For Celtic, summertime business is every bit as important as the more traditional cup finals and league deciders held later in the season. We face qualifers for Champions League or Europa League group stage, which define our financial health and desirability as a potential employer.
The most important achievement was recorded on Wednesday when we qualified for the Champions League, but now we’re there, how prepared will we be?
Seven players left the squad, Daryl Murphy, who had already spent two years out on loan, Thomas Rogne and Paddy McCourt, who rarely saw first team action last season, and Tony Watt, who seems to be less effective than he was in the opening weeks of last season, and is now out on loan.
More importantly, Gary Hooper, Kevlin Wilson and Victor Wanyama all left, three players who were instrumental in our European victories last season.
Hooper is a textbook big game player who scored home and away against Spartak Moscow but he missed the home win over Barcelona and scarcely got a sniff of the ball home and away to Benfica, or in the Camp Nou, where his role as a penalty box poacher was less effective.
Kelvin Wilson had a disappointing first season at Celtic but as last season progressed there was a noticeable rise in appreciation of his talents. He had an exemplary Champions League campaign.
Victor Wanyama was the most effective central midfield player Celtic have had for some considerable time. We saw little of Roy Keane at Celtic but in Wanyama, you could see a player with the potential to go as far in the game. He is young and still has lots to add to his game, concentration, for a start, but we saw him grow from a place on the substitutes’ bench to a £12m player in 18 months.
It surprised a few that Victor (along with Gary) went to a team often found at the wrong end of England’s top flight, but he is still potential. The acclaim he received at Celtic is similar to that bestowed on Liam Miller nine years ago, whose Champions League performances were breath-taking. I still can’t fathom what happened to Miller but I hope Victor continues to improve; if he does, he could appear in the Camp Nou as a home player.
21-year-old Israeli central midfielder Nir Biton looks like a straight replacement for Wanyama. I don’t know enough about any of the new recruits yet to put my name to them but on paper, Nir works. At 6’5” he continues our current tradition of signing players born to shoot hoops, as well as wear them. A trial at Manchester City fell apart amid a diplomatic incident involving his nationality. He was going to make a move to a Champions League team at some point and, for the player, Celtic will look like an excellent option.
There was a moment during THAT game at Fir Park in 2005 when Craig Bellamy tore up the turf with the ball before looking up for someone to accept his cross, only to throw his arms up in frustration that there was no one in the box. Having one fast player is just not effective.
We’ve had pace-merchant James Forrest for a few years but we don’t play a speed-based game to suit his talents. With fellow-sprinter Derk Boerrigter also in the team now one of the things I know Celtic were looking for in a striker was pace, which is what I expect to see from Teemu Pukki.
Much of our Champions League game will be about playing counter-attacking football so we have to recruit for this model.
Teemu has been playing a supporting role for Schalke since they played against him, then signed him, from HJK Helsinki two years ago, but we have not had a striker who could claim a regular starting place in that company in nine years. He is another one who, on paper, works for me.
Amido Balde has been given some protection from too much responsibility and exposure to allow him to settle into the club, city and language, Celtic is a lot different from Vitoria Guimaraes. I heard that, like Wanyama during his first season, he’ll be allowed to settle into life as a Celtic player.
Virgil van Dijk was simply delicious against Dundee United yesterday. He has height, build, speed, can run with the ball and can pass. Build a defence around him. Steven Mouyokolo is one of those gambles managers like to take on players, who were once lauded but have had injury or other blemishes on their record. Most don’t work but we’ll soon find out if Steven has overcome his injury problems.
Derk Boerrigter has skill and pace. He is another one recruited with Champions League football in mind (not to face 10 defenders in the SP), a competition he has already performed well in for Ajax.
The comment was made to me that the players coming in were uninspiring compared to the three key players who left but while I could contest that, there doesn’t seem much point. We recruited Hooper and Wilson from the lower leagues in England, and Wanyama as a teenager from a small Belgian club. It’s not what you know about a player when he signs that counts……..
For years we have been encouraging Celtic to scout better markets and find value. They have been doing this to great effect in recent seasons. The gap between where we were last season and one stage further in the Champions League was enormous. To bridge it will take a while during which time we need to make every pound work.
Enjoy the ride.
Tomorrow we’ll talk money. In short, while I blogged a couple of weeks ago illustrating the circa £17m operational gap we have before Champions League or player trading income (i.e. we are not a rich club), notions that we are anywhere near being a poor club is laughable.
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