Tallinn and beyond, but will it be Tel-Aviv or Cluj-Napoca?

This evening, Nomme Kalju welcome Celtic to the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn. The first leg in Glasgow went very well for Neil Lennon as his players executed a 5-0 thumping, so the second leg should really be a formality.

Some players haven’t travelled such as James Forrest, Callum McGregor, Eboue Kouassi and Vakoun Bayo. However, Celtic have more than enough talent to fill those positions for this game.

Whilst Kalju will aim to rescue this one, it would take some serious errors by Celtic and a momentous effort by the Estonian Champions to turn things around. Celtic will go out there not only confident, but with a game plan to win the match.

So there will be no sitting back from Neil Lennon’s players. He simply won’t allow it.

Lennon has been mentioned that Christopher Jullien will start this match as he is eased into first team matters. However, Lennon poured cold water on any suggestion that he’d make too many changes for this match but that doesn’t mean we won’t see Marian Shved who has travelled.

There will be tougher games ahead for Celtic and the next round will serve up either CFR Cluj or Maccabi Tel-Aviv. I would expect both of those teams top be on a different level of difficulty to FK Sarajevo and Nomme Kalju.

That other tie between Maccabi Tel-Aviv and Cluj remains tight. 1-0 down from the first leg in Cluj-Napoca, the Tel-Aviv club have home advantage.

Celtic fans will have one eye on that game so long as things are going smoothly in Estonia. The tie isn’t done but at half time it is 5-0 and I can see Celtic scoring more in Tallinn.

Whichever team Celtic meet next, they our own squad will be stronger and fitter with the inclusion of more players. Players are still being integrated into first team matters and going by Neil Lennon’s words, Celtic’s transfer activity has not finished.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

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Delight for Griffiths as Celtic sweep Estonians aside

Celtic completed the first leg of their second round tie against Nomme Kalju with a 5-0 victory last night. It was a comprehensive performance by the Hoops on home soil which sets them up very comfortably for the away leg next Tuesday.

Neil Lennon altered the starting line up for the third competitive game in a row. He went with two up top and a flat back three.

We all expected Kristoffer Ajer to play right back once again but instead he was on the left hand side of a three man central defence. Nir Bitton was deployed on the right with Jozo Simunovic central.

Boli Bolingoli played as a left wing-back with James Forrest deployed on the right. Callum McGregor and Scott Brown were the anchors in midfield, allowing Ryan Christie to burst forward.

Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths were our front men in a rare pairing. The outcome was very positive.

Celtic opened the scoring when Ajer headed home a Christie free kick to score his second career goal at Celtic on 37 minutes. Both of his Celtic goals have come in Europe.

Once again, Bolingoli saw a lot of the ball down the left hand side, but will have to work on his end game. The downside was that he was substituted before half time having taken a knock.

That allowed Mikey Johnston to enter the game and keep the momentum going. Shortly before the 45th minute, Christie was involved in a tussle with a Kalju defender who handled the ball inside the box.

The resultant penalty was taken by Christie who smashed it home to make it 2-0. There was still more time for another before the interval though and it was a happy moment at that.

If there is one player who has won over those that doubted him – I was one of those people – then it is Leigh Griffiths. He has been in the limelight since Neil Lennon signed him in January 2014.

Some of it good, some of it bad. Since those early days though he has sorted himself out under two other Celtic managers.

You could say he has come full circle with the man that brought him to Celtic back in the job again. Leigh has had his own personal off the field battle to content with in the last year and last night his emotion was notable.

Whilst the press savaged him during his absence, clutching at straws as they do, Leigh marked his first start since late last year with a a fine goal. Reminiscent of the Scotland v England game two years ago, a fine free kick meant that Celtic went in at half time 3-0 up.

By his own admission, the moment almost brought the striker to tears. Nobody would have denied him that expression of total joy.

The second half could have petered out, but it didn’t. Twenty minutes after the restart Christie was involved once again when he curled in a superb goal from the edge of the box.

This goal scoring ability from Christie in commendable. He’s more potent in that role than I’ve seen any other player at Celtic for many years.

He was denied a hat-trick when he was substituted for the returning Olivier Ntcham. That turned out to be a good move as well when the French under-21 sent McGregor through, who was roving forward to score a fine finish to make it 5-0 on the night.

We could debate whereabouts Nomme Kalju are on the scale of difficulty compared to Celtic, but I don’t need to. Each time we play a match in these qualifying rounds Celtic could easily get it wrong and make heavy weather of the situation.

Last night Celtic did not do that. They imposed themselves on a team who were set up to hit on the break and owned them all night.

It’s also worth noting that Kalju are in the middle of their domestic season. Their ten team championship runs from March to November so be in no doubt, they were in peak condition.

The next round will be tougher though with our opponents yet to be decided. Cluj won 1-0 at home against Maccabi Tel-Aviv so that game remains in the balance.

At this stage I don’t know who I’d prefer. Both teams have a decent history in European competition.

By this time next week, we’ll know exactly who our opponents in the third round will be. Barring any momentous hiccups in Tallinn, Celtic are already there.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Next up: Nomme Kalju

Celtic continue their run of home games tonight when Nomme Kalju of Estonia are welcomed at Celtic Park. It is the first leg in the second round of the Champions League qualifiers with both clubs aiming for that third round slot against Maccabi Tel-Aviv or CFR Cluj who also play this evening.

The Hoops have scored five goals and conceded two from the first round. Nomme Kalju scored two and conceded two in the same round.

This evening a clean sheet would be desirable for the Hoops with a few goals scored to take over to the relocated away venue of the A. Le Coq Arena in Tallinn next week. Their opponents have never made the group stages of either European tournament and this is only their second time in the Champions League qualifiers.

Their best showing in Europe was reaching the play off round for the Europa league in 2013. Last season they went out to Stjarnan in the first qualifying round of the Europa League, but to their credit they have been in Europe every season since 2011-2012

Celtic remain focussed on getting the squad up to speed with match sharpness, but the discipline is essential in these early rounds as well. You can expect the odd mistake, though too many and you might find yourself under unnecessary pressure.

I won’t underestimate Kalju because they are in the competition on merit. Not like those teams that finish second, third or fourth in their leagues.

Whilst the Estonians are far from a top club in a top league their aim is the same as ours. At this point in the season anything can happen and especially in this competition.

Celtic are in the midst of strengthening their back line and getting the squad fully fit. I’ve been encouraged by some of the performances so far in the team though such as Lewis Morgan and Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo.

Having spent most of his Celtic career on loan, Morgan’s presence in the team akin to having a new player. There is also the sense of fresh start for others such as Eboue Kouassi and Vakoun Issouf Bayo as well.

As time goes by there will undoubtedly be more ins and outs, but the the Kieran Tierney to Arsenal pursuit looks as though it is petering out. My feeling is that things will come together as Neil Lennon rubber stamps his authority as full time manager.

The impending signing of Hatem Abd Elhamed will be another boost for Neil as he aims to strengthen his squad. The Israeli’s primary position is said to be centre back, but he can also play defensive midfield and right back apparently.

Whether right back is the position he is earmarked for remains to be seen, but he doesn’t appear to have played there an awful lot lately. Given that Anthony Ralston is still being overlooked and we have no other right back at the club, Elhamed will most likely be deployed there should the deal get finalised.

Over all he looks like a decent utility player from the footage I’ve seen of him. Hopefully we are still pursuing a proper right back for a long term solution.

As for tonight though, Kristoffer Ajer will most likely be dropped in at right back again. That means Nir Bitton and Jozo Simunovic are the likely pairing in central defence unless Christopher Jullien is deemed fit.

Bolingoli will undoubtedly resume his role at left back with Scott Brown, Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Ryan Christie and Lewis Morgan filling the midfield. Odsonne Edouard is our top striker right now and will probably lead the line, but we could see Leigh Griffiths at some point as well.

It isn’t ideal to be playing players out of position such as Bitton and Ajer. Until we get up to full strength though, that is the position we are in.

Tonight I am confident Celtic can get the result they need, but there’s no room for complacency. Even though Neil Lennon has been here before, he will not be taking his opponents lightly home or away.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

As the second round ties approach, the third round will become clearer today

Celtic saw off FK Sarajevo in Glasgow last Wednesday amidst a barrage of dirty tackles. Despite the Luxembourg referee’s leniency, the home side came out on top.

The visitors were were organised and stubborn whilst dishing out some horrid challenges throughout the entire game. It was clear they had capability, but came up short in several areas, hence the physicality in their disruptive approach.

Celtic ran out 2-1 winners, adding to their tally from the first leg to win 5-2 over all. The Hoops remained composed, but there were a couple of flashpoints and the referee should have been tougher on the visitors.

The goals for Celtic were both great finishes from midfielder Ryan Christie and Callum McGregor. However, the goal conceded was sloppy from Celtic’s perspective and Boli Bolingoli has already stated he will need to improve on that blip.

I wouldn’t say it should detract from a positive display though. We’re building up momentum game by game.

It’s early in the season and this is a good time to identify errors and rectify them. The road to the Champions League group phase is a long one.

With Nõmme Kalju lined up for the second round, the draw for the third round will take place today at 11am. Should Celtic successfully navigate past the Estonian side this Wednesday and next Tuesday, we will know who they will have to overcome next in the Champions League qualifiers.

FK Sarajevo provided a bit more competition than Celtic are used to in these early games. It is also worth noting that Nõmme Kalju‘s late winner in Macedonia to see them through on away goals is a reminder that Celtic will not face a team that give in easily.

Avoiding any blips, Celtic will face one of the following teams:

PAOK (GRE), Qarabag (AZE) or Dundalk (IRL), Maribor (SVN) or AIK (SWE), Crvena Zvezda (SRB) or HJK Helsinki (FIN), Maccabi Tel-Aviv (ISR) or CFR Cluj (ROU) or Valletta (MLT) or Ferencvaros (HUN).

There are a few familiar names in there for Celtic and some they have so far avoided over the years. The competition level will be higher, but the expectations remain the same – win.

An exit at the hands of Nõmme Kalju would mean parachuting into the play-off round of the Europa League in the Champions path. Let’s not even consider that right now though.

We all want the Champions League. I don’t care who we face if we get there.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

 

 

Hoops come home

For the past few weeks Celtic have been on the road. They played three friendlies during their brief summer training camp and travelled to Sarajevo last Tuesday to undertake their first competitive match in the Champions League qualifiers.

On Saturday, the supporters were finally able to see the Bhoys at Paradise. French Ligue 1 side Stade Rennais paid a visit for a friendly encounter where the outcome was a goalless draw.

Despite zero goals, it was a useful exercise as Neil Lennon eased his squad nearer to match sharpness. It was evident that some are still behind in terms of fitness whilst others demonstrated their worth for the forthcoming European fixtures.

All in all it was a worthwhile exercise. Stade Rennais are a decent side.

For Celtic, the focus remains at home when FC Sarajevo rock up for the second leg tonight night at Celtic Park. The hard work was done in Bosnia last week with a 1-3 away win for the Hoops.

Neil Lennon just needs to see this one over the line with minimum of fuss. The first leg puts Celtic in a good position, but a couple of goals without reply would put everyone’s mind at rest.

Barring any slip ups, the next match will be against Nõmme Kalju of Estonia who won last night’s tie against Shkëndija of Macedonia with a 91st minute goal. Shkëndija had a 0-1 advantage from the first leg and took that away goal back to Macedonia, but two away goals by the Estonian champions turned the tie right at the death.

It is because of this that Celtic cannot be complacent in Europe. We have a nice lead for tonight, but we cannot lie back until we are secured in the second qualifying round.

Meantime, the transfer window remains open and active for Celtic. The right back berth has yet to be filled and with question marks over other players, there may be further movement.

The Olivier Ntcham saga appears to have been put to bed though. Neil Lennon told the media at yesterday’s press conference that he had spoken with the player about his media comments and the midfielder “was disappointed with the way it came across, that wasn’t his intention.”

So all appears rosy in the garden. For now at least.

The key player filling the headlines right now is Kieran Tierney. He is a highly sought after player and quite rightly so.

KT is not angling for a move away, but we all know that one day, be it this transfer window or another, the likelihood is that he will leave Celtic. From a Celtic perspective all the cards remain in hand’s of our club and the player though.

He is by far one of the best youth products to emerge from the Celtic ranks in this century and in the history of the club. And Celtic have not been short of churning out players since the year 2000.

Stephen Crainey, Shaun Maloney, Aiden McGeady, David Marshall, James Forrest, Jamie Smith, Ross Wallace, Stephen McManus, Charlie Mulgrew, Darren O’Dea and Callum McGregor are just some of the names to grace the Celtic first team since 2000. After successfully emerging from youth level they have all contributed to the Celtic cause and won trophies and been given plenty of first team action which. However, Kieran Tierney demonstrated all the qualities required to such a degree and at an early stage we knew he was the real deal.

I think the last time I saw a Celtic defender of his class come through the ranks was John Kennedy. Even then, we never got to find out just how good he was going to be due to a horrific injury at the hands of an opponent whilst playing for Scotland.

The other thing about Kieran is that he is a die hard Celtic fan and the fans love him. If he was to leave now then he would go with our best wishes but he may not be ready to take that leap.

We’ve sold very good Celtic players for less in recent years, but it has been to club’s that potentially would sell them on to a bigger club in their league. Kieran isn’t going to Southampton though – he’ll only be interested in a club that can allow him to showcase his talents in Europe and challenge for trophies.

He doesn’t need to bridge any gaps or prove himself. The only deal that will be done is a club near the top of the tree in that respective country.

Right now, Arsenal are penny pinching. Frankly, it’s quite embarrassing that a Premier League club are being so measly with their offers.

If anyone at Arsenal has any football knowledge they’ll know KT is the real deal. Celtic don’t need to sell him and the player doesn’t need to leave because he will eventually get the move he wants be it now or in two years time.

The north London club aren’t even a top four side at the moment. They haven’t been for a few years so if Arsenal have intentions of doing so, then they will have to cough up or piss off.

I read the comments of someone online who remarked that English clubs would be unwilling to pay a Scottish club such a hefty fee without them proving themselves in England first. By that they were meaning the likes of Wanyama and Van Dijk who both went to smaller clubs first.

Those two were without a doubt a cert to be great and have proved themselves since moving on from Southampton to Spurs and Liverpool respectively. Others such as Fraser Forster and Gary Hooper were not so fortunate, providing a reminder that the grass isn’t always greener.

To some extent, that may turn out to be the same for Stuart Armstrong. Having provided one brilliant season in his three-and-a-half years at Celtic, it was clear the Highlander wanted to go and earn big bucks down south.

On Monday some were even suggesting that Celtic should bring the Scottish international back to Paradise. I don’t know how that discussion even started, but it’s a non-starter for me.

Armstrong peaked during the invincible season. His day has come and gone in a Hoops jersey as far as I’m concerned and he can live out his career elsewhere.

I desperately wanted him to succeed at Celtic and eventually he did after being played in the right position. I even thought he had the potential to be captain, but stalled on a long-term deal and then jumped ship.

If he does enjoy similar success in the future it won’t be at Celtic. So let’s not waste our time on this baloney any longer.

We’re in a new era under Neil Lennon and we’re rebuilding. Kieran Tierney is a few weeks away from fitness yet which is probably good given the attention he is currently getting.

By the time he is ready to play this transfer storyline will hopefully have been settled one way or another. It’s a bit slow on the transfer front for Celtic bringing in other players, but I’d rather we get it right rather than just drafting in the next Compper, Gamboa or de Vries.

Looking forward to tonight’s match at Celtic Park. Mon the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Ntchambles

Every player has a price and every player has a shelf life. For Olivier Ntcham, he’s fast talking himself into an exit this summer.

Celtic have been here many times before with players. More than once in the last twelve months in fact.

The French under-21 internationalist has divided the support in his two years at the club. There is no doubt he is a talented player, but he has had moments when attitude has let him down.

He has recently taken a widespread beating from the support based on last season’s performances alone. Not that I am rushing to his defence, but he did miss sixteen games from January to March.

Whilst it wasn’t his best season in a Celtic jersey, it doesn’t make him a garbage player. What has sparked greater contempt though are his comments to the media, whilst on international duty, regarding his future at Celtic.

If there is any shred of truth in those comments then that future is not with Celtic. You can fine him, reprimand him or chastise him in public, but if he is publicly decrying the club and the quality of competition then he will be offloaded soon enough.

We know Scottish Football is far from the top leagues out there. With the greatest respect though, Celtic have a status that brings the best out in players and gives you a platform to perform.

Has Ntcham done that at Celtic? I don’t think he’s done enough even if he does have the potential.

Nobody wants a disruptive, uncommitted player in the dressing room though. Last summer we had Boyata and Dembele to deal with.

One went, one stayed. Whatever went on between those players, their agents and the club it is far from satisfactory.

Ntcham has claimed he was disappointed not to get a move to Porto last summer. After one season and then signing a new contract, no wonder Celtic turned down any offer.

I think the guy is a good player, but he is getting way above his station. There are too many players like this out there and if Brendan Rodgers has been the catalyst to guys like Boyata, Dembele and Ntcham moving on (as Dembele claimed) then I don’t want them at the club.

We know that if you are good enough, the club will find it difficult to hold onto you if the asking price is met. What doesn’t need to happen is for a player to begin making disrespectful and unprofessional comments to the media.

You sign for a club, you commit. If there comes a point when things have run their course then fine, just sit down and do a deal that works for both parties.

Ntcham has taken a massive dump on his own doorstep. I’ll be happy to sweep him and his turd out of Celtic Park if there is this is the end of the relationship.

There are loads of talented players in our ranks of all ages who are committed to Celtic. I’d rather see them pull on the Hoops than a guy who has thus far failed to even sparkle such as guys like Christie, McGregor or Forrest.

I won’t get hung up on one guy when we have plenty of others waiting to step up. No player is bigger than the club.

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac

Welcome to Sarajevo

As much as I miss watching Celtic, it seems as though the season has just finished. Tonight, Celtic get their European campaign under way when they face FK Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This will be a stern test for Celtic so early on in the summer and in totally new territory as well. In recent years they’ve faced weaker opposition in the first round, but FK Sarajevo will be tougher.

Whilst Celtic offloaded eleven players, Neil Lennon still has a solid core within his squad. There have also been recruits between January and June yet to make their mark for the club.

The unfortunate situation is that we have injuries to a few players before a competitive ball has even been kicked. Hopefully, these will not be long term and are more about being cautious than anything else.

Despite the anxiety around our transfer activity since the season ended, I actually think we’ve done some good work with our recent acquisitions. We still require a couple more players but for now, I think we’ve bolstered what is already a talented squad.

Speculation about some players leaving will remain a point of discussion until the transfer window closes. There is nothing we can do about that.

This evening in Sarajevo that will not matter either. Getting a result that will allow Celtic to return to Glasgow happy they can finish the job on home soil is.

Neil Lennon knows what is at stake. He’s been here before and he is looking to rubber stamp his own mark on this team without risking a stumble.

Even with my reservations about Neil retaking the manager’s job, I am actually pretty excited to see this new chapter unfold. It’s a long road to the group stage and every game counts.

Let’s hope this new beginning is long a fruitful one. C’mon the Hoops!

Hail! Hail!

Stevie Mac