Celtic: Van Dijk Looks Class But Signing A Striker Is Crucial & Lennon Might've Peaked
What’s going right?
The league is going as well as could have been imagined. After struggling for domestic form in the early stages of last season, Celtic are unbeaten in the first half this time round, at the time of writing at least. Neil Lennon’s men look stuck on to win the inaugural Scottish Premiership. Of course, the expectation would have been for no less, but now there are a few quiet whispers that the Hoops might just go the whole league season unbeaten. Nobody wants to say it out loud of course, but in an era where the team get very little credit for domestic success, a blemish-free league run would be a good way of adding value. There, I said it. Of course, by the time you read this we’ll probably have been cuffed 3-0 by St Johnstone and I’ll look a total gimp. That’s football.
After last season’s over-achievement, it’s been back to earth with a bump in Europe. Celtic found themselves in the group of death, also dubbed the ‘group of nobility’ and the ‘group of champions:’ the first group ever to consist entirely of former European Cup Winners. Qualification always looked a forlorn hope, but failure even to parachute into the Europa League and the embarrassment of only scoring in two of the six fixtures, and shipping six goals at Camp Nou has been a morale-sapping exercise. Hopefully it has also been a reality check for the board of directors, whose ‘buy low, sell high’ transfer policy has been fruitful in the recent past but may now have taken us as far as we can go. The other black mark on this season was the humiliating League Cup exit at home to Morton. That competition in itself is about as meaningful as who came eighth in the X-Factor, but surprisingly few Celtic teams have won the domestic treble, and another great opportunity to do so was spurned in the most lack-lustre fashion.
Got the right manager?
A few months can be an eternity in football, and in this case it’s been long enough to see Neil Lennon go from poster-boy to the subject of increasing debate. There’s no doubt that Lennon has achieved a lot – united the fans, in his own words ‘brought the thunder back’ to Celtic Park, filled a couple of shelves in the trophy cabinet, brought in some good players, and taken us on a wonderful European run. And let’s not forget, he racked up his first title in 2012, before the demise of Oldco Rangers, and in that season his side were 7 points clear of the Ibrox men before the points deduction that heralded the beginning of their end. He therefore has the essential qualification of having bested Rangers. The man is still loved by the supporters, and very few are cursing his name – there’s just a gradually growing sense that he may have done all he can do with this Celtic team. Maybe it’s a knee-jerk response to the European disappointment, and maybe a convincing league season and some interesting signings in January will reignite the fans’ faith in Lenny. Then again, maybe the disaffected voices are right – maybe he’s achieved all he can in the current setup. His tactics and team selections in the Champions League have baffled at times and he does seem to have blind spots where some areas of the team are concerned. His history as manager is a strange one – he has presided over some of the best, but equally some of the worst, results in the club’s history. Whether he’s now closer to the end of his tenure than the beginning remains to be seen, but you get the feeling that when the time comes, he’ll be the first to realise it and act accordingly – and he will leave with his reputation intact.
The whole ethos of this Celtic team is that there are no stars. There are a number of good players, but their successes and failures have been together as a team. Goalkeeper Fraser Forster’s star still shines brightly, though. Although he hasn’t matched the consistency of last season, he’s pulled out the stops in the high-profile games, finally earned a start for England, and his name has been linked with a host of big clubs. Given Celtic’s business model, he’ll doubtless be heading for pastures new sooner rather than later. The creative players have struggled this season, with goals and penetration in the final third hard to come by against stronger opposition. In fact, the men behind them have rightly been getting most of the plaudits – Mikael Lustig continued to impress until his recent injury, while new boy Virgil Van Dijk looks a class act at centre-half.
Who would you like to sell in January?
A few players haven’t stepped up to the plate this season. It’d be harsh for heads to roll now, but there are a number who need to prove themselves all over again if they want to hang around much longer. Emilio Izaguirre has never been the same player since his return from a long injury lay-off. He shows his ability in flashes but not nearly enough. Exactly the same could be said of Beram Kayal. Kayal’s is a difficult situation since there are a handful of similar players in the engine room and there just isn’t enough room for him, Scott Brown, Joe Ledley, Nir Biton and Charlie Mulgrew, who also hasn’t exerted his authority the way he did last season. There’s no need to show anyone the door right now, but there are a few pairs of socks that need pulling up sharpish.
Who do you want to sign?
This is always a futile exercise with Celtic, since we rarely sign players anyone’s ever heard of. There are obvious holes that need filling, though. Gary Hooper in particular has not been adequately replaced and the current forward line doesn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Neil Lennon brought in two strikers, Amido Balde and Teemo Pukki, but both look far from the finished article. What would fans rather see - two strikers worth a combined £4 million on the bench, or a £4 million pound striker on the pitch? Seems an easy one to me ...
Best chant so far?
Greek striker Georgios Samaras’ shampoo-endorsing activities in his homeland have not gone un-noticed by the fans, as illustrated by the following chant. Now this might sound like “Sammi, Sammi, dum de dum de dum,” to any untrained ears in the stadium but in fact it goes like this (to the tune of My Old Man’s A Dustman):
Sammi Sammi, he floats like a gazelle,
And like the lovely Cheryl Cole, he uses L’Oreal
He’s definitely worth it, with hair that’s long and fine,
Georgios Samaras, Celtic’s number 9.
[Disclaimer]: It was actually Head & Shoulders he advertised, but he’ll doubtless be happy enough to be upgraded.
Best opposition player/team you’ve seen?
It’d be too obvious to say Barcelona, so let’s consider domestic opposition. Though Terry Butcher has gathered a lot of acclaim (and a new job at Hibs) for his work with Inverness, it’s Dundee United who look the most transformed side in the league. Managed by former Celtic skipper Jackie McNamara, they’ve surged up the table and played extremely well at Celtic Park in November, with only a last-minute Mulgrew strike denying them the three points. No surprise that the eye-catching players of the season come from their ranks, with the likes of Ryan Gauld, Stuart Armstrong and outrageously flamboyant winger Gary Mackay-Steven increasing optimism for the future of Gordon Strachan’s Scotland team.
Biggest **** of the season so far?
I might not make any friends for this, but the spotlight needs to be pointed internally this season, on the handful of headbangers who seem hell-bent on eroding our hard-won reputation as among the best fans in football. Leaving aside the unfortunate events in Amsterdam, where the truth is out there but has yet to be reported adequately by the mainstream media, there has been some unsavoury stuff off the pitch this season. The guys singing the IRA songs; the idiots who threw flares onto the pitch; the morons who smashed the seats at Motherwell. You are damaging the club you claim to love, so this award is for you. I hope you enjoy it.
Funniest Moment of the season so far?
There hasn’t been a whole lot of hilarity round Parkhead way this season, what with getting humped in Europe, beaten up in Amsterdam, and slaughtered in the media, but the funniest moment came in Stiliyan Petrov’s charity game, where the former Celts star’s XI took on a Celtic XI. Yes, it’s that moment folks ... Louis Tomlinson out of One Direction emptying the contents of his stomach on the Celtic Park touchline after a meaty challenge from Villa’s Gabriel Agbonlahor. And we’re allowed to laugh, because he’s alright now.
End of season prediction?
It has to be the double. Europe is gone until next season, and such is the gap at the top of the league that it would take an almighty slump to deny the Bhoys a third consecutive title. The Scottish Cup, then, is the only thing that’s really left to play for. Failure to keep it at Celtic Park would be a hugely anticlimactic end to the season.