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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.