Celtic Return To The Scene Of Last Season’s League Triumph A Changed Team
Had I decided to write an article such as this exactly one year ago, all I would have had to discuss would have been a simple title run-in for Neil Lennon’s Celtic, who held an almost insurmountable points lead over their nearest rivals. Less than two months later, the Hoops would seal their third consecutive league title against Partick Thistle at Firhill, but that would be all we would have to celebrate come the end of the 2013-14 season. A disappointing showing in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League (a home victory over Ajax aside), coupled with exits from the League Cup against Morton (sorry to remind you all of that one) and the Scottish Cup to Aberdeen – both of which took place at Celtic Park – meant the campaign as a whole didn’t really meet the hopes and expectations of many Celtic supporters. The subsequent departure of Neil Lennon, now the manager of Bolton Wanderers, then followed less a fortnight after our last match of the season, leaving an air of uncertainty as to what the future could hold at the Club.
And yet, a little over a year on from our Scottish Cup elimination at the hands of the Dons, significant signs of progress can be found at Celtic Park. Under the management of new boss Ronny Deila – the dancing, air-punching extraordinaire – the Celts remain in four competitions at present and will continue to do so until the 26th February at the very least. A League Cup Final against Dundee United will provide us with another opportunity to bring a trophy back to Parkhead which we have not won since 2009, whilst an earlier trip to Tannadice for a Scottish Cup quarter final will allow us a chance not only to progress to the semi-final stage, but also to knock out one of the best sides currently left in this season’s competition.
The Europa League knockout ties against Inter Milan, a team whom we have not faced in competitive football since 1972 – before many of you reading this and I myself writing it were even born – may be cases of hope over expectation, but hope is most certainly alive. Now, that is something nobody would have been saying at the end of July after we had just been embarrassed by Legia Warsaw in Poland. To contextualise my use of the word “embarrassed” previously, allow me to reference history briefly. Celtic’s worst ever competitive defeat came in 1937 at Fir Park – a week after the Hoops had won a gargantuan Scottish Cup Final against Aberdeen – when they slumped to an 8-0 loss to Motherwell.
Of course, I’m aware we only lost 4-1 in Warsaw, but had Legia scored their two penalties and if it wasn’t for some final examples of heroism from Fraser Forster in a Celtic shirt then that unenviable record could genuinely have been under some threat that evening, hence my previous choice of wording.
In recent times however, such has been the level of progression displayed by Celtic, the memories of the aforementioned night in Poland have faded to the back of the minds of many; and with good reason. When one considers the fact that Legia Warsaw averaged one goal scored for every four attempts they had against us during our two encounters (a figure which would have been ever lower had they been more prolific) and yet, over the course of the whole season (taking into account every competitive match we have played so far), our opponents now only manage to score an average of one goal for every eleven attempts they have, it is abundantly clear we are moving in the right direction defensively. After all, should we keep another clean sheet tonight, that’ll be eight consecutive shut-outs, a possibility which would have seemed a very distant one not too long ago.
Of course, whilst the whole team deserves some credit for this, as does the manager, the majority of the credit must go to the defence and the goalkeeper. Starting with the latter, I feel it is safe to say that the signing of Craig Gordon has been a revelation of sorts. I know that I myself, as well as countless others, harboured concerns regarding his potential injury issues as well as his lack of matches in recent years, but Craig has proven all of our worries to be unfounded thus far. He has been sensational, and the fact that we have lost such a talented individual as Fraser Forster without noticing any significant difference in our goalkeeping quality is indicative of that fact.
Returning our focus to the defence, it is not only clear that we look a more solid unit with Jason Denayer starting ahead of Efe Ambrose at centre-back, but also that a stable defence will generally be a more successful than one which is continuously chopped and changed. Throughout the first eight matches of this season, Celtic saw the following nine players start a match in defence: Efe Ambrose (CB & RB); Jason Denayer (CB); Emilio Izaguirre (LB); Mikael Lustig (CB & RB); Adam Matthews (RB); Charlie Mulgew (CB); Eoghan O’Connell (CB); Filip Twardzik (LB) and Virgil van Dijk (CB).
During this period, we kept only three clean sheets – two of which came against K.R. Reykjavik – conceding a total of nine goals in all. Contrast and compare this with our more consistent defensive set-up of the last five matches (which has only seen a regular battle for the right back spot) and again the differences are clear to see.
Equally, the ratio of one goal scored for every fifteen attempts Celtic had against Legia Warsaw now reads as an average of one goal scored for every eight attempts we have against our opponents in all competitions. Early attacking options such as Teemu Pukki and Jo Inge Berget have departed the scene, whilst Callum McGregor has been used a lot more sparingly in recent times, having at one point been one of the squad players with the most minutes played under his belt. The movement forward of Stefan Johansen has allowed Nir Bitton (with his extra “t” this season) to partner captain Scott Brown at the base of the midfield, which has been beneficial to both parties. A quandary still remains with regards a lone striker and those supporting him from the wings, but with Leigh Griffiths making an admirable claim on the striker’s role, and the introductions of Gary Mackay-Steven and Stuart Armstrong bolstering our creative options, these positions may well be nailed down in the coming weeks and months.
Indeed, considering the current unavailability of Mikael Lustig and Kris Commons, this may well be our starting line-up this evening, and in my opinion it has the makings of a pretty strong side.
In closing, whilst I do not wish to sound as if everything has went exactly to plan during Ronny Deila’s tenure at Celtic Park thus far, I do feel we are now on the right track. Yes, there have been some bumps along the road, with poor performances against Legia Warsaw, Maribor, Hamilton and Dundee United to name a few (and there will likely still be bumps to be overcome), but we do appear to be on the right road. Anyone who watches Celtic regularly will have noticed several significant changes in the playing styles of the team under the new manager and his predecessor, with an alternative formation, high intensity pressing off the ball and an increased goalscoring threat posed by our full-backs being three standouts.
With the news today that our home tie with Inter Milan is now officially a sell-out, and an audible buzz around the potential debuts of two talented Scots at Firhill this evening, everyone is in a fine mood. Our new manager appreciates the team’s successes and the backing he receives from the stands, and in turn the Celtic support appreciates him wholeheartedly. The ethos at Celtic Park and Lennoxtown has changed, with ever increasing fitness and work-rates considered as absolutely necessary by Ronny, but as time passes many of the players (as well as the fans) appear to be embracing the new approach.
Everything may not be perfect, but our current state of affairs are undoubtedly better than they were at the start of the season, and that is great to see. I most certainly hope this upward trend continues and the silverware starts to arrive at Celtic Park once again.
As somebody on Twitter phrased it so aptly, “All aboard the Deila Bus.”
Stopping at Firhill, Celtic Park, San Siro, Tannadice, Hampden and beyond.