Forget the wounded animal, Barcelona from another planet

We all knew Barcelona would be hurting after their defeat to Deportivo Alavés at the weekend, that they would come out with all guns blazing on Tuesday night ready to prove a point. And prove a point they certainly did.

There has been a lot of talk the past couple of days about the embarrassment of Tuesday night’s drubbing. Some harsh words have been said regarding our place amongst Europe’s elite. Frankly though, there is no hiding from the facts, and Tuesday’s performance, if not the scoreline, was certainly embarrassing.

The biggest point of disappointment was the amateur defending (in all areas of the park) which led to Barcelona’s goals. Having faced Barca numerous times over the past few years we knew what to expect coming into this game. The problem was that this Barcelona side, led by the MSN front three, was like nothing we have ever faced before.

The way we let our hosts stroll past us though was appalling; by the midway stage of the 2nd half Barca didn’t have to be anywhere near their best to cut through Celtic’s defence.

The biggest concern, as has been pointed out by many in the media, continues to be the mentality of the Celtic side. Barcelona didn’t beat us 7-0 because of their brilliance, they beat us by 7 because we were in awe of their brilliance.

Simply put the players looked lost; mesmerised by the ability and technique on display in front of them.

I predicted Cristian Gamboa would come into the side to complete a back 5, and if I’m honest I was quite happy to see this pre-match, feeling this would create a narrow 3 in the middle of defence; with Tierney and Gamboa adding additional protection in the wide areas. This was not the case. 

The obvious risk was in throwing a player into the biggest game of the season for their debut (think Jo Inge Berget in Warsaw), a player who hasn’t started a competitive club match since February. 

Gamboa making his first appearance for his new club at the Camp Nou was a big mistake. As was the formation of 5 at the back.

A 3-5-2/5-3-2 could work for us in Europe. If, and it’s a big if, we had the midfield for it. Three central defenders who stay tight to each other, flanked by full backs willing to get up and down the park throughout the match can work. What they need is a strong, competitive, and composed midfield in front of them. Scott Brown was unlucky on Tuesday, he appeared to be playing in midfield on his own and was the one player willing to try and put his foot on the ball to make things happen. For the formation to work we needed two central players alongside Brown. Central players who were willing to press the Barcelona midfield high when they dictated possession. In Nir Bitton we certainly do not have a central player willing, or capable, to play the pressing game. 

The disappointment of not completing the signing of a “marquee” central midfield was justified on Tuesday night. Besides Nir Bitton and Scott Brown our only central midfield (not central attacking midfield) players are academy graduates Henderson and McGregor. We simply don’t have the personnel in the middle of the park to have pulled off this formation – though perhaps the aforementioned, or the more attacking minded Stuart Armstrong or Tom Rogic, would have been more effective than Bitton.

Out wide we never stood a chance. Isolated and starved of possession it was a big ask for our wingers to contribute to the match. Scott Sinclair, however, showed plenty of promise in the early stages of the game, driving at the Barcelona defence at every (rare) opportunity. One positive from Tuesday night was that while Scott didn’t see anywhere near enough of the ball (along with his teammates), he did indicate he has the talent to compete at this level, provided we have the correct set up.

It has been said in some quarters that we have to accept the reality of modern football, that we simply cannot compete with the big guns; while in others it has been stated that Celtic should never accept defeat as a formality. Both are true. We cannot compete with Barcelona, it is as simple as that. But we can perform with the mindset that we are their match. That we will fight for every ball and not stand back and simply admire their ability. This Barcelona team is potentially the best I’ve ever seen. Let them play us off the park, show them the respect they deserve after the game, but during it treat them as our equal.

Changing the mentality amongst the squad at Celtic Park was never going to be an overnight fix. It’s one factor in a wider, long term project to lift ourselves on the European stage. Even then, we won’t be able to match the likes of Barcelona, but we will be able to compete for the ball and have belief in ourselves when we do regain possession. It’s a cliche in football for a manager of an underdog to bemoan the ease in which they allowed the favourite to dictate a game. But that cliche is precisely the feeling after Tuesday night – we had to do more to make Barca break sweat; to force them to be at their scintillating best. 

The best way to describe our performance in the second half was that of shock. Simple 5 yard passes became an impossible task. It would have been like watching children facing a side of uncompromising adults – only we never displayed such energy or belief.

There is no shame in losing to the best, not even in being anhialated by them. The disappointment lies in the inability to handle the occasion. In effectively throwing in the towel, taking a step back, and applauding the opponent off the park.

Tuesday will have hurt the players; defeat is one thing, but records have now been broken for all the wrong reasons. The squad must learn from Tuesday and ensure they never have that feeling again. Losing is acceptable, despondency is not.

If we’re not up to the task mentally we could see more records broken over the next few months.

Barcelona may be from another planet to us, but Tuesday should be the last free ride.

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Beware the wounded animal

After an embarrassing defeat a team will always focus all their attentions into bouncing straight back. The newly promoted side’s performance shocked everyone at the weekend. And an animal is at its most dangerous when it has been hurt.

I am, of course, referring to Barcelona’s shock defeat at home to Deportivo Alavés on Saturday evening. They will be out to make a statement on Tuesday night and remind the world how good they really are. For Barcelona to suffer a shock defeat at home is rare enough, for it to happen twice in a week is unheard of. The impossible task may have just got that bit harder.

With global superstars Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi likely to return to the Barca side we face up to the most gifted attacking trio in world football (with Neymar completing the trident).

Off the back of a quite sensational start to the season ourselves, and a 5 goal rout of our own newly promoted neighbours, we couldn’t be in a better place to face our most difficult task (apart from the injury to Griffiths).

Brendan knows the job at hand tomorrow. His detailed analysis of football has been a standout attribute of his early Celtic reign; clearly studying how the opposition play and identifying their weakest areas. He’ll have a game plan and the players will each know their role. Perform both to perfection and maybe, just maybe, we could nick something.

Following our horror show in Israel our defensive frailties were brought to the fore. We stumbled our way through the majority of the match, but once Erik Eviatchenko was introduced to complete a back 5 we saw out the dying stages with relative comfort (although it felt anything but that at the time).

Christian Gamboa could be in line for the debut of his life tomorrow night. I expect Lustig to tuck inside to complete a narrow back 3, with Gamboa and Tierney’s pace put to the test as the rampaging Barca full backs push on. For me, James Forrest is the man to miss out. While his pace could provide us with an outlet to relieve pressure I feel the importance of maintaining possession when possible is vital to any hopes we have. Tom Rogic is the man for this; with Sinclair off Dembele completing our attack. (Forrest on to exploit any tired legs late on).

Not many give us a hope in hell tomorrow night. I don’t give us a hope in hell tomorrow night. But this is the Champions League. It’s where we want to be. Let’s enjoy it.

Beware the wounded animal, and you never know.

Early shopping delight, yet disappointment lingers

Okay, so I’m no fan of transfer deadline day – the whole thing has become another Sky Sports gimmick centred around Jim White and his yellow tie, frantically reporting on the news that one average Premier League footballer may be moving to another average Premier League club according to “Sky Sources”.

This year, however, I did take a keen interest. Not to the Sky Sports feed per se, but the actual news of the day at Cetic Park – constantly checking for updates. Early on in the evening it became clear that our business was done for the window as various media outlets reported Celtic were shutting up shop for the day.

For years now I have been crying out for us to do our business early; to bed new players in at the soonest possibility; to give ourselves the best chance we could of qualifying for the Champions League; our Holy Grail.

This summer there were a number of key goals set on our to do list: bring in a manager to energise the club and excite the fans; to allow the new manager to structure his own backroom staff, to be in control of all footballing matters; to provide said manager with funds to bring in his own players; to qualify for the Champions League. All these boxes have a large tick next to them.

Yet why the sense of deadline day dissapointment this year?

In Moussa Dembele, Kolo Toure, and Scott Sinclair I’m delighted with our transfer activity. Dorus de Vries and Cristian Gamboa are unknown quantities to me but I look forward to seeing them in the Hoops – Brendan’s done alright with his recruitment until now after all.

The issue I have, the feeling of dissapointment that I can’t shake, simply comes down to the fact that Brendan Rodgers knows we needed another player (possibly two). We came so close to the perfect summer, and while still a very good one, we fell just short of excellence – after previous summers I know it’s crazy to be anything close to dissapointed this year, and in a few days, on reflection at just how far we’ve improved over the past few months, there will be no despondency.

The issue at the moment, of course, is central midfield. Having improved every other area of our squad over the summer we enter our first Champions League campaign in three years with the middle of the park being probably the weakest area in our team. This is where games are won and lost at the highest level.

The away tie against Hapoel Be’er Sheva confirmed beyond all doubt that we needed some real quality in the centre of the pitch. A calm, composed figure who can maintain possession in pressurised situations; that, or a true defensive ball winning midfielder, the kind of player we haven’t had since Victor Wanyama left for Southampton. (Ideally we would sign both).

Brendan Rodgers knew we needed this – he sees what’s happening on the pitch and is quick to analyse sitautions. While Brendan took a huge risk in Israel by leaving Saidy Janko on the park much to every fans dismay, he has since signed a new right back and allowed Janko to leave on loan. Efe Ambrose was given an early chance against part-time Lincoln Red Imps, he failed, and he hasn’t been seen again since.

For Celtic fans the delight of qualifying for the Champions League was shortly followed by the exciting prospect that we were now going to flex some muscle and bring in a player of real European quality. We had the funds, we had the manager, we had the attraction of Europe and the glamour ties that came with it: but we didn’t act on it.

Celtic will toe the line, that “we worked hard – and couldn’t quite get anything over the line”. But we had a full week after guaranteeing an extra jackpot of approximately £30m to secure at least one central midfielder – we had all summer to line up targets in the possibility that we would qualify.

A week ago Brendan Rodgers seemed confident of improving the squad before the deadline – certain, almost.

Try as I might to quell my own conspiracy theories, I can’t help but feel our manager has been let down by the club this week. That once those European superpowers were drawn alongside Celtic we decided to stick with what we have – we weren’t going to progress through the group, and we’ve got enough to dominate domestically, why spend any more?

I’m sure I’m being daft but after recent evidence of how our business is run it’s a lingering thought I cannot rid.

It’s not all about the money – I promise. But the money was there, and plenty of it.

Transfer targets come and go, deals do break down. If the media is to be believed we targeted Andre Wisdom for most of the summer, once that deal broke down we moved our attention to Gamboa. Rodgers allegedly was looking to bring in former goalkeeper Michel Vorm, Spurs wouldn’t sell, so we moved on to de Vries. 

I do believe that the club will have been working on trying to secure targets over the past week. They must have been. But if these deals hit barriers why was there not a bigger target pool for an area of the pitch we so clearly needed to strengthen? 

I never want us to make signings for the sake of making a signing. To appease fans. I agree with this summer’s approach. That we should only sign players that will come into the side and improve us. Perhaps we really just couldn’t get a deal over the line. I just can’t help doubting that there wasn’t a single central midfielder available who could have come in and improved our squad.

I’m over the moon with this summer as a whole, and I’m not normally one to be greedy, but at the moment a slight disappointment lingers.

Havin’ a Party in the Champions League

Barcelona, Manchester City, Borussia Mönchengladbach… Gulp

We wanted to mix it with the big boys, and we’ve certainly got our wish.

For the fourth time in our last five Champions League campaigns we’ve been drawn against FC Barcelona in Europe’s elite competition.

Alongside our familiar foes we face up to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and fellow Play-Off victors Borussia Mönchengladbach. 

We couldn’t have been dealt a tougher draw, but are we there just to make up the numbers? Of course not. 

Right now I don’t anticipate Celtic picking about a point in Group C, never mind enough to qualify. But we all know what happens once the campaign starts; once Celtic Park begins to rock on a European night. No matter who we face, when matchday comes around at Paradise we all begin to believe again. 

The biggest cause of this misplaced optimism? Simply, because it’s true. On those most special nights at Celtic Park we can beat anyone. Yes, “can” is the operative word here, but however unlikely, our past experiences are enough to make us dream.

Realistically, it will be a mammoth task for Celtic to compete in Group C. We’re expected to end the campaign bottom of  the pile, probably by most, without ammasing a single point on the board, but having craved Champions League football for the past two seasons, we are now returning to dine at the top table, and we’re here to cause the greatest of upsets.

In Barcelona we face the greatest player on the planet, the greatest attacking force on on the planet, and quite possibly the greatest footballing side on the planet.

In Manchester City we face possibly the greatest manager in the game, a revitalised squad filled with top class talent, and a forward in Sergio Aguero whose rare talent is one of a few to claim to be a match for the Barcelona front line.

How about the 3rd seeds in our group? Surely there’s cause for hope here? 24 hours on from our nerve shredder in Israel, Borussia Mönchengladbach were cruising past Young Boys in their own Play-Off fixture, winning the tie 9-2 on aggregate.

There really are no easy ties here.

But four years on from ITV’s infamous “Bye, bye Celtic” tweet (as we drew Barcelona, Benfica, and Spartak Moscow in the Champions League group stages.) Could we have the last laugh again? Could lightening strike twice?

With just under a week to get our squad in shape before the transfer window closes, it’s essential we now bring in some proven quality, especially in the middle of the park. On Tuesday night I wrote how we now have the manager, the draw of Champions League football, and the money to make a statement signing. Well, now we can 6 glamour ties to the list to entice a star name to Paradise.

Do we have a chance of progressing through to the last 16? Nope. Do we have a chance of dropping into the Europa? Not really. Is it going to stop us dreaming when the games come around? Certainly not.

One things for sure; we’re having a party in the Champions League, and it already feels great.

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.