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).  

Ten-in-a-row? Nah.

Celtic play a double-header, home and away, against Livingston. Must-win games. Jim Leishman reminded us that the last time Livingston won at Parkhead some of his player were on £175 a week. Celtic’s stand-in captain, Calum McGregor comes out with the usual stuff about, ‘Don’t stop believing’. Does anyone believe this stuff?

The league is gone. Ten-in-a-row gone. Even the dog’s chance we had of winning went when we lost at Ibrox.  The Scottish Cup is our only chance of silverware this season. We’ve gone from a team whose fans used to (ironically) cheer when a Rangers’ player got a touch of a ball, or laugh when their so called thirty-million-pound frontman, Alfredo Morelos, missed another sitter—to the team that has went backwards and blew it.

Rangers have come back from the dead. Media savvy men told them not to focus on preventing ten in a row, which reflected back on Celtic’s accomplishments, but to shift the focus on #going-for-55. That’s why we hear that drumbeat now.

When Neil Lennon had his first spell in charge, Charlie Adams, who was shipped off to Blackpool because Rangers thought he was a dud (and they might have been right) was asked about Celtic’s achievements. His reply was they should have won more trebles stuck with me. It wasn’t often I agreed with Charlie Adams. But after four quadruple trebles, the answer now speaks for itself.

And it’s not often I agree with Ally McCoist.  Super Ally in a spat with a pundit that Nir Bitton shouldn’t have had a red card and that Morelos wouldn’t have scored—give his track record against Celtic in the previous fourteen Old Firm games. But Ally’s one-liner killed the argument; he’s never played against Barkas. The Celtic keeper may not turn out to be a dud, but to me he looks like the scouting system plucked him from the same money-tree as Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo

Celtic are in a classic destructive cycle in which everything the club, directors and players do goes wrong. Rangers are in a virtuous cycle. Both won’t last.

I don’t look with envy at the Ibrox players. We can play the usual game of who would you take from their team? Their goalie, obviously, but after that nobody springs to mind. But our Celtic team has regressed, while their team has gotten better. In the game at Ibrox, we played them off the park in the way they did to us at Hampden when we won the League Cup, the difference that day was we had a goalkeeper that made saves in Fraser Forster.

If the league was called now, as it was called last year, Rangers would be champions. I don’t like it, but I’d accept that. We blew it.

The question now is when Lennon should go? There was a case for sacking him at the beginning of December, but bringing in a new manager would symbolically suggest we were in deep trouble. The Celtic support pay Peter Lawwell well over a million quid a year to act as Dermot Desmond’s  go to ‘Yes man’. Lennon was their man. Lawwell is a politician and politicians don’t like to admit they make mistakes. We don’t get a vote on this. The biscuit tin mentality referred to a time when Celtic directors like the White’s quietly dipped into the profits of the first nine-in-a-row team to pay for their lifestyle. We didn’t get a vote then either. Nine flags that flew over the old main stand weren’t there the following season.  

Dermot Desmond is part of the Irish mafia that cashed in his chips at the right time at Manchester United, took his profit and invested in Celtic. It’s his club. Lawwell is his man. Lennon is their manager. But he won’t be here next season. Many of our player will also be sold or out of contract. I’d sell Edouard now, cash in. Other players that are looking to leave should be shown the door, such as Ajer and Ntcham.

Roughly, seventy-percent of our income is based on supporters turning up on match days. Around ninety-percent of Rangers’ income. As league champions next year their players will demand to be paid more. They’ll be sucked into the same downward spiral as Celtic, paying an increasingly high wage bill, with a largely fixed income stream. We all know about their massive debts and hush-hush loans that need to be paid back. But as of now, they are a going concern, and we should be concerned. Champions’ League cash of around £30 million if they qualify for the groups stages puts them on par with us. That’s the golden ticket that’s eluded us the last few years. Indication of our decline, the Dermott Desmond’s of this world chose to ignore. Football is a hard business, Lennon should go now. It would make the transition to one-in-row easier. The only consolation is when Rangers do win it, they’ll be screaming into a void. With lockdown, like our quadruple winning team, we’ll quickly move on to something else. Let’s hope we do have a plan for next year. Celtic are literally taking money from fans for next to nothing and promises of change. That’s a business model that is sure to fail.

Hamilton 0—3 Celtic

Hamilton 0—3 Celtic.

Celtic start with Griffiths and Edouard up front. Turnball and Soro keep their place in the team, as does Conor Hazard. The debate goes on to whether Soro will play at Ibrox, or Lennon will bring in Scott Brown. My guess is Brown will play at Ibrox and Soro against United. I can’t say the young keeper has impressed, but that tells you all you need to know about our goal-keeping reserves. Bitton comes in for an injured Jullien and Greg Taylor for Laxalt. We’ve a strong bench, but it’s the players on the pitch that matter. Rangers were nineteen points clear coming into the game. Our chance of ten-in-a-row looks unlikely and hanging by the thinnest thread, even with games in hand. Every game until the end of the season is a must win. We’ve struggled on the plastic pitch in recent seasons and it’s wet and windy, in other words, normal Scottish weather. Neil Lennon settled for a diamond formation in midfield.

Griffiths had a chance after two minutes. Bitton had two headers from corners and almost scored. Frimpong getting the touchline and hanging up for Griffiths again, with fifteen minutes gone. The Celtic striker hit the post. Turnball and  Christie both had speculative shots from outside the box. Celtic, as you’d expect, dominate possession (86% at one point) at the midpoint of the half. Edouard in the 33rd minute weaved into the box and his shot was saved by the Hamilton keeper, Gourlay. After 47 minutes Edouard’s magic feet allowed him once more to get a shot away. But he didn’t score. Hamilton, with a decimated squad, offered little in attack. Celtic’s track record of losing every kind of goal from corners and free kicks, in particular, means the home team were still in it.  

Edouard made the difference. Frimmpong, who looks more comfortable at full-back, with space to run into, got to the bye-line and fired in a ball. Edouard’s touch was good and he tried to dink it over Gourlay, but it didn’t go in and the referee awarded a penalty. 1—0 Celtic and that Edouard penalty made a huge difference. Edouard set up the second goal for Griffiths. A side-foot shuffle into Griffith’s path. From the edge of the box, Griffiths slotted it away. We can no longer assume it’s game over, even with a two goal lead. But it was game over. Turnball got his third goal in three games. Again it was Edouard who set it up, hitting the post from a McGregor cut back. Turnball followed in with the rebound.

With twenty minutes to play Lennon could bring on a slew of substitutes. This kinda tells you the pecking order. Adjeti for Griffiths. Griffiths is number 2, to Edouard. Klmala for Edourad (well, that tells us nothing). Johnson for Turnball. You’d expect to see Elyounoussi, our top scorer, coming on before Johnson. And he did, eventually, for Christie. And Elyounoussi was unlucky not to score at the end of the game.

We need to beat Dundee United on Wednesday. Then Rangers at Ibrox on the 2nd January. We’ll still be underdogs, but will have a chance of ten-in-a-row. It was easy today. Our defence didn’t lose a goal, which is unusual this season. Griffiths is certainly sharper. Edouard back to something like his best. Stating the obvious, we need Rangers to lose and us to win. And we need to stop losing daft goals to do that.

Possible picks, Celtic v Rangers

Celtic’s first eleven against Rangers—who’s in and who’s out?

Goalkeeper is an easy pick. Celtic hired a private jet to bring Vasilos Barkas back from a recent international. He was on the bench for Greece. He’s not really done anything that Scott Bain, or Conor Hazard, or you’d expect any other bog standard goalie to do. He’s certainly not won us matches the way—may he rot in reserve-team-football hell, the Southampton keeper we got on loan last season did. Hope we don’t need him, but time for Barkas to step up and be counted.

Another loan player, Shane Duffy, is going to be in the middle of a back three, back four, or indeed a back five. He’s limited when it comes to passing, but in the air he’s colossus. Just what we needed. Capable of getting us a goal.

Kristopher Ajer will play on Duffy’s left-hand flank. Ajer is a far better ball player than Duffy, but for his size, extremely limited in the air. Pre-Covid, if AC Milan were offering £15 million, I’d have taken it. Overrated.

Here’s where it gets interesting. We paid £7 million for Christopher Jullien. He can be elegant and good in the air, but can be bullied, as he was at Livingston and Kilmarnock. His injury coincided with the arrival of Duffy. Duffy is a number one pick. I expected Jullien to slot into the position on the right flank.

But Nir Bitton held that positon and with a few good performances looked like establishing a run in the team. He too got injured. OK, as Celtic supporters, it’s annoying when the injured Bitton pops up starring for Israel against Scotland. He’s not great in the air, but as a former midfielder, unflappable on the ball. No matter, he’s out.

Hatem Abed Elhamed also starred for an Israel team that outplayed Scotland. He also played well when he replaced Bitton in the Celtic team. He’s also out. Also injured.

Unless Neil Lennon plays a wild card, Julien will start. The problem here is with Julien’s tendency to grab at players and with him likely to be up against Ryan Kent, let’s hope the Celtic defender doesn’t give anything stupid away.

No matter what team Lennon puts out, with James Forrest injured, Jeremie Frimgpong will hug the wide-right touchline and sprint back to mark Ryan Kent. Well, he can. He’s did it before with some aplomb. One of the few Celtic player to get pass marks in the Old Firm fixtures in the pre-split Christmas of 2019. He plays with a smile on his face. He makes things happen. But unlike James Forrest he doesn’t score much. There’s still time. Potential match winner.

Greg Taylor is the kind of player Scotland use when they’re playing meaningless fixtures. His best game was Celtic away, in Riga. Most of his other games are bang-average. Not a bad player. Not a great player in the mould of a Tosh McKinley.  I’d have settled for Johnny Hayes.

Lennon’s got a decision to make here. Diego Laxalt, the Uruguayan international on loan from AC Milan, could be thrown in for Greg Taylor. I can’t see it. And I’ve not seen Laxalt, although I can remember him, because of his Henrik-like hair, playing alongside Suarez. Give me a bit of that. Fling him into the mix. Here’s hoping.

It gets a bit boring here. We know Scott Brown and Callum McGregor will start in the central midfield slots.

There is now an outside chance of Ryan Christie starting, but we’ll not dwell on that and say he’s out.

Oliver Ntcham will start in Christie’s place. Terrific and cultured player. Doesn’t want to be at Celtic and has a tendency to disappear during games, but not a bad stand in.

Odsonne Edouard is in quarantine, but unlike Christie, could start. Usually, I’d say, will start. Barry Ferguson, the Ranger’s pundit, rated Edouard in the £35 million bracket. But not on this season’s performances. Lacklustre. Doesn’t look interested. He’s off are a few of the remarks I’ve heard (usually, because it’s me saying it). It’s not really a wild card to play Edouard, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion he’ll be on the bench.

Now it gets difficult to pick one from three to who will play centre-forward. I know it won’t happen, but with no Edouard I’d just go with Leigh Griffiths. We’ll get the usual pish about him not having game time.

That didn’t stop Albian Ajeti putting the ball in the netti and scoring goal a game before he got injured. He’s back too, with the usual stricture, not- match-fit.

Edouard can play with any of these two strikers. Or, if he’s out, Griffiths and Ajeti, pairing.

If we’re going to stuff the midfield and Edourad is out then Partyk Kilma could find himself as lone striker. He’s fed on scraps and came through to score goals. His goal against St Johnstone summed him up. Halved in two, he jumped up, and thumped the ball past the keeper. Kilma is no dud. Ironically, the guys that are half-fit are first picks. Scoring goals can change his prospects. Score against Rangers and it could change his career.

In the absence of Christie the guys that can play in behind the striker (whoever that is) is red hot. Ntcham could be pushed up. And I think that will happen.

Mohammed Elyounoussi playing ahead of Taylor and in behind the striker. He’s on form and scores goals. But I’m not convinced. He disappears.

If we’d got Tom Rogic on loan from Southampton and played him in the same position (as he did under Brendan Rodgers) then I’m sure the Australian internationalist would also have scored goals. He might even start. But don’t put any money on it. It’s the bench and a long wait for Rodgic.

The wildcard here is David Turnbull. The former Motherwell player has looked tidy with the ball, and untidy, giving it away. He takes great free kicks. Has boundless energy and an eye for a goal. He might well replace Christie in the team, in the short and longer term. I’d favour him over Elyounoussi.

Celtic as we all know have won eight games in a row. Don’t be fooled. Unconvincing and wide open at the back. I don’t rate Rangers, but they have shown they could exploit the open space. I expect us to start with one striker and a packed midfield.

Lennon usually plays one wildcard. In this game it will be Diego Laxalt in for Taylor. Celtic will win, if they score first. If not, it’ll be a draw.  

Barkas

Duffy

Ajer

Julien

Brown

McGregor

Ntcham

Frimpong

Laxalt

Elyounoussi

Ajeti

Betfred Cup Final: Celtic 1—0 Rangers

Betfred Cup Final (what we used to call the League Cup Final before the rights were sold for hard cash).

I know how Steven Gerrard must feel. I had two quid on Julien for first goal and lost the bookies line. Going further back than that I remember when Celtic used to play Rangers off the park during the Tommy Burns era, only for Brian Laudrup to gallop up the park and score the winner and the flying pig, Andy Goram, to make save after save. Here we had Fraser Foster save a penalty from Alfredo Morelos in the second half, and a world-class save from Ryan Jack in the first half. He also made a fistful of other top-notch saves. Fraser Foster might well have been Neil Lennon’s best signing.

The strange thing about the aftermath of the final is both mangers can feel quietly pleased. Julien was offside when he scored. Rangers did batter Celtic from the first to the last of the 96th minute. By some margin this was Celtic’s worst performance against Rangers in years. Worse than the 2—0 defeat at Ibrox last year under Rodgers. Worse than the Scottish Cup semi-final defeat at Hampden to a Rangers team playing in the First Division. Craig Gordon, Scott Brown, Nir Biton, and Leigh Griffiths played in that game. Callum McGregor and Tom Rogic came on as subs. I was looking for James Forrest’s name, but it was missing. You’d be hard pushed to have noticed he was playing yesterday.

Neil Lennon brought Forrest into the Celtic team and he’s been a consistent presence since then and in the ten domestic trophies won in the last three seasons.   He’s added goals to his game and managers such as Rodgers were quick to tell us how hard he worked. But we’re not digging up bags of coal. Our eyes don’t deceive us. He was rotten yesterday and not much better in the last home game against Hamilton. But his performance was hidden in a team display that never reached the level of mediocrity. Ironically, the miss of the game was not Morelos from twelve yards of the penalty spot (and yes Forster did move off his line) but Mikey Johnston’s. He was played in by Odsonne Edouard and had a one-on-one with McGregor, but put it by the post. That would have given Celtic a 2—0 lead and game over signs would have flashed around the stadium. And despite Ranger’s defenders missing some good chances to score from corners and free kicks, the biggest miss of the afternoon was Kris Ajer’s free header, six yards out, and all he had to do was score.

I was surprised to hear Lennon praising Ajer. I think he must have had on his James Forrest specs on. At one point he tried to play Morelos offside, got nudged aside by the Ibrox psychopath as he ran down the touchline. We knew what was coming next, because Ajer does at least one of these Inspector Gadget tackles every game. Stick a long leg out and hopes to hit the ball. He didn’t, Morelos was in on goal. Only for Fraser Foster to start laughing at the Columbian striker and put him out of his stride. Morelos should have been sent off for kicking Scott Brown, Julien and any other Celtic player within spitting distance when the ball was at the other end of the park.

Lennon had a big call to make before the game, whether to play Edouard or not. Player power. He let the French man decide. He was on the bench and came on to do everything that Lewis Morgan did not and could not. Connor Goldson is not the best centre half in Scottish football, but having Lewis Morgan as an opponent was like having a day off yesterday. Morgan’s not a centre forward and not even the best winger at Celtic. He’s probably fourth or fifth choice.  Vakoun Issouf Bayo, who does not play as a forward for Celtic because he’s either injured or not good enough (probably the latter) wasn’t fit to fill in for Edouard. Neither was Leigh Griffiths deemed not sharp enough or fit enough for a place on the bench. In contrast, Mohamed Elyounoussi was deemed fit enough to start despite missing a few games, but was subbed at half time when the score was 0—0. To use the argument he wasn’t the worst is to invite comparisons for the race to the bottom and there you’ll meet James Forrest, who’ll outpace you and show you his winner’s medals.

Only three Celtic players deserved to pick up a winner’s medal, because individually all the others lost their battles all over the park. Fraser Forster is the giant in which stand the shadows of Edouard, who came on in the second half to cause the Rangers defence problems and Jeremie Frimpong. Little Pingpong might have been the smallest guy on the pitch, he might have given away a penalty—Julien and Ayer sleeping as Morelos got in behind them and Pingpong was the wrong side of the Rangers’ attacker—but the little full back was Celtic’s best defender and attacker. Apart from Forster, Celtic’s best player full stop. He’s a gem of the Kieran Tierney variety and the right back position that was once so troublesome looks sorted.

I’ll take any kind of win over Rangers, whether it’s darts, ludo or pingpong. Yesterday’s final was the tenth on the trot. A marvellous achievement. We have the luxury of a Europa tie against Cluj that is a practice match for Sunday when we play Hibs. I expect us to win there and for Young Boys to beat Rangers and Motherwell to win at Fir Par against Rangers too. Wins like yesterday give a bit of breathing space, but the next game and the one after that are the only ones that matter. Old glory is no glory. Yesterday’s news. Celtic need a replacement and back up for Edouard. Simple. And if they can’t put their foot on the ball and play football, which they didn’t manage yesterday, then the players shouldn’t be at Celtic. Simple. The pleasing thing about yesterday was the win and not the manner in which we won. Quite simply, we didn’t deserve to, but yesterday’s fixture also knocked about twenty million quid off the over-inflated price tag for Morelos. He was that bad yesterday he should have been wearing the green and white hoops.