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



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 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!

Zonal marking: It was a problem under Gordon Strachan and it’s a problem now.


At least we have the defensive side of things correct.Image


Or so I thought.


Celtic went out of Europe all together on Tuesday night, or 6:30am Korean Standard Time, as I watched following a 4:30am alarm.


Neil Lennon opted for an interesting selection which apart from the central midfield pairing of Charlie Mulgrew and Beram Kayal looked very good on paper.


Then we started to play. After 12 minutes Celtic conceded as poor a goal as I have ever seen from Ricky Kaka who was unmarked at a corner as Celtic men marked their plots or zones, instead of the men in the box. What was particularly worrying as Kaka nodded home as the ball had come over Virgil Van Dijk’s head, was that his had a team mate behind him ready to do the same thing.


The goal was a devastating blow, but made more devastating as it snuck in past Kayal who was daydreaming on the line. But surely the ball shouldn’t have even made it on to the head of Kaka?


In the aftermath of Celtic’s colossal win over Barcelona in the 2012/2013 Champions League campaign Fraser Forster was nicknamed La Gran Marula but for the longest of times fans have been asking how a 6 foot 4 inch goal keeper is so poor at coming for crosses?


I have found myself asking how could Forster have made it this far in his career not coming off of his goal line. Forster’s opposite number Christian Abbiati was faced with several corners and crosses from Celtic tonight, one in particular was a carbon copy of the ball in that Kaka scored from. Abbiati rose as he has all of his career and collected comfortably, landing on the ball and killing any idea that the chance was anything but dead.

I wonder if Forster’s decisions to remain on his line are in fact instructions from the Celtic management? How else could a keeper that has looked so promising in his young career be so fundamentally lacking in a key requirement of being a keeper.

How can we coach what comes naturally out of players the way we coach defenders not to defend set pieces the way they have been trained to since they were children. We have a lot of pedigree in our team, none less than Virgil Van Dijk. How does he change in the light of instructions contra to the best of coaching he has received from an enviable Dutch set up. In the same way as we defended under Gordon Strachan with the much maligned ‘zonal marking’ when we shipped goals so frequently, but more often than not scored one more than the opposition, we are cutting a sorry excuse for a football team just now in continental competition: five games played, two goals for and eight against.


I wonder now if we’ll see Mulgrew appearing back in defence to give Izaguirre a rest he needs. I wonder if we will see a different centre half, perhaps from the youth set up (yeah right!) coming in an giving Ambrose some time to reflect and get his head into the game because so far Van Dijk has been covering for him FAR too much. I think Mario Balotelli was probably quite pleased early on to have been getting so much change out of Efe Ambrose as he was. I must have been so confident once getting past Van Dijk he has simply to wait on Ambrose to stop running before he coolly slotted past Forster.


Whatever the outcome the Celtic management need to have a look at how they have set up for this and other games in the Champions league, in the defence, and as I will explore in the next piece I write, across the whole team too.