By LACHIE MOR
Unlike some folk I am a believer in co-incidences. Having been mulling over the notion of a piece for the site for a couple of days, my mind was made up after listening to the BytheminCeltic podcast with Lawrence Donegan and my old sparring partner Remy McSwain. The co-incidence of sorts occurred when Lawrence attempted to take a positive view of where Celtic are as a team, only to be shot down by Remy – he of the half empty glass – whose dismissal of the notion included the damning admonition that Lawrence should write an article for Celtic Underground!
The topic of the podcast concerned last week’s game against Fenerbahce in the Europa League. As is my wont these days I bought the 3 match package for myself and my grandson, and we made our way to Paradise on a beautiful Autumn evening – an evening in which the run through the Southern Uplands was spectacular.
Although, like many, I was disappointed that we could not hold on to the lead against Ajax, if I am honest a point was more than I expected at the start of the evening as Celtic’s form since the last minute against Malmo has been at best uncertain. I think our confidence took a real bashing that night and this is most apparent whenever we are put under pressure, so a point away in Amsterdam was a bonus.
On paper the tie against the Turkish side looked hazardous when the draw was made, but the performance of Molde in winning away upset the apple cart, and no one really seemed to know what to expect last Thursday.
Listening to Remy’s analysis of the game I found myself in agreement with his general synopsis – it was a good game, against decent opponents, and while the result was a disappointment having been 2 goals to the good at one stage, I would have taken a point before the kick-off had it been offered to us.
I thought we started slowly, and at one point only the energy of the captain and the diligence of the defenders kept them at arms length. Biton was an absentee in the early stages as was Johansen, but gradually we worked our way into the match and the big Israeli began to exert some control and to provide better service to the front men. The goal clearly gave us a lift and from then until just before half-time we played as well as I have seen us play since the first half against Malmo.
Like that evening however, after the second goal we seemed to take a step back just before the interval to draw breath and gradually the Turks regained a foothold in a game that had been running away from them.
I said to the wee man that if we defended properly we could win this game. Efe’s mistake was all the more galling in that he had been playing well up that point, but as we now know it transformed the Turks and their onslaught after half time gained them a point that they probably deserved, although it was gratifying to see us regain a semblance of control in the latter stages having been thoroughly mauled for the best part of 20 minutes.
What prompted this musing however was Remy’s contention that we are not a better team than we were under Neil Lennon towards the end of his reign, or that the football is not as good as his teams played.
I could not disagree more.
I think the football we are playing under Ronny when we get it right is exciting, attractive to watch and is closer to how I see the Celtic way as Neil’s team played towards the end of his reign.
The team is by no means the finished article, and too often in games we have periods of mediocrity and defensive chaos where unforced errors put us in harms way, but when we get it right we are a potent force, by some distance the best team in the country and clearly a match for Europa league opponents. The problem there however, lies in the fact that when our standards drop, either as a unit or as individuals, we will be punished severely.
Much has been made of the passing of Virgil, but it should be noted that he played in the games against Malmo and was not entirely innocent of the general defensive incompetence which cost us the tie, so let us wish him well and get on with life without him.
We don’t yet know how good Jozo is and others such as Blackett, Janko and even Boyata have until recently been playing reserve football so playing for Celtic is a step up for them. They may have been with big clubs, but they were not regular first team players and much of f this is a new experience. Van Dyke and Denayer took time to gel as a unit and we should cut these boys some slack.
We have good forward and mid-field players although clearly the absence of a potent goalscorer other than Lee Griffiths is a concern. Many have already written Ciftci off but I am prepared to give him time. I know many may regard the opinion of Jackie McNamara as having no merit, but when he had Stuart Armstrong and GMS in his team he said that Ciftci was the ‘the best player in the country’. While that may well have been – indeed was -an exaggeration – the player must have some merit and clearly Ronny thought so when we bought him.
I found Remy’s views on Stefan Johansen interesting, and clearly something is troubling the player of the year, but while he was far from his best last week, I felt a degree of sympathy for him especially after I watched the game again on Celtic T.V.
Several times he tried to close down the Fenerbahce central defenders, pointing out as he did so to Commons that the next ball was to the left back, urging him to be as diligent in pressing the opposition. On every occasion Kris waited until the pass was made before reacting and they played their way out of trouble.
The Norwegian’s frustration was apparent for all to see. Had our rotund talisman been as pro-active as Stefan the defenders would have been much less assured in their play.
On the way home I heard a discussion on Sportsound where Murdo Mc|Leod was comparing Commons to Diego – who to my mind turned the game when he was introduced. Murdo was bemoaning the fact that Commons lacked Diego’s mobility, only for Willie Miller to observe that had he those attributes he would not be playing in Scotland.
And that’s the rub. When it comes to Europe we are playing with flawed material. We either have established players who have certain limitations, or undeveloped youngsters who will, if they fulfil their potential, move on to richer pastures when the time is right.
I like the strategy we have shown of buying young Scottish players like Stuart Armstrong, Gary Mackay-Steven, Scott Allan and Ryan Christie – clearly Ronny is looking at the next phase of how the team can/will grow and I believe that he is on the right track.
For the present, hopefully the defence will gel as the players get to know the system and each other better, but I remain confident that Ronny’s blueprint is the right one for Celtic in these times and we will be able to look forward to better times both at home and in Europe.