting it out for places in the top six and for survival in the top flight lower down the league. In its history, the split generally hasn’t had much of an impact on the destination of the title but it has thrown up one or two decent season finales.

Last season was the tightest it has been in years when Celtic won by a margin of 9 points. You have to go back to 2010 when Rangers pipped Celtic to the title by a single point before going into liquidation the following year.

In between those seasons, Celtic have won the other six titles by an average of 19.5 points. The largest margin in that period being the 30 point gap amassed during their invincible season of 2016-2017.

At the moment, there are currently 8 points between Celtic and Rangers. Aberdeen are 7 points behind Rangers in 3rd place and it looks as though the Derek McInnes might have to concede 2nd place for the first time in four seasons unless things continue to go their way against Steven Gerrard’s side, who are now said to be concentrating on the league.

Steve Clarke’s Kilmarnock are just 1 point behind the Don’s in 4th place so there is a bit of a battle going on there. It’s also worth noting that Hearts are only 3 points behind in 5th place and could quite easily find themselves in a three-way battle for 3rd position.

Celtic don’t play until Sunday when they travel to Dundee. The rest of the Premiership games take place this afternoon.

Rangers host Kilmarnock, Aberdeen host Livingston and Hearts are away to Hamilton so those margins could look very different depending on today’s results. The most interesting match this afternoon will be at Ibrox.

Kilmarnock were battered 5-0 at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup last month. They conceded an early goal in that game, but their challenge became near impossible when they went down to 10 men in the 25th minute.

They conceded one mroe goal before half-time and a further three in the second half. It was also the game where Steve Clarke spoke out about this sectarian abuse he recevied as he stood on the touch line.

What is worth pointing out, if it needs to be, is that under Steve Clarke, Kilmarnock have done very well against Rangers. In fact, the only time he has lost was that cup replay, having drew 0-0 at Rugby Park.

Clarke’s league record at Ibrox is P3 W1 D2 L0. At home against Rangers in the league it’s P2 W2 D0 L0.

Is there a chance he could put the brakes on Gerrard’s crew today? I don’t see why not, especially after the manner of the last game.

I expect Aberdeen to win today and if they do, they might even be closing the gap on Rangers. Although the Scottish Cup is their only chance of silverware, they won’t want to give up 2nd place easily.

What of the rest of the league though? I haven’t discussed Hibs who are currently in 6th place, just 5 points behind Hearts.

Personally, I don’t think they’ll catch their Edinburgh rivals now. They have a good chance of staying in the top six though.

Motherwell are 2 points behind the Leith side in 7th position, St Johnstone have slipped down to 8th, also 2 points behind, and Livingston are 1 point behind them in 9th place. That leaves the bottom three clubs who are battling for survival.

By the looks of it Hamilton (21 pts), Dundee (18 pts) and St Mirren (17 pts) will be slugging it out. They are in the drop zone whilst the rest of the league remain safe.

After this weekend it’s the international break. Good for some, not so good for others.

Under new management, this could actually be good timing for Celtic. Neil Lennon spoke about injuries recently and is beginning to see players return to action including Olivier Ntcham, Callum McGregor, Filip Benkovic and Tom Rogic.

He also has players such as Vakoun Bayo, Armstrong Okoflex and Karamoko Dembele to call upon before the end of the season, should he wish to. By the time the international break has passed Celtic should be largely full fit with the exception of a few.

That is good news considering when they do return, it will be at Celtic Park against Rangers. That result will go a long way to shutting the door on the Ibrox club if it hasn’t been already.

After that, Neil Lennon has Livingston and St Mirren to play before the league splits. By that time, I am predicting a greater gap than the current one.

Kilmarnock might aid that by taking some points at Ibrox today. Then it’s down to us, Hearts and Motherwell after the break.

All eyes on Ibrox. Over to you Mr Clarke.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Neil has immediate challenges to contend with but will they extend beyond this season?

Neil Lennon is now three games into his second spell as Celtic manager. Having drawn blank with Aberdeen at the weekend, the euphoria that engulfed his first week back at the club, has now received a small dose of reality.

The season is far from concluded, but there are just nine games left to play in the league. Barring any major many slip ups, Neil and the players should deliver an eighth straight title for the club.

That journey began with the former club captain in his full second season as Celtic’s permanent manager back in 2012. He has a chance to add to that tally in 2019 as the club’s caretaker manager.

Neil’s other goal is the road to Hampden. A quarter-final win at Easter Road placed Celtic in the semi final with the winners of tonight’s replay between Aberdeen and Rangers.

Whichever team progresses from that match, stands between Celtic and a third Scottish Cup Final in a row. Neil Lennon doesn’t have the momentum that his predecessor had in his back pocket though.

So the challenge is to somehow keep things going without allowing the recent disruption getting to the players or himself. Because in the back of his mind he’ll also be thinking, as he did around this time nine years ago, “is this job going to be mine beyond the summer?”

There’s no doubt that he was our go to man the other week. We’re also extremely fortunate that he was out of work.

Had he not been, there’s every possibility Celtic could have dropped more points or out even gone out of the Scottish Cup. It’s fair to say that John Kennedy has been a constant in the dugout for the last five years and would’ve been the making of him had he been handed the interim role.

I don’t think I would have wished that upon him though. One day, that might be his challenge, but right now he can offer his assistance to a man who has been there and done it already.

Whatever Neil thinks of himself now as a manager, he must focus purely on winning. Not for himself, but for the players and the fans.

There’s part of me that can’t see past Neil as manager again. Primarily because of his connection with the club.

More over, he stated that he saw himself back at the club one day, just that he didn’t expect it to be this soon. And due to that early comeback, does that mean it’s now or never?

There’s also a concern that Celtic could see Neil as an easy choice. Someone familiar with the club and could possibly hit the ground running without too much of a financial burden.

That could sit well with many on the board. Unless they have other candidates in the pipeline.

However, in Neil’s absence the club have moved on. Yes, he knows a fair amount of this team and the non-playing personnel at the club, but the club has been trying to evolve.

Ronny Deila was unpopular for trying to make radical changes behind the scenes. After two seasons he was gone, but Brendan Rodgers maintained and built upon those standards without the same resistance.

Those were not standards introduced by Neil. He’s a different kind of coach.

My worry is that if he isn’t a believer in the 24 hour athlete would he change course? We don’t want to be moving backwards.

I’m not saying this Celtic squad is the finished article, far from it. The one thing that Celtic had to do was change the culture in diet, fitness and lifestyle.

Why? Because of the standards in clubs across Europe.

If Celtic truly want to make in-roads on the continent we have to aspire to those standards. From the training ground to the canteen.

The question is, would Neil embrace that? He decided to call it a day at the point Ronny Deila was coming on board in one capacity or another.

It was only Neil’s departure that allowed Ronny to step into his role for himself. You get a sense that Neil wasn’t overly welcoming of Ronny’s impending arrival five years ago.

He had endured the worst that a football manager ever could have received and survived it all. In the end he left, but the dust had settled on a dramatic and often chaotic managerial spell.

Since then he has held two managerial roles. Bolton Wanderers was a forgettable experience whilst at Hibs he did a great job, particularly against Celtic and Rangers.

What might hinder Neil’s chances of getting the job permanently this time around is that Celtic are a better prospect to potential suitors now than they were nine years ago when he took over. Brendan Rodgers has added some kudos to the club and to Scottish football so there is greater attraction now.

Neil’s hat is in the ring for sure, but Celtic may have other interested candidates and targets. The club have to ensure they are still moving forward and whilst Neil is the right man now, he may not be in come the summer.

There is more at stake here than the club’s relationship with a man we all respect a great deal. Progression for the club is top of that list.

Right now all focus must be on the league and the cup. Ultimately, who is in charge come the summer will be decided by the board.

Unless they have made that decision already. We’ll find out in the weeks and months to come.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac