And breathe, we’re in the Champions League

After possibly the longest 90 minutes in our recent history we are back in the Champions League, scraping past Hapoel Be’er Sheva by the skin of our teeth.

Whether down to a lack of ability, a lack of nerve, or a combination of the two, certain players highlighted tonight that they are not cut out for this level. But on a night of celebration I’m not going to name names, besides, anyone who watched the game – no doubt from behind the couch at times – will have witnessed this for themselves.

All that matters now, is that we’ve qualified.

On Thursday afternoon Celtic’s name will be in the Champions League group stage draw for the first time in 3 years, and doesn’t that just feel great.

Champions League’s nights are returning to Celtic Park, and by the end of the week we will know which of Europe’s top clubs will be paying a visit to Paradise.

The estimated £20m+ windfall which we will now receive is a game changer as we enter the final week of the transfer window. We know that Brendan Rodgers is on the look out for at least one player, and tonight’s match will have reinforced his belief of our need for a European class central midfielder.

We now have the manager, the draw of Champions League football, and the money to make a statement signing.

Enjoy this week Bhoys and Ghirls, I get a feeling it’s going to be a good one.

The Brendan Effect

A fantastic first half performance today saw Celtic race into another 3-0 lead at the break.

As expected St. Johnstone sat behind the ball from the off in attempt to frustrate Celtic, but whereas in previous seasons we may have struggled to penetrate a stubborn defence, this year our forward players look fitter and most importantly, confident on the ball. There is a swagger back in the Celtic attack, and the front four were blistering in the first half.

With back-to-back 4th placed finishes in the SPFL Premiership, St. Johnstone are by no means pushovers, especially on their own turf, but today they couldn’t live with the pace, skill, and movement of our play.

James Forrest continued his fine form and picked up the Man of the Match award (and is slowly but surely winning the support – myself included – back round); Sinclair added another goal to his impressive early season tally; but for me it was Tom Rogic who was the star of the show. 

Physically strong in possession, tricky on the ball, and with the ability to carve the opposition defence open, Tom is beginning to ensure his name is one of the first on the team sheet. What impresses me most about Rogic is his anticipation to turn away from his man; countless times today Tom would receive the ball with his back to goal, and with a drop of the shoulder (sorry, I had to throw that in there) roll away from his marker. With his improved fitness now combining with his natural ability as a footballer, Rogic is beginning to dominate games in the final third, dictating the pace and picking off the runs of our wide men.

With Paddy Roberts and Moussa Dembele still to come into the the starting XI our attacking arsenal is certainly looking an exciting prospect.

A lapse in concentration late on saw another 2 goals conceded from a commanding position, but, with Brendan Rodgers having rung the changes in the second half, the rhythm of the side had no doubt been disrupted – plus Celtic were momentarily reduced to 10 men as St. Johnstone’s second goal was scored.

Brendan will be keen to ensure we improve our ability to see a game out, but with a mentality to dominate and attack teams at every opportunity we may have to expect the odd counter attacking goal conceded throughout the season.

As we enter our most important week of the season there is a buzz amongst the supporters, and most importantly there is a buzz and a belief amongst the players. From the gloomy atmosphere of last year; instilling a confident and energised Celtic was the most important task put in front of the new manager this summer, and so far he has done this with aplomb.

The higher calibre signings, the increased confidence, and the feel good factor; we call that the Brendan effect.

Oh what a night

When it comes to making the trip up to Paradise there’s always a few things to consider: how will I get up there?  How much will it cost? Will I be able to get a match ticket? (These are the perks of being born in London – simply getting to a game is a challenge).


Ultimately though, only the third question is ever important.

As soon as I’d confirmed my tickets for last night’s match I felt unusually optimistic considering we were playing in a Champions League Play Off fixture – that’s what a couple of good performances does to you.

The first half last night was magnificent. While Hapoel Be’er Sheva impressed me with their ability on the ball; especially their forwards’ hold up play, we were utterly dominant – racing into a 3-goal lead at the break.

In life I believe it’s always important to hold your hands up and admit when you are wrong, but as a blogger you have no choice in the matter: once your written words have been proven incorrect there is no hiding place, and I must admit that when we first signed Leigh Griffiths I had doubts about his attitude and character. Boy was I wrong. 

Since the minute Leigh stepped through the front doors at Celtic Park he has done everything in his power to become the best player he can be. And it has certainly paid dividends. His free kick was a great strike, but it was the natural instinct to hold his run, sprint onto Forrest’s hung up cross and attack the ball and plant his header into the bottom corner for his first goal which impressed me most last night. It was a classy finish and highlighted his understanding and reading of the game.

At 3-0 up we went into half time bouncing, with the Holy Grail of the Champions League group stages in our sights.

15 minutes into the second half and it appeared the nightmare of Malmo was going to repeat itself. As soon as the first Hapoel goal went in I’d imagine everyone inside Celtic Park was also anticipating the second. The difference, this year, was the reaction thereon in.

Two counter attacking goals could have crushed us. The reaction after the first goal was poor; we looked shellshocked. But once the second was scored there was an indication that we weren’t going to let this slip again.

Looking across to the bench it was clear that Brendan Rodgers understood the situation following Hapoel’s resurgence. 

Could we go through after a 3-2 victory at home? Yes, we could. But I certainly wouldn’t feel confident about it. 

Brendan recognised the need to increase our lead, he wasn’t happy to sit back, and with Hapoel looking confident he made the changes which turned the tie back in our favour. 

Lustig appeared to be struggling with injury and the pace of Hapoel’s left winger; McGregor could no longer keep up with the end-to-end nature of the game; and Tom Rogic, while fantastic on the ball, was the man to be the sacrificed in order to bring on an extra forward. The introduction of Janko, Bitton, and Dembele made clear our intentions.

With Rogic off the park, Griffiths took over corner kick duty, and didn’t you just know he would deliver. From behind the goal I had no idea who planted the header into the back of the net for our 4th. O’Connell? Bitton? Dembele? I really couldn’t have cared less, I was leaping for joy as Paradise erupted.

A 2-goal lead to take abroad was a good result, but with Hapoel having 2 away goals to their name and now sitting deep, it was vital we restore our 3-goal advantage.

As Man Of The Match, Scott Brown, volleyed home the fifth there was sheer elation amongst the supporters. 

On a night which Brown became our leading ever performer in Europe, in terms of appearances made, it was fitting that he sealed the win, especially given his performance. 

Broony was tremendous throughout. The captain was a general on the park; a driving force at times but also a calm & composed presence in slowing the pace of the game down when required. 

As the final whistle blew it was evident we had witnessed a quite magnificent game of football, and with it, a fantastic result to build on next week in our quest for Champions League football.

The players and coaching staff deserve enormous praise for their performance last night, and so too do the support. 

The noise generated to drive the team on was deafening at times, and while some are entitled to believe that politics and football should not mix, I, amongst many others, was delighted by the show of solidarity to Palestine which eminated from our stands. As “a club like no other” some things go beyond the football, despite UEFA “warnings”.

While I’m still nervous going into next week’s return leg (the nature of supporting Celtic away in Europe), we’ve got a great result to take with us to Israel. Let’s finish the job, Celtic.

Pace, Power and Pressing

With four days to go until our most important game of the season against Hapoel Be’er Sheva, the excitement is building amongst the Celtic support.

This week, for the first time in Brendan Rodgers short reign so far, we witnessed first hand the style of football that Brendan wants to bring to the club. The pace at which Wednesday night’s victory over Motherwell was played at was relentless, with the visitors unable to cope with our wave after wave of attack.

Throughout the summer it had become clear that Brendan Rodgers had identified Scott Sinclair as his number one target, and while I initially held some reservations over the transfer due to Scott’s lack of football over the past four seasons, it has only taken one week for Scott to prove any doubters wrong. His performance on Wednesday was electrifying. Driving forward with pace and skill every time he gained possession of the ball. 

Scott Sinclair lit the city of Swansea up during his spell there, and now back playing under a manager who knows his game inside out, and who has full confidence in his ability, he looks set to do the same in Scotland.

The increase in tempo and movement off the ball against Motherwell allowed Tom Rogic to find pockets of space in front of the opposition defence and dictate our attacking play.

After a tough start at the club, Moussa Dembele looked fresh and energetic, no doubt aided by the confidence booster of his winning penalty the week previous, and the often criticised (and quite rightly so) James Forrest impressed again under the new regime. (Though unlike Sinclair, it’s going to take more than one good week for me to be convinced that James has recovered his form from his early Celtic career).

With Leigh Griffiths and Patrick Roberts to return to the fray, our attack now looks in place to deploy the fast paced, high pressing game we’ve been trying to achieve for the past two seasons.

Our players look fitter, more focused, and more determined than in previous years. 

While it is very much still early days under Brendan’s reign the buzz has certainly returned to Paradise, and I for one can’t wait for Wednesday’s game.

See you all there.

Tom Rogic signs new three year deal

The announcement that Tom Rogic has signed a new 3 year deal will no doubt be met with delight amongst Celtic supporters.

3 and a half years on from his arrival at Celtic, Rogic has now displayed his capabilities as a footballer, with the 15-16 season proving to be a real breakthrough one for Tom.

The majority of systems which Brendan Rodgers has deployed so far have lacked the inclusion of a number 10, but the offer of a new contract indicates that Brendan must have been impressed with what he has seen of Tom in training and in his appearances so far this season.

Having shown a touch of class at times last year it will be exciting to see if Rogic can continue to progress in a similar vein this year. If he can get up to the fitness levels required to compete for 90 minutes we will have a very accomplished player on our hands; one who is capable of creating chances from the middle of the park and who can score goals from distance. Two things the side currently lack.

Alongside my delight that Rogic has committed his future to the club until 2019; it would also be a rare treat (for me) to be proven correct with one prediction I made regarding our top prospects back in the summer of 2013. With Dylan McGeouch & Tony Watt having left the club, I’m relying on you now, Tom:

The New Stars for the Hoops (Archive: July 2013)

X-factor style football competitions such as Football’s Next Star have, ironically, yet to discover any real talents, but in Nike’s The Chance there appeared to be much more hope of unearthing something special. 
With their reputation as a global sports brand, Nike scoured the corners of the Earth in search of a new star and found Australia’s Tom Rogic. 

After a couple of years showcasing his skill in Oz, Neil Lennon gave Rogic his big break in European football with a move to Celtic in January. 

Joining a new side midway through the season can always be a struggle for a player, none more so than a twenty year old travelling across the globe to settle in a new country. 

Now though, after 6 months in Glasgow and with a handful of first team appearances to his name, including a man of the match debut up in Inverness, Tom is ready and raring to show everyone what he can do. 

With a style of play not dissimilar to Moussa Dembele, Tom Rogic appears to have that rare ability to glide past players effortlessly. 

Only Nakamura has come close to replicating the skill and vision of Lubo Moravcik in recent years, and now if he can fulfil his potential we could be looking at the new creative talisman of our side for a long time to come. 

I believe we will see massive strides of improvement from Tom throughout the season and if he can cement a place in the team I predict him to be a real standout player this year.

Dembele – the Bhoy’s a bit special

Dembele has been the name on many Celtic fans lips over the last few days, and no, I’m not talking about Moussa after his supersub heroics of Wednesday night. 

As video footage emerged of a young Celt named Karamoko Dembele in action at the St Kevins Boys Academy Cup 2016, it is clear to see we may just have a special talent in our ranks.

Aged just 13, Karamoko still has years of development ahead of him before he can dream of appearing in the first team. These next few development years will be crucial in Karamoko’s progress as a footballer. Many a talented teenager has dropped out of the game as they struggle to compete physically with their peers. And while it would be unfair to make comparisons between Dembele and some of football’s greatest ever stars (considering his age), there is no doubting Karamoko’s incredible ability to glide past players with the ball tied to his left foot. You can draw your own conclusions as to who Karamoko may remind you of:


(Video courtesy of KEEP IT ON THE DECK youtube channel)

Remaining grounded and having the right guidence and support around him will be key to ensuring Dembele fulfils his undoubted potential. We don’t have to look far to see how a poor attitude appears to have stalled one ex-Celtic wonderkid’s progression. Islam Feruz, once Tommy Burns’ prodigy, is still only 20 and on the books at Chelsea. However with a number of unsuccesful loan spells on his CV, including a stint at Hibernian last season which was terminated after just 6 substitute appearances, Feruz is running out of time to get his career back on track before he is brandished another wasted talent. While it is never nice to see a young professional fail to live up to their promise because of a poor attitude; Feruz could be highlighted as an example to young Karamoko of what can happen if an ego gets in the way of hard work and dedication. I hope, for Islam Feruz’s sake he now gets his head down and focusses on being the best footballer he can be. As for Karamoko, his future is very much in his own hands (or perhaps feet would be more accurate).

The video above highlights some of Dembele’s performances against the likes of Barcelona and West Brom as he picked up the Player of the Tournament award at the St Kevins Boys Academy Cup 2016. The award was followed up with another Player of the Tournament accolade at the Bassevelde Cup in Belgium this May as Celtic U13s triumphed against Borussia Dortmund in the final to claim the trophy.

The Bassevelde Cup is a prestigious tournament with some of Belgium’s current golden generation competing in past editions; Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Axel Witsel to name just a few. Previous winners of the Player of the tournament award include Manchester United’s Memphis Depay (2007), and our own academy graduate Aiden McGeady (1999).

Standing out as the star man in tournaments including the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris St. Germain and Borussia Dortmund is an outstanding achievemnt for young Karamoko Dembele, and while it is vital he is allowed time and space to develop without the glare and pressure of media hype, he is certainly a name to keep an eye out for in years to come. We may just have something special here.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail

I am delighted with the result last night. While the match did nothing to help blood pressure levels, it was great to see late goals in each half, and the players showing a desire to keep fighting until the final whistle.

However, with the dust now settled on the game, it is clear that we are once again leaving ourselves at a massive risk of missing out on Champions League football for a 3rd successive season.

Since the last time we successfully negotiated the qualifying route in 2013 we have been reactive in our transfer activity (and in fact including the 2013 summer transfer window). Entering our most important games of the season with perhaps one or two new faces, but on the whole a bloated squad lacking the true quality which could help guide us through tricky ties.

This summer has been no different. I’m happy with the new signings we have made, very happy in fact. Anyone who saw Kolo Toure’s performances towards the end of his Liverpool career will know he still has the quality to make a big impact on our often fragile defence. And while Moussa Dembele may have struggled in his earliest performances in a Celtic shirt, I was delighted by his skill on the ball, movement and link up play with Griffiths in creating the last minute penalty. And even more so by his composure to bury it in the corner for his first goal for the club under intense pressure.

These two signings though are not enough. It is clear to see that we lack quality in creating chances, and still struggle to break sides down. Be it in the form of a central playmaker, or a winger with an ability to deliver a cross, it is an area we certainly need to strengthen.

The Scott Sinclair saga has dragged on for the whole summer and has become as embarrassing as it is frustrating. Now, I’m not certain Sinclair is the answer to our problems, not by any stretch of the imagination. But it is clear that having worked with him in the Chelsea youth set up, and in his successful Swansea side, Brendan Rodgers has identified Sinclair as one of his key targets. 

Should we be held to ransom by a recently relegated club who reportedly only paid £2.5m for the player last summer? Of course not. However, there should have been an outcome by now. Either we have been able to compromise a fee or we move on to another target. Again, it strikes me as we have waited to see how we can get by with what we have, before dipping into our pockets on a new player. (Remember, bar compensation fees, we once again haven’t spent a single penny this summer).

Last nights performance was one of dominance, we created a few good goalscoring chances, but on the whole we struggled to break Astana down. Paddy Roberts had a quiet opening spell on the wing, and once he went off injured we didn’t appear to have a creative spark in the side. Paddy’s start to the season has been fantastic, but it is vital we don’t become completely reliant on a player who will be leaving us this time next year.

The draw for the play off round is made tomorrow and while I’m desperate for the easiest tie possible (if there is such thing). I am also fearful that a draw against one of the lower ranked sides (namely Dundalk) will lead to the club resting on their laurels once again in terms of our playing squad.

The culture of reactivity rather than proactivity throughout the club needs to change. Rodgers is doing his best to change this mentality on the park, it is now time those off it gave him the support he needs.

We have under two weeks until the first tie of the play off, and it is likely our squad will need to be submitted a week today in order to be registered for the ties.

Time to do some business Celtic.

Mentality Key for Brendan

What a nice feeling to be able to enjoy an away European away result.

With four central defenders currently out injured the biggest fear in most supporters’ minds was undoubtedly surrounding the make-shift defence; with Eoghan O’Connell partnering Efe Ambrose at the back.

Even during some of our best European campaigns of the modern era, our away record has been poor to say the least. Burdened by our record, the players, much like the fans, seem to always be on edge, causing them to play with fear.

In the past, high-profile mistakes, poor decisions, and early goals have knocked the stuffing out of Celtic sides in Europe. 

When we’ve gone behind our heads have dropped, causing nerves to become even more apparent, and 1-goal, and even 2-goal deficits, which could have been managed and overturned in the return leg, have turned into disastrous defeats (see Artmedia Bratasliva).

I can’t pass comment on today’s performance; having barely seen any of it. Stuck at work, I initially relied on minute-by-minute Tweets for my updates, then turned to Radio commentary, and finally hit the jackpot when I managed to get a YouTube stream on my phone. Unfortunately, the mobile set-up on my desk became quite apparent to colleagues as they continuously walked past. The stream, naturally, remained on, but I never managed to see a prolonged period of play, missing both goals amongst other action points. 

However, while I’m not best placed to comment on individual performances, one thing I am over the moon about is the determination of the side today. With an unfamiliar back four, on a plastic pitch, in an intimidating atmosphere, we recovered from an early goal to secure a score draw to take back to Celtic Park; a fantastic achievement. 

Brendan Rodgers commented on his delight at the mentality shown by his the side, “The resilience and strength mentally we’ve built up came into effect […] We were disappointed with the goal but showed wonderful mentality to keep fighting.”

The club got a much needed lift when Brendan was announced as manager. The fans have flocked to buy season tickets, and the new standing section has brought even more energy to the North Curve of Paradise. Alongside new signings to bring much needed quality to the side, the other most important factor for Brendan Rodgers this summer is to develop a team willing to fight for each other. 

A group with chemistry, who play for their teammates, manager and fans, rather than themselves, is going to be key to our progression under Rodgers.

Today’s result, and Leigh Griffiths’ goal in particular (one thing I have managed to see from the game), are a good indication that the atmosphere and mentality in the squad is improving. Paddy Roberts’ determination to win the ball back was tremendous, showing his desire to impact the result, and Leigh Griffiths’ did what Leigh Griffiths does best.

Well done today Celtic, let’s build on this for next week.

Improvement & flexible formations

Celtic 2-1 Wolfsburg. Friendly though it may have been, this afternoon’s fixture was a completely contrasting display to Tuesday’s defeat by Lincoln Red Imps.

Celtic started brightly this afternoon, moved the ball at pace & looked to attack at every opportunity.

Brendan Rodgers went with a much more positive starting XI than in Gibraltar (namely Bitton & Ambrose didn’t start), and while Scott Brown maintained his place, the energy around him appeared to give him a new lease of life & his performance was a vast improvement on Tuesday night’s.

With 5 changes to Tuesday’s starting line-up; perhaps the most positive alteration was the formation. For the first time in a what feels like a long time we started a match with 2 strikers. Dembele lead the line with Griffiths playing just off him. At the back was a 3 of Lustig, O’Connell, and Sviatchenko when in possession of the ball, with Tierney completing the defence when Wolfsburg were on the attack; Lustig shifting across to right back and Tierney dropping into left back from his advanced position.

The biggest positives of this tactical ploy was that it gave the midfield, particularly  Roberts and Armstrong, the freedom to play to their strengths. While he may not have seen much of the ball, always knowing that Lustig was behind him meant that Patrick Roberts could focus on playing to his strengths in the attacking half of the pitch. Similarly, Stuart Armstrong, so often stuck out on the left wing in his Celtic career, had the freedom to roam inside when we were on the attack. In possession Tierney became a left winger, with the bundle of energy that is Stuart Armstrong acting as a driving force alongside McGregor in the middle of the park.

As we are all aware from the past two seasons, it is vital to have fluidity and alternative options in our systems, otherwise the football becomes stale and we become easy to read.

Brendan rang the changes at half time, and while the pace slowed at the beginning of the second half, it was a similarly pleasing display; Ryan Christie and Scott Allan particularly showing some nice flashes of play on the ball. With the former scoring a tidy winner after some nice footwork.

If we get a decent sized crowd behind us and an energetic, attacking line-up, then I’ll be feeling a lot more positive coming into the 2nd leg against Lincoln Red Imps following today’s victory. After all, progressing through this tie isn’t something that should ever have been in any doubt. 

Time for the Bhoys to do what they’re paid for.

“Take a chance” please Brendan

No words need to be spoken about Tuesday’s defeat. Whether you saw the game or not, you know how dire it was. 

As long as we turn up like a half-decent professional football side next week we should be in a position to look back and laugh at the defeat in Gibraltar. However, turning up as a half-decent professional football side is not something we have been particularly capable of recently.

Besides, perhaps “laugh” is not the right word in the context of our defeat this week. Certainly, if we fail to progress through the tie next week I will not find it remotely a laughing matter. It will be inexplicable.

The only positive to come out of Tuesday’s match is that those not up to the task have been identified directly to Brendan Rodgers. While Gerry down the pub could have told you months ago; Brendan has now seen with his own eyes who he cannot trust. To begin with, Ambrose, Brown, and Bitton, should be nowhere near the team next week.

My biggest regret with Ronny Deila was his insistence on playing “experienced players” who had previously let him down. Unlike some, I do not believe boardroom influences affected Ronny’s team selections. Their influences came elsewhere. However, Ronny’s continual use of Brown, Bitton, and Johansen (etc) through poor form and fitness, highlighted his fear of failure. When things got tough he felt he needed to rely on their experience to pull him through. Their consistent failure, in my eyes, cost him his job.

As the manager at Liverpool who brought Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher’s Anfield careers to an end, I have hope that talent, fitness and hard work, as opposed to personalities and experience, determine Brendan’s decision making as a boss.

It’s almost unnecessary to say, but Ambrose should never pull on a Celtic shirt again. Likeable a guy as he appears to be, Efe cannot be trusted no matter the opposition. Ambrose, alongside Nir Bitton, should be sold to any bidder. With the current injury situation I would like to see Kristoffer Ajer in Ambrose’s place. He may be just a kid, and new to the club, but sandwiched between the experience of Mikael Lustig and the impressive Erik Sviatchenko, I believe he has enough ability to stroll through next week’s game.

Scott Brown is a different case. If he is accepting of a behind-the-scenes role, with limited game time against weaker opposition, I wouldn’t be opposed to keeping him at the club as captain. He does a lot of work with the youth teams, and while at times the joker of the pack, he appears to have a good influence on squad harmony. Over the years Brown has provided some great individual moments, and some good seasons as the tempo setter of the side with his energetic displays.Unfortunately for Broony his injuries appear to have finally got the better of him. And more often than not he is now a detriment to the side with his limited technical ability.

Another player I would take out of the firing line next week (if Brendan persists with his preferred 4-2-3-1/4-3-3) is Moussa Dembele. Having just turned 20 this week and arrived with a glowing reputation I have no doubts that Dembele will be a great signing. However, for now, it is vital that our main man, and at times sole goal threat, Leigh Griffiths, is playing through the centre where he can hurt teams.

The team I’d like to see next week, dependant on formation, would be:

4-2-3-1/4-3-3:

Gordon; Lustig, Ajer, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Armstrong, McGregor; Roberts, Rogic, Christie; Griffiths

4-4-2:

Gordon; Lustig, Ajer, Sviatchenko, Tierney; Roberts, Armstrong, McGregor, Rogic; Griffiths, Dembele

These teams may be very attack orientated, and while most people say you need to have a balanced side, I do not buy that argument when your “defensive” midfield players are incapable of tackling or passing the ball. If you want to play an energetic, fast paced style of football, you need energetic footballers. 

Some of the players I have mentioned have not had a glittering Celtic career to date, but they have also yet to fail against a semi-professional side. At times in these early rounds we look for excuses regarding how quickly the games appear upon us (having had only a few weeks of training to prepare). On the other hand, Lincoln Red Imps players got on with their day jobs, left work early, and turned up on the day to compete.

We’re playing a team who are, mainly, part-timers. It’s time we “took a chance” rather than relying on players who have consistently let us down.