Hibernian 0-4 Celtic: Visitors weather storm to rout Hibs

Kris Commons provided the obligatory opener, but it took 75 minutes for Celtic to truly become comfortable thanks to a sensational Virgil Van Dijk free-kick. Substitute Teemu Pukki added a third while who else but Commons completed the rout from the penalty spot.

Lineups

With James Forrest injured and Anthony Stokes out, Neil Lennon brought in Nir Biton and Georgios Samaras. The shortage of attacking midfielders meant for a narrow 4-3-3 formation, with Commons (as discussed in length last week) leading the line.

both template

Terry Butcher made 4 changes to the side that lost 3-2 to St Mirren recently, with Ryan McGivern, Scott Robertson, Paul Cairney and Jason Cummings missing out. In came Alex Harris, Tom Taiwo, Abdellah Zoubir and Sam Stanton.

Commons people

In atrocious weather conditions, it took just 9 minutes for Commons to open the scoring (for the 12th time this season!). Hibs two centre-backs dealt poorly with a long-ball and it was Commons who was playing off the shoulder, waiting to pounce. His anticipation paid off, slotting past Ben Williams coolly.

Though frequently using 4-4-2-type formations, without options out wide Lennon opted for 4-3-3. Scott Brown immediately stood out as a little bit of a square peg in a round hole – not really able to float in between the lines, thus leaving Samaras and Commons a little short of ammunition.

The result was a little bit of a numerical mismatch – with 4/5 Hibernian midfielders taking on Celtic’s 3. This made it difficult for Celtic to comfortably hold possession in deep areas, forcing them to go long and desperate – and in these conditions that is never a good idea.

Though Hibs grew substantially into the game, they had little to show for it by half-time.

2nd half – weathering the storm

Lennon’s response to Hibs’ growth was to tweak the formation. Biton was removed after a quiet game for Teemu Pukki. Perhaps the main reason was bringing Brown deeper into midfield where he is most effective, and getting another attacker into the front 3.

Mulgrew and Commons also found themselves wider – probably in response to Hibs strength on the flanks, afforded by Celtic’s original super-narrow formation.

2

Yet the same problems continued. Outnumbering in midfield and a propensity to launch the ball towards Samaras (who didn’t have his best game). Pukki, also, looks decreasingly like a target despite how he normally lines up for Finland.

Celtic’s 8 consecutive clean sheets looked under threat, requiring outstanding stuff from Fraser Forster (and later, Izaguirre) to deny Zoubir and Stanton. The 2 Hibees were causing real problems on the edge of Celtic’s 18, with Celtic’s back four all guilty of unforced errors.

The equaliser never came, but until the 77th minute Celtic were poor going forward. Commons’ importance was summed up in one incident where he threaded a superb through ball into Brown, who could not finish. Commons is Celtic’s best striker and most creative midfielder, but he can’t do both at once.

Van-Dijk

The lively Pukki won a free-kick about 22 yards from goal. Previously Commons and Mulgrew had poor efforts block from a similar range, but up stepped Van Dijk to curl into Williams’ top-right corner.

It was powerful, precise and confident – exactly what the attack had been missing until that point. Hibs’ revival was over.

Soon after, Pukki was given too much space on the right and powered a shot through Williams, while Commons added a penalty at the end.

Summary

The raison d’etre of forcing a 4-3-3 is surely squeezing 3 quality forwards into the same side (providing the midfield 3 can cope). But with just one (in Commons), the shape made little sense and heaped pressure on a defence and midfield not able to keep the ball – credit to Hibs’ pressing here.

The half-time move to more of a 4-4-2-ish shape, helped alleviate this, though the confidence (or attitude?) of the players continued to undermine. The amount of unforced errors across the park was extraordinary. The normally reliable Efe Ambrose was subject to an inordinate amount of tellings off from Lennon.

New signing Stefan Johansen was given 5 minutes. His first action after replacing Mulgrew was to tell Ledley to move out to left-wing. It was expected in this blog that left centre-mid was Johansen’s position, and today’s showing suggests the same.

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St Johnstone 0 – 1 Celtic: Deep and narrow Saints make life difficult for Celtic

Tommy Wright successfully set out St Johnstone in the archetypal way to play against Celtic: deep, narrow and fully physical. It took an extraordinary goal from Virgil Van Dijk to settle the game as Celtic’s imperious league campaign continues.

Celtic 4-4-2 vs St Johnstone 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2

Celtic 4-4-2 vs St Johnstone 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2

Neil Lennon made 2 changes to the side that toiled to beat Hearts 2-0 before Christmas. New boys Teemu Pukki and Nir Biton dropped out for Georgios Samaras and the recovering Adam Matthews. The shape was changed from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 (or 4-2-4), possibly taking into account that St Johnstone normally use two strikers.

Nigel Hasselbaink was nominally that second striker, but was used in a kind of free defensive role, dropping back down to either wing or into midfield depending on where the ball was going.

The deep and narrow shape with Hasselbaink and Stevie May buzzing around up front made for a congested battle in the middle of the park. Celtic’s route to goal primarily came down the flanks, with Emilio Izaguirre as per usual heavily involved in build-up down the left, and Matthews and Darnell Fisher reasonably successful on the right.

The problem was that St Johnstone weren’t troubled by the high balls – Kris Commons and Anthony Stokes aren’t only small, but actively struggle in the air.

This wasn’t too much of a problem initially thanks to Van Dijk’s wondergoal. He (and defensive partner Ambrose to an extent) have that fantastic confidence and technique on the ball to bring the ball out of defence, in a way that is traditionally impossible for centre-backs like, say, Thomas Rogne, Daniel Majstorovic or Glenn Loovens.

It was a fabulous run, but the two Gary’s – Miller and McDonald – will be disappointed that they allowed him through so effortlessly, by fair means or foul.

Aside from the successes out wide and number of crosses (and corners), the disappointment for Celtic was how poorly the attack linked up. There’s something not clicking between Stokes, Commons and Samaras that is normally partly obscured by Commons’ individual talent. Samaras historically doesn’t score many in the league, but one wonders how Stokes continues to get gametime ahead of Amido Baldé and arguably Teemu Pukki (who also has struggled).

These misfiring forwards contrasted with the all action performance of May at the other end. Ambrose and Van Dijk for the most part had him shepherded well, but the young striker still had the opportunity to showcase some impressive strength, pace and final ball.

Attacking inadequacy

Despite dominating for large spells, Celtic’s attacking inadequacies kept the door open for the Saints to get back into the game and prompted Lennon into tinkering. As a solution to all the unanswered crossing, Samaras and Commons swapped places around the half-time mark. Unfortunately the problem remained unsolved as Samaras never enjoyed much success either holding things up or using his head, partly to do with the quality of supply.

 

4-3-3

In the final third of the game or so, Biton replaced Samaras, changing the shape to a rough 4-3-3. Forrest occupied a central right position while Stokes and Commons continued up front. It is the latter who continues to remain a threat even if the goals aren’t coming, forcing Alan Mannus into a terrific reaction save that kept the scoreline 1-0.

Baldé was eventually given the token 6 minutes but didn’t have enough time to make an impact.

“We have never had it easy in my time here, but after an hour we had better control of the game after making some substitutions. St Johnstone came at us for 10-15 minutes and we had to weather a bit of a storm.” said Lennon, possibly giving the changes more credit than necessary.

In truth, St Johnstone hardly troubled Forster, testament to Celtic’s domination of possession. The attacking issue still remains – nobody has stepped up to replace Gary Hooper (who, as it happens, scored for his new club today) and this will continue to cause problems in the tougher games.

 

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Partick 1-2 Celtic: Baldé’s winner a boosts striker problem

Celtic turned away a fightback from Partick Thistle to record a just-about deserved 2-1 victory at Firhill. The squad has been stretched in defence for a while, and now shortages in midfield called for Scott Brown to start on the right side of midfield, reminiscent of the “lop-sided” 4-4-2 that grew to prominence between 2010 and 2012.

Celtic 4-4-2 vs Partick 4-4-1-1

Celtic 4-4-2 vs Partick 4-4-1-1

Joe Ledley is still getting back to full fitness joining Beram Kayal in the centre, while Georgios Samaras started on the left wing. Anthony Stokes and Teemu Pukki resumed their misfiring partnership, while Charlie Mulgrew was rested.

Alan Archibald made no changes to the side that beat Inverness CT 2-1 last weekend, a surprising win where number 9 Kris Doolan grabbed both goals.

Celtic Direct

As per the Ajax game, the 2013/14 Celtic style has become increasingly direct. While the Dutchmen were expected to dominate possession as is their style, teams like Partick have been able to win an unprecedented amount of the ball.

This comes with having 3 similar midfielders in Brown, Ledley and Kayal who are all predominantly high-energy, quick-turnover type players. Win possession, get the ball to the forwards as quick as possible. This made for a mixed outlook on Stokes and Pukki who on the one hand each had very good chances each to score, and both – though hitting the target – were a bit unlucky in that former Celtic youth Scott Fox made good saves. Then on the other hand, it was an afternoon of chasing lost causes and difficult long passes, which isn’t ideal when both prefer short quick passes to feet.

Celtic’s directness and inability to hold on to the ball allowed Partick significant good spells. Rumoured transfer target Aaron Taylor-Sinclair made headway down the left twice getting the better of Lustig, though the final ball was lacking.

Such was the pressure that you might describe Partick as dominating, for a period in the first-half. At this stage however, Kallum Higginbotham – the main creative force in midfield hadn’t hit his stride, and so Celtic coped alright.

The goal came from a corner no less and Celtic’s first from a corner since Mikael Lustig against Cliftonville in the first game of the season (alternatively, first goal from a corner in 160 attempts!). Izaguirre’s fine ball was tapped in by Samaras on the edge of the 6-yard in an example of poor defending. The goal took the sting out of Partick as Celtic probed for another.

Brown’s inclusion on the right was intriguing – he’s obviously not a true winger in the Forrest or McGeouch style, but he still gets forward into attacking areas in the inside channel. He likes to press hard, play his way inside and offer the strikers something.

Higginbotham had a great spell in the middle period which culminated in the equaliser, being central to most of Partick’s threat. It was his smart movement into the box and then snap cross with the outside of his boot that helped Doolan on for his 4th goal in 4 games.

Along with some dodgy refereeing (don’t let people say it was one incorrect offside call each, Celtic’s was a stonewall penalty while Partick’s was out on the wing and merely in a decent position), the equaliser seemed harsh on Celtic, who didn’t seem to uncomfortable (aside from one or two Efe Ambrose moments).

By the time the lead was restored, Pukki and Kayal came off for Amido Balde and McGeouch. Brown moved central retaining the same shape. Much maligned left-back Izaguirre closed down Sean Welsh on the half-way and the resulting loose ball worked it’s way to Balde one-on-one with Aaron Muirhead. Balde simply went around the outside and got his second goal of the season with his left foot.

This ramps up the competition for a place up front, with both he and Pukki desperate for goals right now. In one sense there was luck involved, with Partick caught completely out of position by Izaguirre’s tackle and release, but at the same time it’s impossible to say if Pukki carries the same speed and power to go past a defender one-on-one like that.

“He is going to play a lot more as the season progresses” said Lennon after the game, so the pressure is on Pukki and indeed Stokes.

Samaras’ injury towards the end was a reminder of how depleted the squad currently is, so the lack of midweek fixtures this week is a blessing ahead of Ajax in Amsterdam.

 

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Hibs 1-1 Celtic: Poetic justice for equaliser but Celtic can’t overcome ‘ghost goal’

While it wasn’t as blatant as Bayern Leverkusen’s winner against Hoffenheim in Germany last night, Paul Heffernan’s opener for Hibs was every bit as bogus. Collecting Kevin Thomson’s through-ball in an offside position, the Irishman ran clear to slide the ball under Fraser Forster. Referee Calum Murray may have though the pass came from Scott Brown, but Celtic struggled to overcome a home side sitting deep and tackling hard.

Lineups

both template

Celtic 4-2-4 vs Hibs 4-1-4-1

With Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig both ruled out, the biggest question was over who would start at right-back (or right wing-back should the formation be changed). Neil Lennon went ahead with his version of an attacking 4-4-2 (or 4-2-4), with the added complication that Emilio Izaguirre failed to recover from a virus.

With no other options at centre-back, Efe Ambrose was required in the centre, so Darnell Fisher was the surprise starter at right-back, despite Lennon’s propensity to shy away from options in the development squad.

With Mulgrew forced into left-back this opened up a space for Beram Kayal in the centre of midfield – and a chance to rekindle the explosive form that caught the eye in his first season.

Pat Fenlon made two changes to the side that narrowly defeated Partick Thistle prior to the international break, with Owain Tudur-Jones coming in for Tom Taiwo to add a layer of protection in a 4-1-4-1, and Abdellah Zoubir replacing James Collins.

Lack of sunshine on Leith

The miserable conditions in Edinburgh made for a slick pitch, and while nobody likes a pernickity ref, the precedent was set early on for a “free-flowing game”, encouraging unbridled tough challenges – predominantly from the home side.

fouls

This is quite succinctly summed up by the BBC’s “match actions” seen on the right, with nothing but fouls apparently occurring from the first minute to the 14th – and these were just the ones that the ref called!

Seriously though, the conditions and “open” nature of the game disrupted Celtic’s rhythm, without the safety net of a 3rd man in midfield to keep easier possession.

Teemu Pukki maybe looked the most at home with the ball at feet, with Stokes’ decision making questionable throughout and Samaras unable to burst into the pockets of space in his trademark way. Hibs were doing a fine job of clamming up in their own third, leaving Heffernan on the halfway and attempting to break from there.

When an underdog relies on sitting so far back, it’s often a set-piece or a stroke of luck that provides the lifeline, and this was certainly the case here. Virgil Van Dijk tried passing out of defence but his pass fell short of Brown. Thomson poked the ball beyond Celtic’s dishevelled back-line, with perhaps Ambrose guilty of not stepping up profoundly enough to satisfy the notoriously bungling local officials. Heffernan was clearly offside, but manager’s don’t like leaving these close decisions to chance – so the harshest critic might ask for a sharper defence.

Still, it may not have been the defensive line that was contentious, more a question of who played the ball goalwards – the idea that it was a Celtic player who played the pass is even more incomprehensible than the offside line angle, so a terrible refereeing call either way (at least in this scenario the Celtic defence are blameless).

hibs2

It got worse with Commons coming off injured after yet another hefty challenge. James Forrest replaced him, making for an even more top-heavy 4-2-4, with Stokes the left-most attacker and Samaras moving centrally as a targetman.

He was ineffective on the left because of Hibs’ deep defence, and he’s not entirely suited to playing as a conventional targetman. And with Pukki (and Forrest once he came on) the only one managing to comfortably control the ball in these weather conditions, it was a frustrating day in the final third, summed up by Samaras’ meek effort on goal from 15 yards which should’ve been buried.

For all of Pukki’s decent buildup play in the hole, he was gifted a brilliant opportunity to level after Hib’s goalkeeper Ben Williams’ made a terrible decision to rush Forrest on the edge of the 18-yard. Forrest fed Pukki, who dabbled too long and hit a low shot towards into defenders on the line when perhaps hitting the roof of the net would’ve been more appropriate.

If anything Celtic worsened into the second-half with Hibs growing into it. Abdellah Zoubir gave fleeting moments of technical skill while Heffernan’s finishing is always a danger. Joe Ledley’s introduction for a quiet Kayal was an improvement, and in the end Hibs’ overzealous physical approach contributed to their downfall.

Ryan McGivern – not being the first culprit – hammered into Fisher, with both players suffering badly. While McGivern was off the field, Forrest finally had a chance to run straight at Paul Hanlon unimpeded. The Hibs centre-back backed off, allowing Forrest to deftly curl into the far corner. Poetic justice at last.

Celtic weren’t fantastic on the ball, and as good a full debut that Fisher made, there was a palpable difference in a spacial sense without the two first-choice full-backs on either flank. Neither Mulgrew or Fisher (yet?) have the pace or stamina to continually challenge for the by-line like Matthews, Lustig and Izaguirre can.

For all Celtic’s failings, the reality is that an incorrectly awarded goal made for the draw, along with an industrial physical approach that the referee was happy to allow. In the previous Premiership fixture, Adam Matthews was inflicted a suspected collarbone in a similarly unpunished challenge. Just another case of Celtic being let down by inadequate refereeing.

 

 

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Celtic 0-1 Barcelona: Brown culpable as Celtic edged out

In the STV Google+ chat previewing last night’s tie, my closing “in a nutshell” statement was that Celtic would primarily need the rub of the green, and for lone striker Georgios Samaras to bring others into play in the final third. Neither really happened, and Barcelona eventually passed their way into a narrow victory. Until Scott Brown’s valid dismissal and then the goal, Celtic while not particularly threatening, seemed on course for a draw – making the captain’s nefarious actions all the more inauspicious.

Lineups

Celtic 4-4-1-1 vs Barca 4-3-3

Celtic 4-4-1-1 vs Barca 4-3-3

Celtic lined up completely as expected, in the same shape that served so well in both fixtures last season. Samaras leads the line, utterly essential to the team in that he has the size and power of “classic” targetmen (say, Chris Sutton) but also excellent mobility.

The big call was always going to be who would play off him, linking midfield and attack. Teemu Pukki’s characteristics seemed to suit the role, being mobile and defensively a hard-worker, but Anthony Stokes was the (slightly) surprising starter. He too, had a decent case, being in great domestic form and in general having that element of surprise in front of goal that might nick something.

Emilio Izaguirre’s stock has dipped lately, and it might’ve crossed Neil Lennon’s mind to use Adam Matthews at left-back instead. But the Welshman was required on the right-wing leaving Izaguirre to start.

Barcelona were of course without the great Lionel Messi, so Cesc Fabregas resumed ‘false-9′ duty. Gerardo Martino hinted pre-match that others might fulfil the role but that was not to be. The other main positions up for grab were either side of Fabregas, with Pedro, Neymar and Alexis Sanchez vying for 2 wide positions – the latter made do with the bench.

Open Play

Often managers can employ a “blitzkrieg” style roaring start in an attempt to ruffle the clearly technically superior opposition, and get at a perceived soft core. Unfortunately Barca won the toss and kicked off, keeping the ball for an irritating amount of time.

It took a full 2 minutes for Celtic to get a touch of the ball, and during this time we could see a decent example of Barca’s general play. While Celtic (or whoever the opposition happens to be) reticently slink back, Barca sweep the ball from side to side in a kind of “casual” gear. It’s only once something opens up in the final third that the gear is ramped up – typically through the likes of Iniesta. But the master of this phase – Messi – was absent, so there was a notable lack of killer instinct.

As an aside, an example of this was seen at the weekend against Almeria (before he was injured), where Messi worked his way inside from a corner via a crisp one-two, before firing in with his left.

So it seemed Barcelona were stuck indefinitely in “probing” mode. Confidently moving the ball left to right and back again, teasing Celtic players forward and out of position, but ultimately hoarding possession, and the fact that it took until about half-time to bring Fraser Forster into action suggests for a lack of penetration. While possession ended 82% in Barcelona’s favour, the difference wasn’t quite that pronounced after 45 minutes.

uefa lines

From Celtic’s point-of-view, Samaras was absolutely outstanding in winning and holding up the ball. As the UEFA representation shows, the “most frequent pass” was startlingly similar to the same fixture last season. The only issue was that neither Stokes or Commons could shake off their markers in time to get into any decent areas. Defensively Celtic were immense – like last year defending deep and narrow, while individually staying composed and determined.

The idea that Barca don’t like competing in the air still rings true – corners were mostly short, attempted to be dribbled into the box, while Samaras enjoyed aerial success (and to be discussed later) Celtic would find a great headed chance from a corner.

Second half – no rub of the green

The plan had worked well thus far – keeping Barcelona from causing too much damage while opening up the odd set-piece opportunity for themselves. But the priority above all priorities was to minimise avoidable mistakes.

When Brown decided to flick out (it’s impossible to use the word “kick”) at Neymar, he was defying his role as captain, defying his decade or so of experience at a high level. Of course the Brazilian overreacted, sobbing and heaving theatrically on the ground, but Brown was petulant and forced the ref to open the book. The situation was upgraded from professional foul (Neymar had broken clear from a corner on the counter and was on route to goal) to violent conduct, and the red was fully merited.

With 60 minutes on the clock and after all that successful containment, it was a disastrous lack of composure from someone who should know better. After getting away with lashing out in the Karagandy match (with Celtic 2 goals behind!) you’d imagine that somebody would point out the gravity of these reckless actions.

Lennon reshuffled the pack, with Stokes somewhat surprisingly occupying the gap left by Brown, Samaras going left (still fulfilling a target role) while Commons stayed up front The idea here being, that Commons is the most clinical candidate in front of goal should a chance arise.

Stokes was given 10 minutes or so before he and Lustig went off for Beram Kayal and James Forrest, with Matthews dropping to full-back.

The perceived injustice of the red card made for a furious atmosphere, and the players almost made the most of it. The ten men somehow made the two best home chances of the night, with Forrest forcing a save from Victor Valdes and Mulgrew heading narrowly wide.

These were bona fide big chances, and were Celtic to have any hope of getting anything from the game these had to go in. Because minutes later Barca took the lead. Like the situation that saw Brown conceding the big foul, the goal came on the counter with Celtic’s defensive line a little too high for comfort. Substitute Alexis Sanchez exploited the space, returning Fabregas’ pass who headed past Forster.

From there it went downhill, exacerbated by the numerical disadvantage, and were it not for Forster Barca could’ve scored more.

Conclusion

Barcelona weren’t at their best so again it comes back to the core principles of stealing a win: staying organised and composed at the back, taking the few chances that come Celtic’s way and for goodness’ sake not provoking the referee.

Celtic were tantalisingly close on all counts, so it’s hard not to take Brown’s moment of weakness as the reason for the defeat. What is further galling is that many will take this as another apologetic “heroic failure” story, when in fact Celtic’s gameplan was smart and impeccable until the red.

Thinking back to Milan, where 0-0 seemed the likely scoreline, it feels like two perfectly achievable points have been dropped. Hopefully this won’t be the difference when the groups are finished.

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Milan 2-0 Celtic: Impressive performance outdone by poor final ball

Celtic suffered yet more heartbreak in Italy after an energy-sapping disappointment against Milan. Despite enjoying unprecedented possession away from home in Europe, it was more the lack of composure in the final third than the cheap goals conceded that cost dear.

Lineups

Celtic 4-4-2 vs Milan 4-3-3

Celtic 4-4-2 vs Milan 4-3-3

Celtic lined out largely as expected in yesterday’s preview, with the only exception being Adam Matthews getting the nod ahead of Derk Boerrigter. The latter you might expect to be of higher attacking calibre, but Neil Lennon preferred the consistency, stamina and defensive sensibility of Matthews.

Anthony Stokes getting the chance to lead the line though was probably a bigger call. His domestic form has been outstanding but the question was if he could translate that to the highest level.

The shape was slightly different from the expected 4-2-3-1, with Kris Commons more of a second striker than a linkup type playmaker, making for quite a flat 4-4-2 reminiscent of last season’s showings against Barcelona.

Milan’s personnel differed slightly from the preview, with Kevin Constant  starting ahead of Urby Emanuelson at left-back. But the main change was the structure of the side – despite Massimiliano Allegri’s comments before the game that they would play the expected 4-3-1-2. Instead there was no room for a number 10, opting for a narrow 4-3-3 – with star player Mario Balotelli occupying the left and Robinho benched.

For the record and just to reiterate, Milan were missing a host of talent including key attackers Kaka, Ricardo Montolivo and Stephan El Shaarawy to name a few, which helped force Allegri’s hand.

Milan opening flurry subsides

There was a strange opening ten minutes or so (in respect to the rest of the match) where Milan enjoyed total domination. Celtic really struggled to keep hold of the ball – a familiar hallmark of away European performance – with Matri threatening and Balotelli coming close with a couple of snapshots from the edge of the box (noted in the tactical scouting of course!)

Against expectations, Celtic came to realise that when keeping the ball down and to feet, they could not only make use of some numerical/spatial advantages, but also some rather respectable passing and close control skills.

Scott Brown had an excellent first-half, especially considering the oft talked about 3 vs 2 in midfield, the area Celtic were on paper shorter in numbers. The increasing possession – peaking around 55%-ish into the 2nd half – was unprecedented. Completely atypical of any modern Celtic style.

The upshot of this brave and confident ball retention, unfortunately, was a bad night at the office in the final third. Whether it was Matthews crossing (with the caveat of no significant target to aim for), Samaras’ inability to get the famous runs going, or passes into the two forwards’ feet – the composure was sadly lacking.

But while the chances were generally being created, there was always a feeling – or at least until the opener – that Celtic could nick something. Perhaps Brown, Commons or Samaras could’ve done better with shots in and around the box, but with Philipe Mexes and Cristian Zapata outstanding, there was massive pressure on getting the timing spot-on.

Reluctant criticism

It’s going to be impossible to discuss the downfall without coming across overly critical, but there were clear (and murky) moments that turned things in Milan’s favour. But just to reiterate: Celtic were brave on the ball, showed great desire to win it back and keep it, and overall put in an excellent away performance.

The crosses were poor by Matthew’s (mainly) and Lustig’s general standard, as the below diagram indicates – 5 successful out of 30:

crosses

 

People can frequently be unfair about Celtic’s crossing, writing off anything not met perfectly by a striker’s head, but it was a struggle even getting vaguely in the right area, and with Stokes and Commons not suited to the air, the problem was exacerbated.

Set-pieces were similarly unsuccessful – an area that Celtic normally aim to excel. It was a shame that 6 of the 9 corners were from the ‘wrong’ side, with Commons or Mulgrew forced to outswing with their left.

Stokes

Lennon was quite happy with Stokes’ performance, particularly into the second half, but despite the quality of the opposition the lone forward had a tough time getting into the match.

Whether this was holding up the ball, getting into channels or winning headers, it just wasn’t happening. Below can be seen some of the areas he was trying to get into (passes received)

stokes received

 

He typically works well dropping in to receive passes from Izaguirre, seen in the cluster at the top, but elsewhere received few passes in the dangerous areas.

One might argue that his late free-kick which hit the crossbar justified his 90 minutes in total.

Pukki

The significance of Teemu Pukki’s introduction, was that after 77 minutes Celtic were wearing out slightly, albeit still seemingly on the brink of the breakthrough. While hindsight is 20:20, Pukki was brought on retaining the 4-4-2 when the conservative option would be to regroup and try and see out the game for the single point.

Within minutes of Pukki coming on, Milan found the opener. Of course that’s not putting the blame on him, more that another midfielder may have helped prevent the situation that led to the goal, i.e. Zapata finding enough room outside the box to hit a hopeful strike that found a fortunate deflection.

2nd ball

As far as the contest was concerned, this was game over (at 83 minutes) and Milan managed to rub salt in the wounds with a second. There can be absolutely no pleasure in highlighting a section of the scout report concerning Milan attacking set-pieces, but there it is regardless. Balotelli’s powerful shooting from range made for the requirement for an oversized wall, and it was unfortunate that Forster’s great save was to no avail, as was Van Dijk’s attempt to get back in vain.

Conclusion

The above reason’s are purely the cold, hard reasons that Celtic succumbed to defeat. What shouldn’t be taken away is how much improvement there is in possession, and how fearless the young side are in the face of European giants.

Celtic were quite deserving of at least a point, so the real tragedy may be if Group H boils down to such a margin.

 

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2 heads are better than 1 – in defence of Gordon Strachan

Following Scotland’s fairly predictable thumping by an awesome looking Belgium in (another) doomed World Cup qualifying campaign, already the knives are being sharpened for the man clutching the poisoned chalice, Gordon Strachan.

The main arguments were put forward on twitter recently by one of the best sports writers in the country, and though I attempted to defend the national manager’s ideas and situation, there are limits to the impact of 140 characters.

The groundswell against Scotland’s ‘negative’ tactics centre around a couple of things:

  • Playing with a lone striker
  • Relatedly, not starting goal-happy Jordan Rhodes (who in Strachan’s own words “is at his best when he plays with another striker”
  • Not changing strategy across the qualifiers

And there are plenty negatives to support these qualms – Scotland are languishing bottom of the group with a meagre one win and five losses, four goals for and eleven against. What is going on?

Strachan’s system

Easiest to debunk, is the idea the third point, that the strategy hasn’t been changed. This depends purely on what you consider a change of strategy. In the first four matches, the hapless Craig Levein had two main iterations of a lone forward: 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-1-1.

His mantra was that Scotland were constantly improving, edging closer to being able to compete with Serbia and Croatia. While the task is more difficult than any Scotland manager has ever been given credit for, we now know that Levein was talking baloney.

Strachan 4-2-3-1

Strachan 4-2-3-1

Contrary to popular belief, Strachan changed the system, taking note of international football’s best counter-attackers right now, the Germans “I think German football is terrific. They play three up front, but it’s three strikers.” While it’s worth noting that he added (back in February) “I’ve studied them. But we haven’t developed players to do that..” nonetheless the shape of his Scotland is very much in the German template.

On the right we had the mercurial James Forrest, probably the least defensive option possible on that side. On the left started Shaun Maloney, off the back of an excellent campaign in the English Premiership and one of the few Scots who has an eye for a pass and a bit of guile and technique. At number 10 (quickly swapping with Maloney) was Robert Snodgrass, who was joint-top of Norwich City’s league appearance chart in a successful Premiership campaign.

These are attacking players with real, quantifiable experience if not in the English Premiership then in the Champions League.

More strikers = more goals

There is a reasonably relevant anecdote to come out of Scottish football recently regarding the idea amongst some that more strikers is equal to more goals. Those of us unfortunate enough to witness Tony Mowbray’s Celtic will be aware of one version of the fallacy.

Typically when struggling, his response would be to add a striker, besides: more strikers equals more goals. Take the last straw – the 4-0 drubbing to St Mirren – to observe the classic example.mowbray celtic

 

Already 2-0, Mowbray took off a midfielder for Marc Antoine-Fortune, turning a flat 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3 (with one central midfielder). 15 minutes later, no response and so the left-back is withdrawn for yet another striker. This made for an attack containing 4 out-and-out strikers (Georgios Samaras, Robbie Keane, Fortune and Morten Rasmussen) and additionally Aiden McGeady, the attacker who would later leave for £9m, and Paul McGowan – originally a number 10 but has recently matured into a ball playing central midfielder.

With all this attacking talent on show, what happened? St Mirren scored another 2.

While this is a humorous anecdote involving a seriously flawed Mowbray side, there is an important lesson in there: adding strikers (even one) has a negative effect on your defensive stability. This is why the über-pragmatic Walter Smith in later years lost trust in über-goal-scorer Kris Boyd, and most likely why the 4-2-3-1 formation has taken Europe by storm.

But 4-4-2 is tried and tested

It’s difficult to recall a contemporary team in club or national football that successfully wields a 4-4-2. England persist with little success, while the only nations really of our size and wealth – Denmark, Finland and Norway have long abandoned the formation Gary Lineker referred to as coming from “the dark ages”.

And if you look at the top, variations on 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 are the norm, be it Barcelona’s 4-3-3, Bayern Munich’s (or Dortmund’s) 4-2-3-1 or Manchester United’s 4-4-1-1.

But before we hammer in the final nail, another Celtic example stands out. Against Barcelona Neil Lennon famously left two strikers up front, while the other 9 defended deep. Perhaps there is a lesson there for Scotland, but in Miku Fedor and Georgios Samaras Celtic had the benefit of two hard-working and mobile “targetman” types, although Tony Watt remains in the memory. (Due a call-up to the seniors?)

Of course this entailed Celtic absolving themselves of possession, something with Scotland’s defence may not be the greatest of plans.

This is what Jonathan Wilson, a famous tactics writer had to say recently about two well-matched opponents Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City: ”all else being equal, a good midfield three will always overcome a good midfield two.”

Now when one considers that Belgium are far better in every department, losing out in midfield seems akin to suicide. Rhodes may have a remarkable scoring record in the English football league, but is playing a player of Maloney, or Snodgrass’ quality slightly deeper really that tremendous a compromise?

Incidentally in the second-half of the friendly against Estonia, Strachan tried out 4-4-2 with Steven Fletcher and Rhodes together. There was no miracle in Pittodrie that cold winter night, with the goal coming rather predictably from an old fashioned Scottish free-kick.

A lonely Rhode

Strachan went to great lengths to explain that Rhodes can only play alongside another striker: [Rhodes needs] “lots of people round about him and lots of crosses. We don’t get that at international football. There is not many teams that do that and we certainly can’t do that because we don’t get enough of the ball to just play in open play with two wide men and two up front and get crosses into the box. We would get counter-attacked all the time. I don’t think there are many teams who play like that..”

It’s strange then, and a genuine angle for criticism that Strachan went with Leigh Griffiths, a player indulged at Hibs and not noted for any of the pace, power and work-rate required in the graveyard shift. It’s hard to imagine any player worse for the lone role, but according to Strachan Rhodes is just that!

Of course a fit Fletcher moots these concerns, and considering this campaign is all but wrapped up they argue – “why not experiment? Why not play 4-4-2?”… Equally then, why not play 3-5-2? Why not play 2-3-5? Simply, these matches are not for experimentation – they are to hone the plan.

Is there really any sense in changing the whole strategy and shape of the team for a player who’s entirely unproven at the top level? The compromise would be to try and use Rhodes as that lone striker, against Strachan’s arguments above but at least sating the demand to see the Blackburn player start. (With Rhodes dropping out of the Macedonia match with a broken hand, this won’t be anytime soon!)

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There is of course, the school of thought which disregards all of the above. That Belgium, Serbia, Croatia and even Wales’ players are simply better. In the latter case, it’s probably no shame that it took a €100m man to make the difference, but for Belgium especially it seems pointless splitting tactical hairs, which is rich coming from a tactics blog.

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Celtic 2-2 Inverness CT: Return to 4-4-2 yields result for injury-hit Celtic

Celtic’s soft centre was exposed again as they had to come from 2 goals behind to rescue a point hosting Inverness CT. With the crucial Champions League 3rd round qualifier against Shakhter Karagandy looming midweek, Celtic were without a host of attacking players, including Georgios Samaras, Derk Boerrigter, Kris Commons, James Forrest and Anthony Stokes.

Celtic 4-3-3 vs ICT 4-4-1-1

Celtic 4-3-3 vs ICT 4-4-1-1

This made for an unfamiliar looking lineup – back to last season’s choice 4-3-3 (or 4-4-2 diamond, or 4-3-1-2 if you prefer) with Amido Balde and Tony Watt leading the line together for the first time, with Tom Rogic just behind.

Efe Ambrose partnered Virgil Van Dijk in the centre of defence for the first time, while Charlie Mulgrew continued his relatively unpopular selection in midfield.

Terry Butcher had the luxury of playing the exact shape and XI as last week’s impressive 2-0 victory over rivals Motherwell – a 4-4-1-1 with James Vincent tucked in behind one of last season’s surprise packages, Billy Mckay, who already has three goals to his name this campaign.

Dreadful 1st half from Celtic

After the Karagandy disappointment (and a recent segment on Match of the Day courtesy of Alan Hansen) there’s been plenty of reflection into the benefits of dominating possession. Whatever the conclusion, Celtic’s 3 man midfield were conspicuously unable to retain the ball effectively, with Inverness CT’s more robust and organised 5 man midfield more comfortable with the ball.

It was this certain lack of numbers in midfield that dictated Celtic’s unsuccessful first-half attacks. Generally a centre-back would have time and space to pick a pass – and both Ambrose and Van Dijk are comfortable doing so – only the safest option tended to be a big ball, either to a targetman or down the channel. Interestingly Butcher openly said after the match that the plan was to allow the centre-backs the ball. Amido Baldé had a strange game in this targetman respect, impressively winning some difficult duels while at other times fluffing the simple stuff.

This direct “to the striker” or “down the channels” forward approach is a far cry from the horizontal side-to-side possession based stuff against the Kazakhs, but equally frustrating.

It was defensive sloppiness that allowed Inverness CT to extend a 2-goal lead. The first saw Aaron Doran allowed a criminal amount of time and space to pick out Fraser Forster’s bottom-left corner. After Ledley replaced the injured Kayal, Caley extended their lead. Izaguirre failed to clear an initial cross properly, with Richie Foran quickest to react, nodding in the second. Both sloppy and preventable goals in line with the lethargic performance.

There were positives even at this point. Rogic displayed some classy close control under pressure and some through-passes of a vision and intelligence that has been lacking recently. By far the biggest threats though were the full-backs – particularly Izaguirre – getting into the final third and delivering mostly good crosses (though there were some howlers).

Indeed, Izaguirre’s end product was frequently criticised (in my section) though given the sheer volume of crosses, a handful of baddies would be inevitable. One things the critics can’t argue with, is that he picked out Mulgrew to claw one back before half-time, to go with the assist recently against Elfsborg.

2nd half transformation

Lennon singled out Scott Brown as the one who took the match by the scruff of the neck, along with (to a lesser extent) Ledley, Matthews, Mulgrew and Ambrose. And though Celtic’s possession gradually increased in the second-half (it ended 51% in Celtic’s favour overall) it was still a real toil battling through Inverness CT’s closing ranks.

Baldé almost replicated his Dublin heroics by cutting inside Gary Warren to open up the angle for what looked like a certain goal. But instead of curling into the far-post (or attempting a blast) he scuffed the shot which meekly rolled into Dead Brill’s arms.

The real catalyst of change was Mikael Lustig’s introduction – or more specifically a shift to 4-2-3-1 and then 4-2-2-2. Lustig went to right-back with Matthews right-wing and Watt left-wing. This shored up the wings where before it was only really the full-backs to worry about, now the numbers were doubled, stretching Inverness CT’s compact lines.

Matthews equaliser was a decent example of this in practice – where normally ICT left-winger Nick Ross could’ve dropped back and doubled up on Matthews, he couldn’t due to Lustig’s presence. Matthews was left one-on-one with his opposite number, zig-zagging into the box to relive an anxious crowd.

Bahrudin Atajic put in a promising cameo, but the main story is that familiar old theme of returning to a form of 4-4-2 to eke out the hard-yards. This poses an interesting question for the all-important game on Wednesday, but really the availability of Commons (definitely in), Stokes, Boerrigter, Samaras and Forrest (all doubts) will be the real driver behind the shape on the night.

As a final footnote, Lennon chose Van Dijk and Mouyokolo against Shakhter last week, presumably due to being the more physically capable given the Kazakh’s strength. Given their bother in the first leg, Ambrose is sure to feature this time.

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Elfsborg 0-0 Celtic: Celtic progress in match neither side deserved to win

Celtic went through to the playoff round of the Champions League qualifiers after a tedious 0-0 draw with Swedish title holders Elfsborg. Celtic probably created the best chances and deserved to progress, but the lazy defending, slack passing in midfield and void in attack made life difficult.

4-4-2 vs 4-4-2

4-4-2 vs 4-4-2

Lineups

Elfsborg went with the exact same starting 11 as last week, only this time James Keene played alongside Bangura up front. Jörgen Lennartsson put confidence in his side’s home record having only lost 1 in 27, stating they “enjoy” playing at home.

Neil Lennon dropped the 4-2-3-1 of the first four competitive games of the season in favour of a 4-4-2, involving the controversial dropping of leading scorer Anthony Stokes favouring Charlie Mulgrew instead. Kris Commons joined Georgios Samaras up front, with Mulgrew going left midfield. Lennon stated before the match that Mulgrew’s added height would help at set-pieces, speculating that that might make the difference (echoing recent tictactic piece on height/set-pieces).

First-half problems

The theme of the first-half was a marked inability to keep possession – something that Celtic (spearheaded by Lennon) had worked so intently on for recent away European ties. Elfsborg with home advantage were fired up and pressing aggressively, but the formations suited that. The 4-4-2′s were symmetrically matched man-for-man, and Celtic – having not played a flat 4-4-2 for a while, seemed to miss having that spare man or spare out-ball in midfield – be it a Victor Wanyama holding midfielder or a Kris Commons number 10 dropping into space ahead of the midfield. Finally the artificial pitch was eventually cited as a distraction.

The struggle to cycle the ball in attack manifested in passes going side to side with Joe Ledley and Scott Brown allowed no time to look up and pick out a pass, instead going (safely) backwards to the creaky looking Efe Ambrose and Kelvin Wilson and finally back to Fraser Forster. The goalkeeper would invariably perform by far the most frequent move of the night – a right-to-left lob towards target Samaras in the left channel.

Man of the moment Mo Bangura almost caused a surprise, chesting down a high ball and pulling out and extraordinary overhead kick which whizzed past Forster’s left post. The ease in which he controlled the ball was symptomatic of the Celtic centre-back’s sloppiness. Ambrose has always flirted with that fatal lack of concentration while Wilson displayed all the hallmarks of having eyes at the exit.

In similar fashion Bangura drifted away easily from Ambrose to collect another long pass, but instead of shooting with clear sight of goal he inexplicably tried cutting back inside, which Ambrose blocked. It was too clever and a more clinical striker would’ve hit the target.

Elfsborg’s final big chance of the half fell to Bangura again, slinking away from Ambrose to power a free header over the bar. Ishizaki’s delivery was superb, but Bangura’s freedom was criminal.

At least Celtic pulled out decent chances of their own – Samaras with a clear header after a surging run from Mikael Lustig, and then Ledley escaping through a ruck of players to blast against the ‘keeper. But these felt like exceptions rather than deserved, consciously worked efforts.

Second half – issues persist

In a nutshell Elfsborg’s attacks “should’ve” been dealt with fairly easily, but Celtic’s slipshod defence were turning the probes into full-blown assaults. Meanwhile in midfield and attack, Celtic couldn’t string a handful of passes together.

This made for a painfully familiar situation away in Europe – waiting for a centre-back to blunder. In the past the likes of Bobo Balde, Gary Caldwell or Daniel Majstorovic have obliged, but here Elfsborg didn’t have the quality to create such opportunities. Wilson’s ridiculous slide tackle on Keene in the box was probably the nearest thing, along with some poorly defended, scrambled, set-pieces.

A sensible, if, unpopular change to make at this point would be to add another midfielder to tilt the midfield battle in Celtic’s favour. So a sitting midfielder either in a Wanyama destructive mould or a passer (like, say, Ki Sung-Yeung). Just, the only midfielder on the bench – Beram Kayal – has latterly failed to provide either element of calm and this was one reason Lennon rejected this solution.

He stuck to his guns with the idea that a single goal would utterly kill the tie, and so Anthony Stokes was introduced for Samaras. A contributing factor was Samaras’ relative lack of fitness, with Lennon stating before the game that the Greek was unlikely to last 90 minutes.

As clinical and poacher-like Stokes is, for a team calling out for hard-work and possession, he didn’t help matters. Furthermore, his inability to answer Forster’s hail marys (again begging the question of why Amido Baldé makes the bench while simultaneously being deemed not ready).

A final note regarding the hotly contested Mulgrew over Stokes issue: Mulgrew’s use as a left midfielder centres entirely on his left foot. Because the target – Samaras – tends to drift left anyway, this made for a conspicuous lack of something to aim for, with Commons essentially posted missing for the entirety of the match (in itself a gigantic problem), leaving only really the diminutive Forrest at the back post – who doesn’t tend to gamble in and around the 6-yard box anyway. Essentially, Mulgrew was a defensively sound choice but his attacking raison d’être was completely moot, and furthermore looked awkward attempting to go past a really difficult right-back in Johan Larsson.

And so the match whimpered to an end. Neither team deserving to win, though Celtic undoubtedly delighted with keeping an away clean sheet. It’s difficult to criticise getting through what Lennon underlined as incredibly tough matches, but the application of the players and the rigid keeping with 4-4-2 can easily be scrutinized.

Captain and manager agreed that the pitch was a major contributing factor. Scott Brown said:

“The astrosturf isn’t the best. The ball seemed a lot quicker than on grass and this affected both teams. We had to make sure passes went straight to feet – if you put it to the side you couldn’t trust surface.”

Lennon added: “That’s the worst artificial pitch I’ve ever seen. It was difficult for the players to keep their balance.”

Under the circumstances it is easiest to file this under one to forgotten. But Victor Wanyama and Gary Hooper were (obviously) missed, and now Wilson is set to leave as confirmed by Lennon. Going by last night’s malnourished showing, a conservative requirement would be 3 more signings to bolster the European charge.

Possible opponents in Friday’s draw: Austria Wien, Maribor, Shakther Karagandy, Ludogorets Razgrad or Legia Warsaw

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Champions League tactical preview: IF Elfsborg

Mo Bangura’s circumstance has been dominating the headlines in the lead-up to Celtic hosting Elfsborg, and he was centre of attention again after his side’s drab 1-1 draw at Atvidaberg at the weekend. The on-loan striker dubiously won, then missed a penalty, with his side eventually only managing a draw with Neil Lennon observing.

The Allsvenskan champions are unlikely to retain the league title, slumping to fifth with 17 matches gone. Their domestic form is so poor that they’ve managed just one win in their last 6. One consolation is the 11-1 aggregate mauling of Lithuanian side Daugava Daugavpils in the Champions League second qualifying round.

Manager Jörgen Lennartsson has a few injury concerns: midfielder Marcus Rohdén – scorer of two goals against Daugava – was stretchered off in pain against Atvidabergs, likely to join first-choice centre-back Tom Söderberg and first-choice left-back Andreas Klarström on the sidelines at Celtic Park.

Team report

Elfsborg lineup against Åtvidaberg 27/07/13

4-4-2 seems de rigeur for Scandinavian sides, with Elfsborg set up in a similar way to recent European opponents Helsingborgs and HJK. The defenders and central midfielders are tough and conservative, with attacks predominantly being built via the wings.

On the left 23-year old Niklas Hult provides pace and a good left-foot, while on the right Stefan Ishizaki – with a unique surname inherited from his Japanese father – is noted for set-piece deliveries. Indeed Elfsborg’s best chances came via Ishizaki’s right boot.

Lennon compares them to last season’s opposition from the same country: “I think it could be difficult for us in the same way as Helsingborg last year.

“They look dangerous going forward and have a good passing game, they have a good mix of experienced and young players.”

Celtic’s manager by the evidence at Åtvidaberg was being courteous. Elfsborg were hopeful in swinging long-balls forward and the match was punctuated with nasty challenges going both ways. Centre-back Sebastian Holmén landed awkwardly and required treatment before midfielder Marcus Rohdén had to be withdrawn having twisted his ankle. He now faces a race against time after X-rays ruled out a fracture.

In the thick of it all however, was experienced ball-winner Anders Svensson. The 37 year-old has a dual function in the side – both enforcer and playmaker. He blew his top on the stroke of half-time, receiving a yellow card only to provoke the referee further on the way to the tunnel.

For all his aggressive bravado and postulating, he is the hub of the team. Dropping deep to start moves, and not afraid to make the long passes. His abrasiveness comes across when speaking to Swedish paper Expressen: “Technically speaking, they are not better than us, but they certainly have the momentum. They are terribly aggressive right now and slam on the pressure.

“They will want high tempo, but we want to slow it down. I also believe it’s important to be prepared to fight every one-on-one battle.”

Bangura

Elfsbrog chairman Bosse Johansson is so furious with Lennon’s Bangura comments that he’s willing to go to UEFA, stating that “it’s against all principles of fair play in European football”.

This drama has been central to the match buildup, but the real question is: how will Bangura’s presence affect his current side?

Bangura has scored 5 goals in 17 appearances this season – not the most impressive for a striker albeit about the same ratio as which convinced Lennon to bring him to Glasgow in the first place. His primary asset is still pace and driving at players – though against Atvidabergs his dribbling attempts came to nothing. Worst of all was the penalty miss, placed weakly down to Henrik Gustavsson’s right who captured the ball easily.

The most likely partner (if Lennon has his way) for Englishman James Keene up front is Lasse Nilsson – Elfsborg’s top scorer this season with 6 goals. He effectively replaced Bangura on Saturday and wearing the number 9 shirt is a more traditional central striker.

Another option is Victor Claesson – a 21 year old wide midfielder who might be included on the off-chance that Lennartsson diverges from 4-4-2, something that makes sense away from home in Europe.

Celtic

Celtic 4-2-2-2 (initially 4-2-3-1) vs Cliftonville 4-4-2With the options narrowed since the devastating losses of Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama, Lennon’s first-choice XI is rather clearer.

Charlie Mulgrew, Adam Matthews and Joe Ledley are still recuperating from injury and unlikely to start.

Wanyama and Hooper were central to a 4-3-3 that had become popular with Lennon, but Cliftonville and pre-season has seen something more like 4-2-2-2.

This manages to find room for four of Lennon’s most prized attackers – James Forrest, Georgios Samaras, Anthony Stokes and Kris Commons. The latter is the nearest thing – productivity-wise – that Celtic have to Hooper. Hooper scored 31 and assisted 9 last season, but Commons’ contribution wasn’t far off – his goals/assists combination reaching an impressive 37.

Stokes will be hoping that he can improve on the 2011/12 season, where he went for long spells matching Hooper’s goals per game. New signing Amido Baldé who’s had a mixed pre-season is unlikely to start, while Virgil Van Dijk is injured. Celtic hope to sign Ajax winger Derk Boerrigter in time for kick-off, but won’t feature.

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