Armenia 1—4 Scotland

Good news—we don’t have to watch Scotland until September. Stand-out player, Stuart Armstrong scores a first-half double to give Scotland a first-half lead after a shaky start. Three minutes before half-time Hovhannisyan got two yellows and therefore a red and was sent off for a shocking tackle and sticking the head on John McGinn. Just before the end of the match, David Turnbull—a long term victim of injury—was assaulted by Kamo Hovanisyan. Another red card, but the game was petering out.  It was the kind of break Scotland needed after a disastrous start in which the back three looked like it had been selected from a pub team (no jokes about me playing for pub teams). Scotland lost a goal after four minutes and it could have been more, with balls over the top and any kind of set play causing chaos.

The referee had already rejected a claim for a foul by McGregor on the edge of the Armenian box, when a simple pass forward had Grant Hanley falling on the ball and falling over, hoping for a foul. He didn’t get it. Barseghyan made a simple pass across the six-yard box for Bichakhchyan to knock the ball past Gordon on the sixth minute.

Scotland’s equaliser came eight minutes later. Che Adams hadn’t scored a goal for club or country in sixteen matches. It showed here. He tried a spectacular overhead kick. The ball landed perfectly for Armstrong who stroked it home.

Jack Hendry, who had another horror show after getting bullied in Dublin, somehow got his foot to a ball Barseghyan is just about to pass into the net after rounding Gordon. Another simple over the top ball catches out the Scotland defence. That would have put Armenia ahead after twenty minutes.

Then the Armenians had the ball in the net, but VAR ruled it offside.

Patterson had a swipe at ball at the back post, missing a good chance. The Everton reserve player perhaps wasn’t expecting the ball. After missing so many games he probably wondered what a ball was.  

The game changing moment was the sending off. With three minutes added time in the first-half, Armstrong twisted the knife with a cracker of a goal and made sure Armenia were chasing the game. His first touch took him away from his marker inside the box. His next touch set him up. He fell over but picked out the bottom corner of the net.

As you’d expect, Scotland with an extra man started on the front foot and largely controlled the game. The back three, none of whom got pass marks, where no longer under the same pressure.  

Midfielder, Gilmour, for example, at last finding space and playing in Adams. But it was captain, John McGinn, who got our third. A great take from the Clydebank man, after missing a couple of good chances in the last few matches. Taylor flung in a deep cross that missed everyone, but Patterson on the other wing. He headed back across goal. McGinn took a touch to steady himself and fired home. Ten minutes into the second half and it’s game over for Armenia.   

Three minutes later, Che Adams puts it beyond doubt and it was just a matter of how many for Scotland. The Southampton striker showed strength and guile to take a pass from his Southampton teammate. He could have played Armstrong back in, but held off his marker to fire home. He stung the keeper’s hands with another shot and made a block in the Scotland box, before he was taken off.

Scotland made substitutes as the match became like a training exercise, in which they could and perhaps should have scored more. But Craig Gordon also had to make a few saves.  A double header against Ukraine in our next two matches. Things can change quickly as Ukraine know more than most, but the Eastern Europeans, who play every tie away, look too good for the mixture of average and awful teams in their group. That includes Scotland. I don’t expect Ukraine to lose any of these ties.   

Scotland 1—3 Ukraine.

Scotland last played in the World Cup in France, 1998. The qualification campaign wasn’t a matter of life and death. It was just a game of football, which Ukraine won quite comfortably. They play Wales on Sunday to decide who goes to Qatar in November.  When there’s no football on Scotland are playing. Lyndon Dykes elbows Stepanenko on the back of the head as they go for a punted high ball, and gets a booking, sums up the first-half. Dykes doesn’t come out for the second half, which was no great loss. Ryan Christie coming on was no great gain. Only our goalkeeper got pass marks.  

Scotland played back to front, looking for knockdowns from Dykes or his strike partner, Che Adams. Ukraine went backwards to come forward and dominated possession, looking the far slicker of the two teams with one-touch football. Midway through the half, statistically, each team had four chances. An early Grant Hanley header which sailed over the bar was the pick, the other efforts troubling neither the keeper nor the Ukrainian defence.

 Georgi Bushchan, the Ukrainian keeper, was the weak link in a better drilled and better team. Ironically, he helped create two chances for Scotland, hitting the ball off McGregor and dropping a ball on John McGinnn’s head. Both in the second-half with Ukraine leading 2—0. Neither effort went into the net.  

Craig Gordon, in comparison, was easily Scotland’s man of the match. Eight minutes in and he saved a howitzer from Tsygankov from the edge of the box and tips it over. Nine minutes later he makes an even better save. Yarmolenko, from the penalty spot, escapes his marker and has got to score. Gordon’s reaction save keeps it out and he gets down to smother it. A minute later, Zinchenko gets past McTominay too easily. He plays in Tsygankov, but Gordon comes out to block and divert the ball for a corner. The Scottish defence doesn’t clear the corner but the ball is fizzed over the top of the bar.

Ukraine with almost sixty-percent possession take the lead in 28 minutes and there’s nothing Gordon can do about it. Andriy Yarmolenko gave our back three (or five) the run around. Hanley tried to play him offside, but he got beyond him and dinked the ball over Gordon.

The second-half started with the same pattern. Scotland players couldn’t get near the ball. Yarmolenko dribbles and sets up the second goal in 49 minutes. He cuts back for Karavaev. Yaremchuk towers over debutant Aaron Hickey and guides the ball into the far corner.

 Yarmolenko has a pop at goal in 52 minutes, but Gordon saves. Then he outmuscled Hanley at the corner flag. The Scotland defender falls over looking for a foul, which he doesn’t get.

Yarmolenko then dribbles past a couple of players inside the Scotland box and his cross drifts past the post. Sixty minutes, Cooper makes his mark on Yarmolenko by putting him up in the air. The Ukrainian wants a foul and a booking. He gets a shy.

Billy Gilmour, our central midfielder, passes the ball out wide and out of the park. Scotland’s best chance of getting back into the game proves to be the erratic Ukrainian keeper. He gifts Scotland a goal in 79 minutes making for a nervy ending for the Ukraine team that had been coasting. Substitute, Stuart Armstrong’s cross is partially punched clear by Bushchan, with McTominay challenging the keeper. McGregor’s shot lacks power but somehow the keeper lets it past him but hooks it out, eventually, but too late. The ball had crossed the line.

Scotland had 14 minutes to take the game to extra time. Ukraine creates three good chances where they should have scored, before scoring in the 94th minute. Man of the match, Oleksandr Zinchenko sent substitute Artem Dovbyk clear and he knocked it past Gordon. Game over. Here’s hoping Ukraine win on Sunday. A morale booster. The moral of the story here is you get what you deserve, which is nothing.  If life was that simple.

Manager of the Month, Ange Postecoglou.

Ange Postecoglou wins Manager of the Month award again. If he picks up the same award at the end of April then it’s kerching and £40 million Champions League money guaranteed. The question arises, would you take a draw at Ibrox? Obviously, after say 89 minutes and two goals down and I’d say, aye Ange, go for it, take the draw. But life and fitba doesn’t work out like that.

Last time we were in Govan, Edouard started up front. As we know, he’d scored some great goals against Rangers, but missed some complete sitters. He’s another of those matches. Great to see him, Christie and Ajer leave Paradise. We’d developed a habit of outplaying Rangers and losing—usually to a headed goal from a free kick or corner. Lots have changed, we’ve 5000 defensive coaches, but that remains our major vulnerability, home or away.

Our defence picks itself. Hart, Taylor, Carter-Vickers, Starfelt and Juranovic.  

We’re reminded nine out of ten Glasgow derbies are decided by who scores first. Defend corners and defend free kicks and I think we’ll win. But I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that.

We’ll start on the front foot, Ange’s Plan A is also Plan B. Rangers, despite their European success, don’t defend well. A major boost is that Kyogo is fit. He’ll be on the bench, I’m guessing. Georgios Giakoumakis should start after hitting two hat-tricks in two league games. He’s a poacher in the box.

But it wouldn’t surprise me too much if Ange favours Daizen Maeda. I’m still not convinced with him, but he does the doggies, closing down the opposition and getting in behind, in a Kyogo-lite way. And the Japanese forward scores regularly.

Postecoglou tends to play him, but not always through the middle. He’s featured mostly on the left wing. Jota switching to the right. Abada would therefore drop to the bench. He’s not started the last two games. So my best guess is that’s where he’ll start, but come on for the last thirty minutes.

The midfield carousel is harder to pick. McGregor, our captain, playing in front of the defence. Rogic has been pronounced fit. My guess is he’ll start. Certainly, win, lose or draw, if he doesn’t start, he’ll replace O’Riley.

Reo Hatate had the kind of introduction to the Glasgow derby that harked back to the little known Slovenian, Ľubomír “Lubo” Moravčík. The Japanese midfielder’s form has shaded but he’s a definite maybe (as in the Oasis hit). He works best with Maeda. My guess is Taylor, Hatate, Maeda down the left.

Juranovic, Rogic and the Portuguese wonder boy, Jota on the right. We might see the return of David Turnbull at some point, probably late in the game.

Georgios Giakoumakis to start and score first. Win, win, win.   

Scotland 3—2 Israel

Watching Scotland is a duty, rather than a pleasure. This game was the exception to the general rule that we play Israel every other game and snatch a bore draw. I’ve only ever been to Hampden once for a Scotland game. Needless to say Russia beat us. I remember ex-Scotland manager Craig Levein was in the team. That’s about it. Steve Clarke went against the grain and sent out an attacking Scottish team. Up top, he played Che Adams and Lyndon Dykes.

Lyndon Dykes missed a penalty, just before half-time to level the score at 2—2. It was identical to the penalty he scored against Austria. And anybody that watched that one winced, but we struck lucky in that qualifier.

Ex-Hibernian goalkeeper, Ofir Marciano who has a habit of making penalty saves, will mark that one down as one his granny would have caught.

Scotland were a goal down in the first five minutes. We had started well with long balls into Dykes and Adams, forcing the Israeli defence to sit in. Nir Bitton, six-foot-five, but as much chance of winning a ball in the air against any of these forwards as Julie Andrews climbing every mountain and becoming a nun in The Sound of Music. Austin MacPhee, Scotland’s new attacking coach at free-kicks, corners and throw-ins, had Tierney using a towel to dry the ball before flinging it long into the box. Inexplicably, Dykes, who you’d imagine would want to on the end of these long throw-ins, started taking throw-ins on the other side.  The Celtic defender and makeshift midfielder is good at playing simple balls beyond the Scotland midfield into the strikers.

Nathan Patterson, in for Stephen O’Donnell, was poor in the first-half, and a bit better in the second-half. He kept giving the ball away. And we’re often reminded you get punished at this level.

Solomon robbed him of the ball wide. Ex-Celt Jack Hendry brought down Zahavi twenty yards out.

PSV striker, Zahavi lifted it up and over the wall. Co-commentator, Ally McCoist, rhapsodised about what a wonderful free-kick it was, leaving our keeper, Craig Gordon, with no chance. It was a good goal, but perhaps a better keeper might have saved it.

Scotland’s equaliser was of the Robertson and Tierney variety. Just over thirty minutes gone. They held more than their own down the left, while on the right wing, Patterson and McTominay were slack in possession and turned far too easily. Robertson’s lay off at the edge of the box found John McGinn. He bent it into the top corner. This really was of the keeper having no chance school.

Israel went up the park and regained their lead in the next attack, two minutes later. This was of the Celtic school of defending. Hendry on the wrong side of the attacker. It comes off the Israeli player’s head. Gordon scoops the ball up into the air, which was poor goalkeeping. But equally, several Israeli players are ready to pounce. Dabbur from two-yard can hardly miss and pokes it home.

Scotland’s support deflated with that half-time penalty miss from twelve-yards after Billy Gilmour is brought down inside the box. In the second-half, Scotland dominated the ball, with McGregor, McGinn and Gilmour, in particular, picking the right passes.

Patterson upped his game, but went down far too easily in the Israel box after five minutes looking for another penalty and was lucky not to be booked. McGinn was booked for wiping out Soloman, after Scotland’s go-to man, lost the ball.

On the quarter-hour mark, Tierney whipped a ball into the box. Dykes gets in front of his marker and studs the ball into the net. The referee is quick to give it as a foul and book Dykes. The equaliser is chalked off. One acronym, VAR. He has a look and the goal is given. 2—2 and half-an-hour to go, Scotland in the ascendency. The question being asked by the drunk and sober was can we win it?   Being sober, I doubted it.  

Zahavi, for example, once again got in behind a static defence, only for his goal to be chopped off by VAR. VAR turned out to be our best defender, but having so much of the ball we limited their chances.

Patterson, for example, did what he was brought into the team to do and attacked their defence and got to the bye-line. Adams was waiting for his cut back at the back post. He remained waiting.

Then Dykes, who could easily have had a hat-trick, had one of those balls he’s got to score from. That’s co-commentator, Ally McCoist’s words, not mine. Tierney pinged it in, the QPR strike is above his marker with enough pace from the ball for him to guide it into the net. He headed it straight at Marciano.

John McGinn, who scored a wonder goal, missed what for him would have been even more of a sitter. Ryan Christie, who came on for Adams, picked him out. From ten-yards he can’t find the net.

That looks about it. Six-minutes added time—Fergie time, and he was in attendance, in the stands, giving conspiracy theorist some slack to play with—and Manchester United player McTominay ghosts in at the back post to chest the ball home from a Jack Hendry flick on. I rarely enjoy a Scotland game. The last time Leigh Griffiths scored two late free kicks against England and Celtic keeper, Joe Hart. There was still enough time for England to grab a draw. Here there wasn’t. Great game. Great win. (Whisper it, terrible defending).

Can we beat the Faroes? Can we finish second in this group? Only if we go back to being boring old Scotland and dragging things out to our opponents concede. Safe to say, Dykes will no longer be taking Scotland penalties or Stephen Clarke’s an Englishman. Cue the QPR striker stepping up in our next match? Possibly.

Celtic 2—6 West Ham.

I’d a feeling whoever started today, wouldn’t play on Wednesday against the Danes. Wrong, this is probably the team that will that will start in the Champions League qualifier. Barkas in goal? Let’s just say he made two good saves early in the match. Michail Antonio was first in, five minutes on the clock, and he had a one-on-one with the Celtic dud. He missed it. Antonio is the kind of centre-forward Celtic can only dream about. He’s got the lot. Strong, quick, good in the air, holds the ball up, links play.

Celtic went 1—0 up from a decent McGregor goal from the edge of the box, he robbed Manuel Lanzini and picked his spot bending it around the keeper and into the far post. Antonio, thereafter, destroyed the fragile Celtic defence whenever he made a run in behind. He’d a bit of help from young Murray, who passed the ball to him. For his, and the Hammer’s second, a ball in behind the defence, Antonio beats Barkas  at the left-hand post to give himself a double without breaking sweat. And Soro bundled into Antonio’s back to give West Ham a penalty, which veteran Mark Noble scored from to put West Ham 3—1 up. They’d already missed a few chances. The Londoners in easy street.

The Greek keeper is near faultless in the first-half! But Edouard had his usual miss from five yards from a stunning Christie cross. The Frenchman should have scored. Christie was our best player in the last game, he’s been up there today, again. McGregor doesn’t look out of place. Soro did well. But thank God we’re not playing West Ham in the qualifiers. There second team is so much better than our first.

Former Motherwell keeper, Darren Randolph, a half-time substitute, did a Barkas to bring Celtic back into the game. Liel Abada Abada got in behind the West Ham defence and flung in a cross. With only Ryan Christie in the box it should have been easy for the West Ham defence, but Christie got in front of his marker and the keeper juggled with the ball before helping it into the net, and whipping it out again, but the goal was given. Celtic, in theory, were back in the game with 35 minutes of the second half still to play.

Most of the Celtic first team players were taken off. But another West Ham counter, in behind the Celtic defence, was punished. Pablo Fornals played in Said Benrahm. He held off Murray and dummied Bain to pass the ball into the net. 4—2 and game over, with 25 minutes to go. Clock watching, because it would have been better if the game had ended here. Celtic still being outclassed, but in slow motion as the game as a competitive fixture died. I’d joked with mates that Aberdeen were sure to do worse this year because they no longer played anti-football. Celtic with a porous defence last year, look even worse this season.

Leigh Griffiths got the last 25 minutes. A section of the Celtic support booed his every touch (he didn’t have many, and I was booing at home, he shouldn’t get near a Celtic jersey). Griffiths has given us nothing to cheer about for several seasons. Redemption takes more than taking a decent free kick. But another section of the support did cheer him.

Jarrod Bowen made it five for West Ham, after mercifully, Davie Moyes had taken Antonio off. With thirteen minutes to go Bowen used the pace of a cross to dink the ball past Bain, an exquisite finish. It was just a matter of how many.

Former Celtic reserve player Armstrong Okoflex was booed when he came on (but not as much as Griffiths). Okoflex had the last laugh, scoring the sixth for West Ham. His first shot-cum-cross was blocked, but he kept his composure and bent it past Bain. Only two minutes remaining, so we kept it to six goals conceded.

Outclassed by a far superior team that isn’t, generally, considered to be one of the top clubs in England. Two years ago they were fighting relegation. They finished sixth last year, unlucky not to make the top four. Their signing policy has been faultless (unlike ours which has been flinging money at the wrong players and not signing obvious targets, who, surprise, surprise, turn out to be the real deal with other clubs, see  John McGinn, Aaron Hickey et al.) and that’s why they’re better. Simple. And—they can defend—if you can’t defend in the English Premier League you’re an easy touch, like Celtic were for this friendly against the Hammers (who drew 1—1 with Dundee in a friendly, recently) and for the whole of last season. Get it sorted. The clock is ticking. We can all hear it. The game went just as expected.

Scotland 2—2 Austria

Watching Scotland play is a duty rather than a pleasure. I was brought up in an era when fitba was on the telly you watched it. If Celtic was playing Clydebank at Parkhead I’d go to the game and rush home to see if I was on the telly with the other 17 000 crowd haunting Paradise. I didn’t go very often. Obviously, watching every single game when Scotland played in the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. We beat Brazil and there was that Archie Gemmill goal against Holland when we nearly qualified for the next round. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9hLuv5AlXWE

It was great being on the road with Ally’s army. I didn’t go anywhere, but the idea was a good one. I’ve only been to one Scotland game at Hampden. I was accompanying some adults with Learning Disabilities. They were looking at me and I was looking at them. And I know what they were thinking…

Obviously, I’m a Celtic man. So I gave David Marshall the once over. Celtic flung £5 million at a Greek keeper that couldn’t catch a pound coin if you handed it to him. So signing Marshall on a free transfer takes me back to Hampden with those Learning Disability adults. Marshall made a couple of good saves here. But he was at fault for the first goal.  Grillitsch hit it from about 30 yards.  Marshall palmed it to his right. The six-foot-seven Austrian powerhouse, Kalajdzic, swooped and scored from the rebound in the 55th minute. Kalajdzic had another goal disallowed two minutes later for a push on Tierney. Scotland got lucky there, because there was little contact.

Tierney was Scotland’s best player. Captain Andy Robertson plays in front of him. I don’t think that works. Both are full backs. I think it’s either/or, not both. And Tierney is simply better. Celtic rather that wasting £20 million on duds should have kept him for another season. He’s sorely missed.

On the other side of the defence, we had the Belgian phoenix Jack Henry. Playing Henry allowed Clarke to push McTominay into central midfield. The Manchester United played had not a bad game. Henry in comparison is Mr Potato head, six foot five and he can’t head a ball. He’s not one I want to keep at Celtic. But he’s good enough for Scotland. Strangely, a Scotland team without any of the Champion’s players. We even had my namesake, O’Donnell, playing at right back (I’m better than him, but slower, a lot slower, and can’t take shys). O’Donnell proved his worth by taking the free-kick from which Hanley equalised on the 71st minute.

The Austrian backline played high, the ball scooped in behind. The Austrian keeper, Schlager, had the option of coming for the ball but hung back. Hanley didn’t. Schlager also made a basic goal-keeping mistake on the cusp of half-time. He passed the ball to Lyndon Dykes, perhaps time-wasting, knowing Dykes doesn’t score many goals. But Dykes found Christie and the Celtic forward hit the keeper with it. It’s not been a great season for him either. I’ll miss Christie when he leaves Celtic.

I’ll mention Stuart Armstrong because he also played for Celtic. Scotland are good at draws and the game looked to be petering out to a 1—1. Then a nothing ball was thrown into the box and Kalajdzic from the penalty spot, with the ball slightly behind him, powered it into the net. Marshall had no chance with this one.

I didn’t rate Scotland’s chances. With ten minutes to go it looked like another defeat. Armstrong played his part by going off a substitute. This allowed Celtic stalwart McGregor to come on and John McGinn to push forward and play up front with Adams (an Englishman winning his first cap for Scotland).

Kalajdzic’s goal was a beauty. But John McGinn’s was even better. You may remember that Celtic let McGinn go to Aston Villa. And he’s a Celtic die-hard, his grandfather player with Celtic. And I played with his McGinn’s uncle, Johnny Gibbons, in the school team. (I may have peaked too early here). Gibbons’ sister and McGinn’s mother played in the netball team. Some thought that’s where I belonged. The goal McGinn scored was probably offside, but even Scotland needs a bit of luck. Another bog-standard cross into the box. It wasn’t very high. McGinn did an overhead kick and it soared into the corner. The kind of winning goal that you dreamed about when playing school fitba—even though it wasn’t the winning goal. Scotland had to hang on for a draw. I wonder what the odds are for Steve Clarke being the next Celtic manager?

Clarke brought on ex-Rangers player McLean to run about for thirty seconds, which was an improvement on bringing on McBurnie. Next up Israel (again). We play them every second game. That’ll give me a chance to sympathise with El Hamad for not being good enough for Celtic. And to call for Bitton to be give a free transfer. He’s nearly as bad as Henry. If I’ve missed mentioning any Celtic player let me know (James Forrest doesn’t count. And we all know where Griffiths is at, but whose box he’s in is anybody’s guess).