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CQNer VFR800 outlines his personal thoughts on last night’s crucial match in Israel…

I thought I would be writing a different piece this morning; so much so that I’d started formulating it in my head late yesterday afternoon, such was my confidence.  However, the 94 minutes in Israel changed that considerably.

Let’s be clear from the start however; we qualified for the Champions League Group Stages ON MERIT.  We beat Lincoln Red Imps 3-1; we beat Astana 3-2; and we beat Hapoel Be’er Shiva 5-4.  That’s the bottom line.  So a massive thanks and congratulations to the Manager, Coaching staff and players for getting us through 3 qualifying rounds.  That’s Target One achieved less than 10 games into our season!

As much as the 1st Leg against HBS in Glasgow as glorious; the 2nd Leg in Be’er Shiv was painful to watch at times.

What went well?

The over-riding positive is that we are dining at the top table in terms of European football: where a club like ours should be. We now need to work hard to make this a regular feature, and we have the right manager and the finances to do that. We also have some pretty decent players as well. Scott Sinclair has shown over the last 2 weeks why Brendan Rodgers chased him for so long.  Apart from his obvious skill and pace, he has a tremendous work ethic and showed this again last night. Even late into injury time he was trying to chase the ball down and close space off to see the game out. Precisely what we needed!

Alongside him, big Moussa Dembele put in a great shift. Again, he was chasing the ball down in his own half as well as pressurising their defence and keeper. He was very unlucky with his curving shot that just went past the post. He is a raw talent but shows all the signs of becoming a terrific player.

Tom Rogic is another terrific player and although he wasn’t brilliant last night, he was effective.  On a few occasions his quick, clever feet got us out of trouble and he always looks calm and confident. He’ll do for me!

Kolo Toure was immense at the back; his reading of the game was superb.  He never looks flustered (angry at times, maybe) and commands the back line well.  But he needs help – Mikael Lustig isn’t the answer.  He got some help when Erik Sviatchenko came on. Erik isn’t the biggest centre half we have, but he looked at home beside Kolo Toure and on the limited showing last night, they will be a formidable partnership.  Sviatchenko always looked fairly comfortable and was very effective. Maybe a back 3 with Toure, Sviatchenko and Simunovic will be the longer term solution this season?

The schizophrenic goalie!  What can I say? He saved a penalty (only the 4th of 30 in his career) and at times commanded his 6 yard box well. Pulled off a couple of good saves when HBS were pressing for a third goal. I’ll discuss his alter ego a little later!

The 2 (very) young full-backs had a torrid time of it but they never hid or let their heads go down – that’s a real positive for me: both have tremendous character. Both involved in the HBS goals (for all the wrong reasons) but kept plugging away. Both were fairly effective in an attacking sense, but both will have much better nights defensively; Saidy Janko won’t have any worse. Great touch by the Captain to pull young Janko up off the ground after the game and congratulate him!

What didn’t go so well?CqkwwCtWIAAC8MF

Quite a lot actually.  Overall, it was a poor performance against a competent but average team.  We showed that by scoring 5 against them last week.  None of our team ‘units’ performed well together: defence, midfield or attack.  Let’s start at the back.

Craig Gordon is undoubtedly a first-class shot-stopper, of that there is no doubt.  However, I wouldn’t say that, overall, he isn’t a great keeper.  Shot-stopping is only part of the game; he needs to command his area; he needs to marshal his team at set pieces; he needs to continually communicate with the 3 or 4 in front of him; he needs to come for a ball and CLEAN OUT anything and everything in front of him; he needs to instill confidence.

In my opinion, he doesn’t do any of that. Although not 100% to blame last night, he was culpable at both goals, particularly the second. For the first goal he didn’t move his feet quickly enough to get over and down for the ball; I expect our keeper to be saving headers like that! For the second goal he should have let everyone know it was his ball. When he came for it, he was a couple of seconds too late. He should have reacted quicker and smothered the ball into his chest, not hold it out in front of him; Saidy Janko and their attacker should have felt Gordon hammering into them as he covered the area in front of him.  That’s a perennial weakness in his game; that and his inability to distribute the ball. Time and time again he punted the ball long last night and we lost possession. That’s why the Manager has brought in big Doris! I think we will see him on Saturday.Cqk1Z-nWgAMDqQu

The full backs had, as I said earlier, a torrid time. Kieran Tierney coped better but his positioning on a few occasions was suspect and he was caught in 2 minds at the first goal.  WGS explained what he SHOULD have been doing but he didn’t execute it well.  He’s young and still learning the game and will be much the wiser for that experience.

Saidy Janko had a night to forget, but I feel he was left exposed by James Forrest in front of him and Mikale Lustig to his left.  He was too often caught with 2 players to cover and didn’t cope well with it. He gave away a penalty (although it was clearly outside the box) and the howler between him and Gordon at the goal was awful. BUT he kept going and never shirked responsibility.

Unlike others I though Mikael Lustig was a poor shadow of himself last night. I watched some key incidents again and feel he was culpable in all of them as well. For the penalty incident, he was pulled out of position and caught out far too easily with a turn. That left Janko coming in on the wrong side to make a challenge. Lustig’s experience should mean he doesn’t get caught out so easily.

For the first goal, he is marking no one and is stood on his own just at the edge of the 6 yard box.  If he is covering that area he should be pushing Tierney back on the post. If not he should be picking up in the box and cutting out the cross balls. Quite simply, he was caught ball watching.

At the second goal he was too busy grappling with their player when he could have taken control to head clear or take a step back to screen the keeper. Again, someone with his experience I expect to do better. He never looked comfortable all night and apart from a few clearances when we went 3 at the back he was pretty much anonymous. This had a direct impact on the young right back who had no cover when he could have expected some help from the experienced player inside – pretty much the way Toure helped Tierney throughout the game.img_2228.jpg

The midfield 3 were poor.  Brown is a different player when Bitton is alongside him and not in a good way!  The chemistry just doesn’t work with them. Individually, both are great but together they seem to bring out each other’s weakness. Poor positioning; poor passing; not pressing quickly enough; no forward momentum; not covering enough ground; not screening the opposition midfield runners. I expect them to impose themselves and dominate the game; neither did so last night.

Calum McGregor was very poor last night. Didn’t have a clue and was lost at this level. He will do OK in the SPL but try as I might; I cannot see any positives from his display last night. Now surplus to requirements I think; Liam Henderson will, in my opinion, perform better in that role.

Leigh Griffiths had a poor night.  Much of that was down to lack of service but he just didn’t seem to get into the game or cause their backline any real problem. He has been outstanding for us so I will put that down to a bad day at the office.

James Forrest had such a poor, anonymous performance that I almost forgot to mention him. That’s how bad he was. Never gave Janko any cover or assistance; couldn’t hold onto the ball and didn’t create anything. That was his wake-up call last night. The wrong time to turn in that performance with Roberts now available. I don’t expect to see him on Saturday.

Mitigating factors

The heat and humidity wouldn’t have helped last night and I don’t expect we will have to play in those conditions again this season. Hapoel Be’er Shiva played well last night and came at us strongly so we have to give them a wee bit of credit for that; and the ref didn’t do us any favours. He was too keen to penalise our centre backs when they attacked the ball and his decision for the penalty was very poor. But that’s not an excuse. We need to overcome these issues

So what do we need?

Definitely a solid midfielder to help Scott Brown; someone with drive and experience who will bring what Paul Lambert used to bring. I thought Nir Bitton may have been able to do that, but he doesn’t turn up often enough and he just doesn’t seem able to play alongside Scott Brown. Whoever he brings in will need to make a big difference; too often the midfield gets brushed aside leaving the defence exposed. That needs to be fixed.

We need a right back, not as cover but as someone who can come in and play.  Mikael Lustig looks as if this is a season too far from him.  Someone who can come in and work in a flat back four or who will be comfortable as a wing-back in a 5 man midfield.  We will then have Janko and Ralston as suitable cover.

We have very good attackers in Griffiths, Dembele, Sinclair, Roberts and Forrest. What we don’t have is someone who is an out-ball up front on his own; someone who, away from home, will collect the ball, hold it up and allow our midfielders and wide players to get forward and support him. Sutton, Hartson and Samaras all did that successfully for us in Europe and I think we need someone similar now.

Who’s for the off?

I think it’s pretty evident that Stefan Johansen doesn’t feature in the Manager’s plans so I reckon he is on the way out. Mikael Lustig has been a good servant but he should be considered for sale if we can get an offer in. Armstrong, Mackay-Steven and Ciftci haven’t worked and should go. Although he’s one of us, Emilio is surplus to requirements and looks bound for the exit if the right deal comes along. Commons, although injured, hasn’t, and I don’t think will, feature in Rodgers’ plans. If we can get enough cover in the midfield I would let McGregor go.  I think last night showed his true level and it’s not Champions League.  The jury is still out on Bitton. I said previously that he is an enigma and I still think that’s the case. He has the ability to become a great player and should be the answer to our midfield problems but for some reason he hasn’t shown enough yet. A maybe!

So where do we go from here?

That’s easy – straight into Pot 4 for the Group Stage draw on Friday; top of the SPL by the 10th of September, if not before.  Semi-final of the League Cup.  Onwards and upwards.

It was a poor performance last night but we are where we are ON MERIT.  We are a Champions League Club and we deserve it.  We have the money and the manager to take us to the next level; the rest of this transfer window and the one in January will continue the re-building of the team.

We are in much better shape than we have been for a good number of years and we can only improve.  It’s great to be a Celtic fan.

Cue Zadok the Priest …

Written by VFR800 for CQN.

*That Season in Paradise – Ten Months of Celtic Heaven is the new book from CQN, available now. You can re-live every kick of the ball during season 66-67 and  a little about South America too…available from www.cqnbookstore.com now. You will love it!

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