In a ‘meaningless’ game Celtic need to get it right in Barcelona

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One of the optimistic viewpoints in the aftermath of the Celtic AC Milan game two weeks ago at Celtic Park was that the trip to Barcelona became a holiday for the fans who would be making the trip to the beautiful Catalan city. Having never been on a European away trip, even in my days living in Scotland, I am full of nothing but respect for the fans who go overseas to follow our famous club.

I don’t mean those that can take advantage of work contacts and go on a (genuine) jolly and pick up a few premium tickets (either on a complementary basis or comfortably paying a large wedge) for the midweek trip. I mean the lads that work hard in jobs, possibly paying minimum wage, saving up and heading off by supporters club bus or taking a flight that they booked while sitting on Ryanair.com as the balls were being pulled out of one of UEFA’s fine glass vases.

These lads and their wealthier counterparts will give Celtic the backing they need overseas in tricky away ties, and I would not deny them the fun that they will inevitably have while enjoying a few Estrella Damms out on Las Ramblas this week.

But I do disagree that this game is now just a holiday. It certainly isn’t for Neil Lennon and it certainly isn’t for the squad of players that will be going along with him.

Celtic are playing well in domestic competition just now; it could be said we are playing VERY well. Indeed the title for the last entry into this blog acknowledged that despite my criticisms recently we were playing football ‘The Glasgow Celtic way’ once again . I examined why that was:

Kris Commons has been outstanding in two different formations (vs Hearts and then vs Motherwell); we successfully ‘blooded’ Biton in a competitive match in which he stood out for the 90 minutes; Charlie Mulgrew had the chance to prove me and other doubters wrong with excellent performances in defence (where I want him to play) against Motherwell, but also in midfield against Hearts; and Neil Lennon experimented with  formations, one of which we haven’t played often (or ever…) before, utilising a midfield diamond to expose Hearts’ weakness on the flanks as their wide men had to come central to deal with the fluid movement of Commons, Biton, Mulgrew Brown and Ledley, before switching to a 3-5-2 against Motherwell.

Signs are positive at the moment and having spent most of November being moved to question the direction we were moving in I find many of my questions have been answered of the Celtic management team and the players involved.

Which is why for me, this Barcelona game is anything but meaningless and the fans should treat is as anything but a holiday with some football chucked in.

This game is very important for us.

In very real terms it is the last big game of the year. It’s sad to say it but only the Scottish cup final could rival this Champions League game, and that is not the beginning of an argument for drawing The Rangers in any of the remaining rounds of the old competition. Rather than this game being a formality it should be treated as an opportunity to give Celtic the wave of positivity that we need to ride out a large part of the remainder of the season.

In fact, in some kind of sadistic way I am counting my lucky stars that we have gone out with a game to spare – it will save the hurt of going out by a hair’s breadth, and any opportunity for the heads to have gone down as a result was in the game against Hearts – and we know how that game turned out! No we should go out into this game with our heads held high and absolutely go out with more effort and determination than we did against Ajax away and Milan at home.

Some tricky questions need to be answered by Neil Lennon as he prepared for Wednesday’s match including whether to bring Georgios Samaras and James Forrest back from their time out of the team. The ‘resting’ of Samaras has been peculiar the longer it has gone on, but it has not been without its benefits; as much as I love Sammy you can’t help but come up with the causality that Celtic winning in style without him must be because he did not feature. The case form continuing to omit Forrest is not so clear cut because he possesses bags of potential but has often underperformed on the biggest of scenes. Samaras on the other hand is the player who can be most relied on to use the ball intelligently and can also get on the end of a header or two from set pieces.

As Lenny makes his final preparations for the team I can foresee that we will opt to move Mulgrew back into midfield despite Friday’s spirited performance suggesting that defence is his preferred position (especially playing alongside two beasts in Van Dijk and Ambrose). Izzy and Lustig have to start out wide, especially as Lustig usually saves his best performances for massive occasions (and massive arenas!) but a Champions League debut for Darnell Fisher as a substitute should not be overlooked either. Nor should providing cover for Izaguirre on the left against a Barcelona side who we will try to force to play the game on the wings – despite the performance against Hearts with the diamond, we CANNOT beat Barca by keeping the ball in the centre of the pitch.

Fans should also not be surprised to see Amido Baldé feature either, especially if the game plan is to actually use him correctly. Baldé is not a player like Chris Sutton – his skill lies with the ball at his feet moving at pace; and with the strength he possesses I can see him getting plenty of opportunities against a shorter than average Barca backline.

I am optimistic going into this game and excited to see what a (possibly rejuvenated) Neil Lennon opts for in his starting line-up, but I am not complacent; this team needs a support in huge voice and a large percentage of its starting 11 to give huge performances.

As always; Hail! Hail!

To play football the Glasgow Celtic way: Motherwell 0-5 Celtic

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To play football the Glasgow Celtic way: Motherwell 0-5 Celtic

 

Having missed the bulldozing of the Hearts development squad last Sunday, when I wearily went for a piss at 4:30am and noticed the (otherwise pretty useless…?) Celtic Live app light up on my phone and remind me of the fact Celtic were playing Motherwell in 15 minutes, there was no way I was missing the chance to see a good few goals going in.

 

And I wasn’t disappointed in the least!

 

Neil Lennon’s recent change of system mobilised the Celtic starting 11 into producing 7 goals last week, some of which were incredible team efforts, mixed with some sublime solo efforts. Indeed the formation last week with the midfield diamond afforded Celtic the vast majority of the ball and gave Neil Lennon the type of football he referred to as his Utopia. Hearts were cut to shreds as the narrow midfield created space on the wings for Izaguirre and Lustig to move quickly past their opposite numbers and find team mates. Pass and move, pass and move, pass and move. Triangles, triangles, triangles.

 

Down Fir Park way this evening Neil Lennon opted for a different approach, more in the mould of his mentor Martin O’Neill with a 3-5-2 (it really was 10 players and a poor goalie who has now been dubbed ‘Forster the snowman’). Nir Biton came out and Charlie Mulgrew slotted back into defence with the rock solid duo of Virgil Van Dijk and the new father Efe Ambrose. Lustig and Izaguirre were again preferred for the task of attacking from wing backs while Teemu Pukki and Anthony Stokes were chosen for a front two. Brown and Ledley were our resident Lenny and Lambo combination while Kris Commons on scintillating form provided  the playmaker (oh, go on Lubo! Lubo! Lubo!) role.

 

                It took just 26 seconds before Teemu Pukki was setting up Mikael Lustig coming in off the right, and making the motherwell keeper pull off a stop, from what on closer inspection was actually a rather weak effort. Lustig can hit a ball (just ask Hearts!) and I couldn’t help but think if he had put his foot through the ball it would have been too much for Ryan Neilsen.

 

                Unfortunately that was largely where the chances stopped for the first half; there was infact a period of around 20 minutes of the first 45 where very little happened.

 

                Except, of course for the stonewall penalty denied (first of two) denied by referee Steven McLean, when Scott Brown’s corner was ‘handled out for a corner’. But Celtic came up with the goods on the 44th minute. Lustig’s ball in had no takers at first time of asking, but Stokes’ shot was cleverly backheeled by Kris Commons for yet another opener from the talismanic midfielder. It was everything that Celtic deserved going by possession stats, and by their intentions on the game. Stuart McCall’s side had kicked everything that moved and in one particularly nasty challenge (see Nir Biton’s Vs Milan at Celtic Park, with a higher degree of velocity) on Teemu Pukki, Motherwell picked up a booking on only the 16th minute, and Joe Ledley for the first ten minutes was the only fouled player on the park, sent stumbling on three occasions. Joe Ledley had a terrific first half, every attack we had went through him as he found space in the middle of the park. He often has a thankless job, but I wonder if a highlights reel of Joe’s contribution to the Celtic cause was made there would be a huge sea change in popular opinion about how important he is to us. I really hope we sign him up again.

 

                Motherwell’s captain Keith Lasley was booked for dissent in the aftermath of the goal, angrily demonstrating that Commons was offside (he wasn’t) and was then given free rein to continue leaving the boot in by referee McLean.

               

                Despite this it was from a corner that Celtic doubled their lead on the 55th minute when Efe Ambrose scored with a well-placed header, coming in at speed towards the far post.

 

                The twittersphere were asking lots of questions of Pukki at half time and into the second half. Our unfortunate striker’s head had gone down in recent weeks but I thought that judgement of his performance tonight was unmerited. Having taken a bad challenge he kept his head in the game on a miserable evening, his side only one goal up, and moved well (his movement is excellent!) linked up, tried to provide. But put him in front of goals and it just wasn’t happening for Teemu.

               

                And then when he was making an excellent move into the box with the ball at his feet a Motherwell defender slid in, left the foot in, clearly coming down on Pukki’s foot and took him down.

               

                But referee Steven McLean saw it the other way and Pukki was booked for simulation in the second of our two stonewall penalty denials.

 

                The Celtic players were furious (except Pukki who stared incredulously at the referee!). This for me was a good sign – as sign of unity amongst our players, especially for one who isn’t getting the rub of the green at the moment. Support for Team Teemu continued as it seemed most of our efforts were being a concerted effort to ‘Get the ball to Pukki’. But alas it was not happened for him, the clearest effort being when a last ditch tackle saw his shot taken over the bar – but a by kick was awarded (of course!) But it wasn’t the end of the evening for Teemu yet.

 

                Celtic scored their third and fourth goal in quick succession: Izaguirre who had worked industriously throughout the game found himself about to lose possession more centrally than you’d expect to see him, but a bit of strength snubbed out the tackle before it was made and suddenly Izzy was curling an effort goalward. Neilsen got a hand to the ball only for it to drop onto the toe of Kris Commons who followed footballing lessons for 10 year olds and was making a follow up run just in case. If hard effort is rewarded then Commons must be the hardest working player in the Celtic team at the moment.

 

                Goal four came suddenly out of a glorious pass out of central defence from Mulgrew (who showed the type of vision that we used to herald Nakamura for) sending the ball curling towards Pukki, who had avoided the offside trap. Pukki moved quickly into the box before cutting it back to Stokes who doesn’t miss opportunities like that.

 

                As good a ball as it was the work wasn’t over as Pukki showed that there is no I in Teemu…

 

                It was at this point Pukki was given the ovasion he deserved in my opinion; fans chanted his name as he was substituted with Commons for Atajic and Boerigter.

 

                So quickly had the Celts doubled the lead to four, that the fans were chanting for five, expecting possibly even six or seven again. Derk Boerigter went close, hitting a shot off the crossbar.

 

                Finally, it was the promising Atajic who sealed a five star performance with a lovely chip of Neilsen amongst the snow, who must have thought on the 89th minute his humiliation was complete. But on minute 90 Atajic’s goal redoubled it as he left the keeper stranded with his first goal for senior team.

 

                It was a wonderful performance from Celtic who have rightly taken some criticism in the month of November. But as December begins Celtic, without Europe to think about (beyond a meaningless away tie in the Nou Camp) are showing signs that it’ll be anything but a season of goodwill.

 

Hail hail.

Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle brings out the best in Kris Commons – and welcome respite to weary bloggers!

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Hooray for waking up to welcome news.

It felt a long time ago that the alarm on my phone went off last Wednesday morning at 4:30am only to bring disappointment as Celtic went out of the the Champions League.

As a youngish supporter (still the right side of 30 with a hairline the wrong side of 60!) I cannot empathise with those fans who went through the dark days of 4th and 5th place league finishes under the old board and the Kelly family nearly running the great club into the ground.

But the great thing about being a Celtic fan is that we are a brethren who educate each other. I have before mentioned that we are the type of fans that keep and open mind, yet cast a judgmental eye on our club and it is because of that that we are in the state we are in today (financially at least).

The operations of the club are not perfect – I feel that fans still put up with a lot from our custodians such as unfair pricing of merchandise and seeing our club pay minimum wage to staff, while promoting the brand under the Jock Stein quote ‘Football without the fans is nothing’.

But what I am confident in is that we are in good shape on the (*snort*) balance sheet and the current board who oversee that are there because of the movement led by fans in the 90s to remove the old board.

There will be fans who consider themselves to be purists who don’t give a damn about the balance sheet but none can deny that it is important. If it weren’t we wouldn’t have been celebrating the clubs ability to get £12m for Victor Wanyama in the summer, a price tag that, by his current performances for Southampton, are approximately £11m too much.

Similarly we wouldn’t have been wondering just how on earth we managed to sign Kris Commons for less than £1m three years ago.

What a piece of business that has turned out to be!

Now into his fourth season, Kris Commons has bagged 45 goals in 120 appearances for Celtic – I am looking for more information on this as the Celtic FC Official site states this is club goals, whereas Kris’ wiki page suggests this only SPL/SPFL league goals! 

Regardless of the historical stats, the only stat Commons was interested in on Sunday evening in Edinburgh was his hat trick from the zenith of a midfield experimental diamond for Celtic absolutely crushed Hearts in a 7-0 final result!

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I have to take my hat off to the entire Celtic team and it’s backroom staff for a truely fantastic display – though it was one I unfortunately could not tune into.

In the last couple of blog posts I have made, I questioned the ability of the backroom staff to get the best out of attack minded players, and while Hearts did not provide much in the way of opponents, this experiment is one that paid off in some style.

I really have to laud Neil Lennon for his tactics. From the highlights package Charlie Mulgrew whose featuring in midfield has caused me to vent much of my frustration at Lennon strolled through the game. From what I have seen of the game it appeared that everything went through Chicco, including creating some lovely moves that led to goals.

Nir Biton burst into a Celtic career on Sunday night, effortlessly strolling through the midfield, and showing he has the eye for an out ball that a certain Paul Lambert used to be famed for.

Micky Blue Eyes also popped up with a goal to rival Celtic’s opener, thumping home a 30 yard screamer.

It was good to see Darnell Fisher keeping his toe in the pool with a substitute appearance.

The icing on the cake would have been a goal for Anthony Stokes who worked tirelessly all night.

I really wish this Celtic team the very best. I love Neil Lennon and all he has endured for the Celtic cause, and how much he has repaid that to all of us who have stood beside him and said, ‘I am Neil Lennon, we are ALL Neil Lennon.’

I for one cannot wait for the  Motherwell match on Friday night (4.45am kick off Saturday morning KST).

Hail hail.