Eminently comfortable on opening day against an admittedly poor Hibernian side, Sunday’s performance at Pittodrie was what might more accurately be described as a slight, perhaps timely reality check. The result was no less pleasing but after 75 minutes of genuine toil featuring a clutch of difficult individual performances, all of which threatened to be overshadowed entirely by a bad injury to the talismanic figure of 2011 POTY Emilio Izaguirre, we saw more than enough on show to temper any notions that preventing a hun 4IAR will be anything approaching a formality on account of the problems at Ibrox alone. Not that I would ever suggest that kind of thinking has in recent years held sway amongst those who matter most at Celtic Park. But let’s start with what is most encouraging at this early stage of proceedings, as there are already a number of individuals staking exciting claims for the season ahead.
Ki Seung Yueng made himself talk of the town with a domineering showing capped by a goal on opening day, an immediate reminder of the potentially defining talent of a player who only toward the tail end of last season began to consistently bury memories of his lightweight showings upon first arriving in Glasgow during the ill-fated tenure of Tony Mowbray. In a midfield that has long been recognized as the most resource rich region of the current squad, it is surely no overstatement to suggest that when operating at his peak, the Korean has the technique, vision and killer instinct to outshine the lot.
Anthony Stokes, in delivering two goals in as many games, has played a major role in helping the team lay down an early season marker. One a deft finish underlining his undoubted mercurial streak, the other clinical and made to look routine at a moment when a frustrating overall performance was getting the better of numerous team-mates. Such contributions are worth their weight in gold, yet like Ki, Stokes is not without something to prove at the outset of this term.
I’ll declare an interest here and say Stokes is a player I have a soft spot for. By my reckoning he’s been a vital commodity for Celtic since the moment of his arrival, with far fewer questions to answer than a number of his colleagues. But problems with the player’s temperament have been routinely alleged in recent years, and various off-field escapades, an inability to last the distance with a handful of previous employers and only very recently a run-in with Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni all tend to pour more than enough fuel to keep that particular fire burning. Even after bagging 18 goals having arrived for a paltry £800k last summer, talk of a ‘top quality’ striker to accompany Gary Hooper persisted, along with criticism of Stokes based on his apparent unsuitability for crunch Old Firm games, or others requiring tactical adjustments to the largely favoured 4-4-2 formation. Misgivings which he has yet to dispel beyond doubt, and I am as open to the suggestion as anyone that extra quality could yet be injected up front, however for now it has to be a source of real pride for his manager that the Dubliner has started this season looking every inch the professional, determined to prove how indispensable his talents can be, yet no less keen to earn what starts come his way.
James Forrest is a youngster many of us have high hopes for and after paying his dues last term he may have to continue showing some patience at the beginning of this one, but in what was essentially a pedestrian series of pre-season outings his liveliness when called upon was a conspicuous feature and does not appear to have gone unnoticed by Neil Lennon. Tellingly, it was Forrest nominated from the bench ahead of both Paddy McCourt and the now utterly sorry figure of Sean Maloney as the rescue plan got underway with the game still deadlocked on the hour mark. Unlike in pre-season and an excellent cameo at Easter Road, admittedly we saw a more muted showing from the player at Pittodrie but if it is confirmed now in the manager’s mind that he is the future where top-earners living off their reputation are now firmly the past, then on the evidence of prior failings, that can only be a good thing for the club as we seek to regain the championship.
Then there are the new bhoys to have so far been permitted a taste of competitive football in a Celtic shirt, Kelvin Wilson and Adam Matthews. Both players have done enough to suggest their early bloodings have been fully merited where others, for example the imposing Kenyan Victor Wanyama, may yet have to bide their time. Despite a prolonged period of inactivity prior to arriving Wilson’s inclusion was the more predictable, given the recent history of his position at the club. If he is yet to reach peak fitness, the omens are good, because he certainly hasn’t looked an inch off the pace thus far. Matthews, at only 19, looks a spritely alternative to a player, in Mark Wilson, who, after his best season in a Celtic shirt, will almost certainly have to continue to box clever around recurring fitness issues. The teenager is naturally still rough around the edges, and seemed to tire toward the end in Aberdeen, but at right back, we will have done a power of good in landing a reliable, hungry back-up to the senior option.
Sadly the left back position is now the obvious segue into the challenges still facing the manager in delivering the prize we all seek. Injuries are an utterly predictable feature of any campaign, with the potential to confound the kind of ‘pound for pound’ analysis of comparative strength which ourselves and the hun support so often engage in petty warfare over. But few could have predicted that so soon we’d be contemplating such a key, potentially transformative loss. If the reaction of Neil Lennon to the news of Emilio’s ankle break is anything to go by we can fear the worst – even presuming the best case scenario of an absolutely clean break you would imagine a 3-4 month absence awaits, with the possibility it may be sometime into 2012 even before we see the Honduran making his first strides toward full fitness again. With transfer activity still required to resolve the goalkeeping situation and the majority of fans still hopeful if not necessarily expectant of one more game-changing recruit in central defence or attack, suddenly there is a new, thoroughly unwelcome contingency plan requiring the manager’s full attention.
It has to be said however that in Charlie Mulgrew the club are now in the fortunate position of boasting an excellent utility player. So often a euphemism for something much less complementary about a player’s role, Mulgrew is definitely most exposed in filling the position directly vacated by Izaguirre, but whatever future selection dilemmas may await, the big man with the quick feet can be sure of a decent amount of game time over the course, likely in a clutch of positions in defence and on the left of midfield where, against most SPL opposition at least, he has worked tirelessly to earn the trust of a once skeptical public.
One obvious Achilles heel last season would be our vulnerability to the long ball played directly at our CB pairing by opponents determined, or indeed left with no choice other than to bypass such a bustling and industrious midfield. A particularly key weakness in the environs of the SPL, where so many teams well practiced in the art happily resort to playing the averages with route one football in any event, and one which does not yet appear to have been fully addressed. Again, the addition of Wilson in the heart of defence looks a sound move, as his pace was relied upon in the one close thing Hibs enjoyed employing that same direct approach before rather desperate claims for a penalty when the notoriously quick Ivan Sproule was overhauled by the recovering centre back. Yet Craig Brown was clearly at pains for his Aberdeen players to focus from the off on similar attempts at exposing the Englishman and partner Daniel Majstorovic, whose performance in his debut season can at best be described as stuttering.
Time and again the high ball down the middle was employed by the Dons as weapon of choice. The Swede ultimately survived intact, but was never fully at ease, and enduring another a season’s worth of same, especially in similarly tight games on the road, is not a prospect many will relish. Wilson looked by some distance the more composed of the pairing, the steadying influence or ‘guiding hand’ – something which says it all about his tattooed twin, brought to the club twelve months ago to perform precisely that role in his own right. I’m as convinced as I ever was we can and should do better.
Off the field reports of a concrete move for Polish keeper Grzegorz Sandomierski along with some interesting remarks from Lennon about being “done with trialists for now” perhaps indicate a degree of frustration with the process of seemingly endless tryouts for out-of-sorts veterans and youngsters deemed surplus to requirement at Sparta Prague. That will come as little surprise to many. With three weeks of transfer activity remaining and most European leagues only now joining the SPL clubs in selecting their first meaningful line-ups of the campaign, there is certainly still time to act on that frustration and no real cause for panic. Still there is the firm impression amongst many though that another couple of signings to add to the obvious addition of a keeper, and certainly the arrival of a player of ‘marquee’ status – the teasing is well underway with the latest installment of the traditional yet not less doomed pursuit of Craig Bellamy – will depend almost entirely on our own ability to trim the flab. Like most of life’s excesses, that has been expensively acquired and will take plenty time and effort to shift.
From the Mowbray-era vagrants like Jos Hooiveld and Morten Rasmussen, through the few Lennon signings to have missed the target and arrived instead in the form of Daryl Murphy and the recently loaned-out Efrain Juarez, to wage-munching veterans of WGS’s reign such as the aforementioned Maloney and the Greek enigma Georgios Samaras, at the beginning of this summer you could have just about named an alternative XI including those and others, padded out by sundry one-time projects. Players who, in the main, likely have nothing left to contribute at Celtic or a serious amount of work to do in proving otherwise. Assuming the overall aim is stepping up to that mythical next level, of course. Even the news of a six-week layoff for Glenn Loovens underlined how little depth we’re left with in certain positions even through the absence of a traditional underperformer. With loan moves materializing for Juarez and Niall McGinn, and others such as Murphy still being hawked around in the hope we can locate a buyer under a rock somewhere, room for maneouvre may yet emerge, but working to a deadline, timing is everything, and our plans to bring in talent will almost certainly be hostage to events, both within and outwith the club’s control, from here on out.
Then lastly there is the related issue of holding on to our best players as the same transfer window inches toward its ceremonial slamming shut. Obviously the injury to Izaguirre has for now resolved his particular situation to nobody’s satisfaction. That leaves the other main candidate for outside interest, Beram Kayal, who has slowly gotten up to his best over the course of the opening couple of games. Increasingly Ki now finds himself in this category also, if not having already attracted the same degree of attention as the former two, he is surely likely to in the near future should his form hold up. Even negotiating the summer window is only half the battle as the same show-stopping performances between now and January will only heighten the likelihood of a firm offer finally arriving, perhaps from the middle to upper reaches of the Premiership as various ambitions are re-appraised as the fight for both European places and to avoid relegation from the world’s most lucrative league take full shape.
Hopefully that is all for another day, however in the here and now it seems increasingly likely that captain Scott Brown will put pen to paper on a deal extending his current contract, underlining the management’s long-held intent to make him a future mainstay. It is news to no-one that Broony has divided opinion over the course of his hoops career, but a major uniting factor was his form last season, which drew even long-term cynics such as myself nearer to those who have been adamant all this time we have a real talent on our hands. In an area of the pitch where competition for places is most intense however, I will for now leave it to others to debate just how indispensable the player is, which you would imagine is increasingly becoming the criteria for decision-making when it comes to accommodating our many talents in the team’s engine room – the bar is set higher there than in any other department.
Already this season to perm the best possible combination across limited positions in the middle of the park we are seeing the kind of compromises being forced upon the manager, such as deploying Kris Commons on his weaker right side, where he has thus far been fitful at best (although even at that, not without truly match winning contributions, as his assist to Stokes and burst of life late on versus the Sheep underlined). Ki has stepped up hugely and in Welshman Joe Ledley, underwhelming when shifted wide left in the Granite City, we have an excellent foil in the mould of a previous ‘water carrier’ like Paul Lambert when deployed in his favoured central position. With Brown’s ban now served, barely a week will go by without a pleasing yet no less crucial selection dilemma to resolve. The correct balance could well be a big difference in whether we proceed as a good team or a great one.
And finally, what of our neighbours and, still for the time being, main title rivals? The thought of the huns in those terms prompts both hilarity and despair in equal measure these days as they pursue an improbable fourth title on the bounce whilst the era of The Motherwell Born Billionaire Craig Whyte lurches from one formative crisis to the next. Most recently manifest in their Champions League pre-qualification capitulaton to Malmo, where in a typical Dignity FC showing once the cause is lost, pettiness and borderline violence became the order of the day. Their senior players and newly enriched contract heroes to the fore when it came to temper tantrums, karate chops and missed chances, and their manager now in full-on deer in headlights mode. They appear for all intents and purposes leaderless, rudderless and very much there for the taking. But we have been here before.
The FPLG factor does however seem to have become a major problem for them this early, lacking experience and, in all probability, proper support in the present. The best attempt by the new regime to fill a Walter Smith shaped-hole involves increasingly aggressive PR stunts manufactured by Media House to protect McCoist from himself, and a barely cobbled together Director of Football role for a football pundit whose sole qualification for the role appears to have been finding new ways of embarrassing the SPL during a short-lived populist stab at that gig. Results throughout pre-season and on opening day at home to their wee cousins were poor, now with defeat in Europe they are officially costly. McCoist’s media chums are already waffling in earnest about the early start to the campaign and are now past the point of no return when it comes to admitting defeat on the £15m warchest, chief amongst them the usual suspects Chic Young, James Traynor and Tom English. Try as they might however, the Malmo result arrived just as the David Goodwillie saga concluded with Whyte increasingly unable to hide his true hand from increasingly disgruntled rank and file dignified ones who had been previously content to swallow the hype, a double whammy in the entertainment stakes for the rest of us.
For all the pious rhetoric, ra peepo will never rally around McCoist as he pays his dues the way Celtic supporters did with Neil Lennon, and doubtless as Swally faces far a less testing baptism off the field. And most certainly not if the hate figure from Lurgan opens up any sort of gap at the top of the SPL in the next few months, which could be the cue for apoplexy. Already living up to such quintessentially British traditions as remaining stoic in the face of great peril the first ‘Don’t Blame Me’ headline has been generated atop the marble staircase and mounted in defence of Whyte across the back page of club fanzine the Daily Record, where work is still ongoing to regain their master’s trust after Keith Jackson’s brief trip off the reservation in the off-season. Should such woes persist or indeed multiply, then when all else fails their players will be out to break legs in every derby game and more. That will raise predictably few eyebrows in the media and corridors of power, and anyone anticipating FPLG being routinely referred to as “controversial” or his team as “out of control” should prepare to be disappointed.
Address our own comparatively minor failings and we’ll be in good enough, physical, mental and footballing shape to guarantee the title at a fair canter whilst enjoying to the full a slow and painful hun fallout along the way. Or we could just tip-toe apologetically past them, and take our chances with the kind of bad luck and circumstance which has conspired to undo our efforts routinely in the not-so-distant past. Over to you, Mr Desmond, and gentlemen of the board.