Saturday, 12 April 2014

The One About Semi Final Weekend

In all the years that there has been the split in the top flight of Scottish Football, with the Scottish Cup Semi finals in between the split, there has not been such an intriguing set on semi final fixtures.  This weekend’s semi finals between Dundee United and Rangers, followed by Aberdeen against St Johnstone are the most interesting in years.  Arguably the last time the semi finals threw up such an interesting set of fixtures was in pre SPL times when Celtic played Rangers at neutral Parkhead and Falkirk played stuttering Hearts at Ibrox in 1998.

Saturday sees Dundee United take on Rangers at neutral Ibrox.  The announcement of the venues in advance has caused controversy – with Hampden out of use due to the upcoming Commonwealth Games.  This controversy intensified when Rangers beat Albion Rovers after a replay to reach their semi final.  Their opponents, Dundee United, have protested at the semi final being played at Ibrox to no avail.

I did think that Dundee Utd’s protests would backfire, that this would undermine their mentality and somehow enhance the intimatory factor Rangers fans will try to generate with reduced fans at their own stadium.  Except that if last weekend’s Ramsdens Cup final is anything to go by, Rangers reduced circumstances is matched by the comparatively poor play.  Since being forced to start at the bottom ring of the ladder, they have only won two cup ties against higher league opposition (a 2-0 win against Motherwell in last years League Cup & a 2-0 win against Falkirk in the third Round of this competition last December), while during that cup final they looked poor and rudderless against a side not anywhere near the top of the First Division.

Towards the end of last year, Dundee United looked like the best side in the country not playing in Green and White hoops.  That run came to an end on Boxing day with a mauling at the hands of St Mirren.  Since then, they’ve offered glimpses of that form – namely the 5-0 pre League Cup final shellacking of Inverness.  They maybe looked like going into this tie in a nervous manner – they lost 2-0 against the champions last week.  If they are nervous about Saturday, they shouldn’t be.  Rangers were awful last week and have not looked that great all season.  Dundee United should extend their winning streak against Rangers, going back quarter of a century.

Sunday’s quarter final is a repeat of the League Cup semi final when Aberdeen blew away St Johnsone 4-0 at Tynecastle in January.  Revenge for St Johnstone would be sweet and historic as they are aiming for their first Scottish Cup final.  This is their ninth appearance in the semi final stages, losing most recently in 2011 against Motherwell at Hampden.  Aberdeen on the other hand have won this trophy seven times, one behind Hearts.  Their most recent win though was in 1990, beating Celtic on penalties.  Since their last final in 2000, Aberdeen have had their own issues with semi finals.  They lost heavily to Celtic in 2011, but unexpectedly lost to Hibs in 2012 and more famously to Queen of The South in 2008.  Someone’s jinx is going to be broken.

If we go with the favourites, the Scottish Cup final on 17th May will be between Aberdeen & Dundee United.  I rather think that this weekend won’t be that straightforward.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The 2013/14 Vintage

When a great sporting occasion has finished, or we have seen one of sports big prizes picked up, if the coverage is presented by John Inverdale, he invariably asks a question that normally tries to put this great triumph in context.  As Celtic claimed their 45th Scottish Championship this week, the question that no one is asking is “In the pantheon of great Scottish sides, where does this Celtic side sit?”

In the con’s side, of course you have to look at the lack of competition.  There is no strong Rangers side.  Indeed Rangers seem to have spent the past two years making the mistakes that they originally made on the road to ruin.  It’s laughable for McCoist to say that he is looking at a couple of players when they don’t have any money.

The other point in favour of this Celtic side not being a great side is their poor results in Europe.  They did get to the group stages of the European Cup, but lost badly to a Barcelona side not quite as good as their vintage of a couple of years ago and also contrived to loose to the worst AC Milan side in a generation.  Except at least they reached the group stages.

This last point can be re-butted straight away by a cursory look at Rangers record in Europe when they dominated Scottish Football.  They had a couple of good runs in Europe, in 1987/8 when they were knocked out by Steua Bucharest in the quarter finals and their famous run of 1992/3.

This Celtic side on paper is not as good as the side from last season, they lost Hooper and Wanyama during the summer Transfer window.  Yet, in the league anyway, their focus has been impressive.  They have only dropped 9 points all season, and with 7 games left sit with 84 points.  Ah, but what about the opposition.

Yes Motherwell are still up there, Stuart McCall’s side have been consistently been up there since Rangers demise.  There is also the green shoots of good sides emerging at Aberdeen and Dundee United.  It should be noted that while they have garnered good reviews in the Press corps and the broadcast media, both sides are still very much a work in process.

For all that Dundee United were irresistible in the autumn, since their 4-1 hammering at Greenhill Road, they have been hit and miss since then and are showing all the signs of being nervous about their Scottish Cup semi final against Second Division Rangers.  For all that Aberdeen have been in good form, they were poor both times against St Mirren, and struggled to beat a poor Inverness in the recent League Cup final.  Both sides, though inconsistent, are still clearly work’s in progress. Rather like this current Celtic side.

So to return to the question at the start, where do this Celtic side sit?  In a funny sort of way, can understand Lennon’s satisfaction at this championship.  Last season, Celtic lost at home to Kilmarnock & St Johnstone, this season’s only loss was at Pittodrie to a side likely to finish second to them.  Certainly in the league, you would have to go back to the 1920’s to find championships wrapped up in jig time.  An initial reaction would be to put them on a par with some of Ranger’s mid 90’s win.  For a deeper, historical perspective though, we will have to wait for that.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Flag Day For The North

Stewart McKimmie (with Duncan Shearer) lifts the League Cup in 1995
Sunday sees the 67th Scottish League Cup Final, which for the second season in a row does not feature any of the Old Firm.  Indeed the only Old Firm representation comes with Celtic hosting this final due to the work being done to Hampden in the run up to this summer’s Commonwealth Games.  Unlike last year, the two finalists are firmly in the top half of the table as the much admired but still work in progress Aberdeen side come up against Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

Like St Mirren last year, Caley Thistle are chasing their first win in this competition.  Unlike St Mirren, this will be their first national final, having reached four semi final’s previously (three Scottish Cup semis and in this competition last year) they gained revenge of sorts over Hearts for their defeat on penalties last year by winning on penalties this year.

The strange thing about Caley Thistle getting to this final is that this is a side about to go into transition.  Their manager at the start of the season Terry Butcher left them in November, having decided he had taken them as far as he could, and took on the Hibernian job.  His successor was the former Falkirk, Hibernian and Hartlepool manager John Hughes.  Butcher’s footballing philosophy was to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, different from Hughes who believes in a passing game.  The key to Hughes success though will be the ability of his sides to score – the hallmark of all of his sides has been that they have been attractive but have been a little punchless in front of goal, exhibit one in this argument being the 2009 Scottish Cup Final.

Nine points and two places above Inverness are their opponents Aberdeen.  Currently, conventional wisdom among the Scottish Footballing commentariat dictates, the best side in the country not called Celtic.  This is their 13th final in this competition, but their first since the 2-0 defeat to the Dalgliesh led Celtic in 2000.  Indeed it will be their first final since that season’s Scottish Cup when they went down to Rangers 4-0 (beating Inverness in the 4th Round).  You need to go back to 1995 for their last victory in this competition when they beat Dundee 2-0 (above) to go with their victories in 1955/6, 1976/7, 1985/6 (Alex Ferguson’s only win in this tournament) and 1989/90.

While in recent weeks Inverness have been playing a 4-4-2, Aberdeen have options up front.  They’ve been playing 4-4-2 since they signed Adam Rooney, but are capiable of playing 4-3-3 with Pawlett & McGinn pushed up.  Indeed, while it is tempting to think of Aberdeen of a team of young turks, there is experience there with former Inverness player Barry Robson and former Dundee United midfielder Willo Flood, both of whom also played for Celtic. 

As mentioned earlier, Inverness have tended to play captain up Ritchie Foran alongside top scorer Billy MacKay.  Their biggest problem may well be their defence, which at times during last weeks Scottish Cup mauling at the hands of Dundee United looked all at sea.  They have also shipped five recently to Celtic.  How they cope with the loss, through suspension, of Warren may be key.  This is especially the case given the form Aberdeen have been in during this competition, putting five past Falkirk in the autumn and Four past St Johnstone in the semi final six weeks ago.  Worryingly for Inverness, Aberdeen have shown flashes of being able to live with Celtic, dumping them out of the Scottish Cup at Parkhead and then becoming the first team to defeat them this season.

If Aberdeen look like runaway favourites, they shouldn’t be.  They’ve not been that great when I’ve seen them against St Mirren this season, escaping with a 1-1 draw in September but winning 1-0 in a pretty awful match. If Inverness need inspiration, they can look at their 1-0 win at Pittodrie in January (above) – the last meeting between the two sides.  Aberdeen are rightly favourites, but I don’t think they will turn up and blow Inverness away.  I think if Aberdeen can get going though, they will win by 2-0.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Road To Paris Starts Here...

You know, on the one hand while the extension of the European Championships means that it is now slightly easier to qualify, this also means that the qualification tournament does not look like an easy sell.  There are no Group’s of Death which makes Eurpoe’s big teams breath a sigh of relief at their tricky at best draws.
Pressley & Bobic tussle in the Germany V Scotland Euro 2004 qualifier

Not being one of Europe’s big teams, the fate handed out to Scotland could have pitched us into several nightmare scenarios.  None of that has happened, but the draw is an interesting one none the less as we have found ourselves in Group D alongside Germany, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Georgia and Gibraltar.

In this new format for qualification, the fixtures will not be subject to negotiations anymore, they will be calculated by computer with dates and times allocated.  So a few short hours after the draw, it was announced that Scotland’s opening tie would be in Germany on 7 September.

The German’s record in this competition does not need repeating.  Scotland did give a decent account of themselves though during qualifying for Euro 2004, drawing 1-1 at Hampden before losing 2-1 in Dortmund. Prior to that Scotland’s last competitive meeting came in the finals of the 1992 tournament, Germany winning 2-0 in Norkopping, while one of the iconic images of Gordon Strachan’s playing career came when he scored against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup.

Following the Germany game is a double header in October.  The only Saturday tie of the campaign at home will be against Georgia.  In the near miss of qualifying for Euro 2008, it was the away tie with Georgia (rather than the games against Italy, France and Ukraine) that eventually saw us miss out - that 2-0 loss saw us needing to beat Italy at home.  Georgia were also a handful in the Hampden tie with us needing a last minute winner from Craig Beattie (to win that game 2-1, below). That game is followed up with an away trip to Poland.  While our nearest and dearest seem to be always drawn with Poland, we have not played them in a competitive tie since qualifying for the 1966 World Cup, when Poland became the first overseas team to win a World Cup qualifying tie at Hampden.

Finishing off 2014’s fixtures will be a wee Friday night date on November 14 with the Republic of Ireland.  Both sides have only met competitively during qualifying for the European Championships of 1988, a 0-0 draw in Dublin was followed up with a 1-0 win for Ireland at Hampden, Jack Charlton’s first competitive win as Ireland manager.  There is added spice to these ties with the recent appointment of Strachan’s predecessor at Celtic, Martin O’Neil as Ireland’s manager.  His assistant will be one time Strachan signing for Celtic, one Roy Keane.  Finishing off the first half of the campaign will be a Sunday afternoon meeting with Gibraltar next March.  In the return fixtures, the key matches will be the ties in Ireland (13 June), Georgia (4 September) and the two home ties against Germany (7 September) and Poland (8 October).

If Scotland’s group is interesting, the other British teams have less interesting draw’s.  Wales have been drawn for the second tournament in a row with Belgium but will also face Bosnia, Israel, Cyprus and Andorra.  Our nearest and dearest England has once again been given a group where qualification appears to be straightforward.  Twenty years on from taking Switzerland to the World Cup and European Championships, Roy Hodgson’s England will face Switzerland.  The other sides England will face during their qualifying round will be Slovenia, Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino.  Northern Ireland have been drawn with the last winners of the European Championships not called Spain, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Finland & the Faroe Islands.

Of the other groups, Spain begin their quest for a hat trick of European Championships with a home tie against Macedonia, with their group also comprising Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus & Luxembourg.  The runners up two years ago Italy travel to Norway first, with Croatia, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan & Malta completing that group, while semi finalists Portugal find themselves in the five man group which will see the odd team out playing France in friendlies.  Portugal start with a home tie against Albania, with Denmark, Serbia and Armenia making up the group.

Scotland’s group is an interesting group though.  It’s neither the group of death for 2008 or the on the surface relatively easy group of four years ago.  We can finish third in this group, however at a push, I think there is the possibility that we can finish behind Germany in second and in the second automatic slot.