Saturday, 31 March 2012

Hail The Champions?

At some point this weekend, Celtic are expected to win their first Championship in four years, their 43rd Scottish Championship in total.  While they have been the best team in Scotland, one suspects that while this championship isn’t “tainted” as some biased supporters claim, that the turning point that clinched the championship may well be their rivals descent into financial meltdown.
Iain Brines comes accross all schoolmasterly with Neil Lennon

The on field turning point for Celtic was undoubtedly coming from 3-0 down with 20 minutes to go in their match at Kilmarnock to draw 3-3 on October 15, which came six days after a 2-0 loss at Tynecastle.  Funnily enough Rangers dropped points at home to St Mirren that day, the next time they would meet – on Christmas Eve – a 2-1 win by St Mirren would provide Celtic with the chance to complete the task of overhauling the 10 point gap that existed between the Old firm teams on 15 October.

By the time Celtic’s 17 game winning run ended, with a 1-1 draw at Pittodrie earlier this month, Celtic were 21 points ahead of Rangers - boosted of course by Rangers 10 point deduction. Yet had there been no 10 point deduction, I’m not so sure Celtic would be in such a strong position.

For starters Rangers shipped 6 points in two home games (to Kilmarnock & Hearts) immediately after the club went into administration.  Assuming that Rangers picked up full points for those games, they would currently be 2 points behind.  For a side as good as Celtic, that should be a good position to launch the final push for the Championship – except that I suspect that judging from the recent League Cup final loss and the defeat to Rangers last week, Neil Lennon has not learned to keep his cool under pressure.

Of course there were outside influences for Lennon’s mood at the business end of last season – yet when it showed on the players was  a crucial midweek game in Inverness.  Yet Lennon has not learned to curb his own restlessness, which I think had a negative effect Celtic’s last two matches.  Much as Inverness’ performance & tactics was a factor, the fact that points were needed hindered Celtic’s mindset & played into Inverness.  Much more obviously this has happened now in Celtic’s last two matches, while “controversial” decisions have caused Lennon to erupt.  The prognosis is that while Celtic are not as mentally soft as they were, say in the mid 1990’s, there is a lack of planning in this department that could result in the problem of a mentally weak(er) side.

So it is surprisingly the fortitude side of the game that Celtic need to work on.  Maybe that comes from the players, but the manager needs to look at what he can do too.  After all, he cannot go on blaming bad officiating in matches (for if anything else, the standard of refereeing is poor while the standard of linesmen-ship is much worse).  For all the stick Wenger gets for his “I didn’t see it” line, it does deflect questions away from controversial decisions taken against his own players.

It’s not that Celtic are not a good team, I do think though that this team is still very much a team in construction.  This championship would be a different proposition had Rangers not been docked points.  Yet in spite of being the team with the best players, I do wonder if in normal circumstances whether that would have been good enough.  After the matches against Kilmarnock & Rangers, it’s a question worth raising.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Staying Ahead

It used to be that Australia and the West Indies were the toughest places to go and win a series.  That Sri Lanka is currently being talked up probably has everything to do with England’s desire to get back on track after the disaster that was the test series against Pakistan.  Tomorrow sees them begin that fight-back to hold on to their cherished number one spot in test cricket with the first test against Sri Lanka at Galle.

As has been commented before, Sri Lanka are in a post Muralitharan rebuilding phase – none of their spin attack has exactly stepped into the large shoes of the great man.  Yet should England feel any of the complacency they might have had pre the Pakistan test series (which the shouldn’t have anyway in no small thanks to Pakistan’s unerring capacity to be England’s party poopers) they should remember that the great spinners have a tendency to announce themselves against England as Warne (in 1993) and Muralitharan himself did (in 1998).  Having said that, Sri Lanka’s spin bowling options look to be built around the 34 year old Herath and the 27 year old Randiv, who should be able to exploit the spin friendly conditions in Sri Lanka.

It will be interesting to see though the effect of the test series loss to Pakistan on England.  Any team with ambitions to retain their position at the top of their game would be aiming to beat Sri Lanka.  Yet there is now this doubt about this England line up.  The bowling attack functioned well enough, with the addition of Panesar outshining the “number one spinner” Swann.  The problems came with the form of the batsmen, with the wicketkeeper Prior the only batsman having a decent series.  To this end, Morgan appears to have been jettisoned with a re-call for Ravi Bhopara looking to take his place at 6.  Bhopara last played in the Headingley Ashes test, having had a nightmare in that Ashes series.  He was however playing at number 3, when a lot of the Australian observers thought that he might be better off lower down the order.  That chance has come, if he can nail this position he would solve the problem England have had there since Collingwood retired.

That doesn’t mean that others are secure, Ian Bell and the skipper Andrew Strauss need to pick up their form in particular – Strauss hasn’t scored a century since the Brisbane Ashes test, but got a half century in the Sydney Ashes test.  Bell’s drought is not so deep – three tests since his 235 against India at the Oval – but looked alarmingly out of form.

England need a result in this series, a repeat of their 2-1 series win here in March 2001 would go down nicely.  Especially as South Africa are now right behind England in the test rankings.  With an expected series win in New Zealand (depending on what happens in the last 3 days of the third test there), South Africa will be looking to take over top spot when they come to play England in the second half of the summer.  It’s a true that getting to the top is one thing, staying there is another.  England are about to find out just how true that is.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Spoiling The Party

65th Scottish League Cup Final, Hampden; Celtic 0, Kilmarnock 1

Celtic’s attempt to win their first League Cup in three years, and take the first leg of a first treble in 11 years foundered as Kilmarnock blunted the Celtic mid-field before scoring 6 minutes from time through a close range header from Belgian substitute Dieter Van Tornhout.  That goal did not prove to be the end of the drama as Celtic claimed for a penalty in the last minute – referee Colum correctly adjudging that Stokes had dived and booked him for that act.

Celtic started the brightest and really should have taken full advantage of the gift handed to them when Sissoko passed straight to Hooper, only to see his shot saved by the keeper Bell.  Bell would go on to have an inspired match, as he made another impressive save later on in the first half from a Stokes header.  His best save though came before half time as a Brown piledriver was tipped over.  Replays showed that Bell’s save kept the ball from sneaking under the bar.

Though Celtic had chances, they were not imposing themselves on the match.  This was partly down to Kilmarnock’s 5 man midfield – which saw Harkins and Shiels venture forward to support Heffernan when Kilmarnock had the ball but both tuck into midfield whenever Celtic had the ball.  As a result Celtic looked sluggish in midfield and did not really inject any impetus into their play until the final quarter of the match.

Kilmarnock’s best chances to score came at the start of the second half.  A Shiels run into the box ended with him shanking his shot way past the target, while moments later a Sissoko header went wide. Celtic then looked at going up a gear, with Stokes and Wanyama having chances, while Mulgrew drove into the box but had his shot smothered by Bell.  With six minutes left Gordon released Johnson down the Celtic right, his cross was just too far for a couple of Killie forwards, but found Van Tornhout (above) at the back post, who headed in from close in.

Celtic now chased urgency as well as an equaliser.  Substitutes Samaras and Commons had chances before Stokes big moment at the end of the game.  Stokes burst through, but kept hold of the ball rather than go for the early shot.  Nelson put in a careless challenge that Stokes looked to have ridden, then fell down.  It was a brave decision by Collum, but a correct decision.  Seconds later Kilmarnock won their first trophy since their famous Scottish Cup win in 1997.

Kilmarnock deserved their win.  They set their team up to stifle Celtic’s midfield and to attack quickly when in possession.  For Celtic, the dream of a first treble in 11 years is gone, they can however still win a first double since 2007 – starting with a potential title clinching win at, of all places, Ibrox next Sunday.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Sports Picks of 2011, Part 5 - August 25th

Europa League: Qualifying Round – Sion 3, Celtic 1 (Sion win 3-1 on aggrigate), Rangers 1, Maribor 1 (Maribor win 3-2 on aggrigate), Tottenham 0, Hearts 0 (Tottenham win 5-0 on aggregate)

Scottish Football in 2011 was in full car crash mode, while 2012 has not started any better with the news of Rangers.

There were so many low points, those low points always seemed to surround Neil Lennon - officially the most divisive figure in Scottish Football since Souness (and no, I’m not blaming him for anything).  The Old Firm Scottish Cup replay could have so easily made this list.  What supplanted it was the night that Scottish Football should take a note of.  The night three teams went out of Europe… at the qualifying stage.

Of the three, Hearts had the difficult task of getting past Tottenham Hotspur.  The week previously, they had lost 5-0 in the home leg so were effectively out already.  This should not excuse Hearts rotten performance – all five Spurs goals were down to poor defensive errors – Ok the sort that the likes of Kilmarnock or St Johnstone are never in a position to exploit but they were still bad defensive errors.

The Old Firm though embarrassed themselves, the by-product of having two inexperienced managers at the helm im afraid. Holding Sion at home, Celtic should have gone for an away goal early and then put the pressure on Sion.  What happened was that Celtic conceded an early penalty, saw a man sent off thus contriving to lose the game in the first 10 minutes.  Celtic did get a reprieve with Sion fielding an ineligible player, and took their place in a Europa League group with Athletico Madrid, Udinese and Rennes.  From Celtic’s point of view, though they lost out on qualification to the knock-out stages, the experience for both the players and, more crucially, the management team will have been invaluable.

The same could not be said of Rangers.  Losing to Maribor away was bad enough (with the bonus of an away goal), but being held at home by the same team does not show any promise for the new season.  All Rangers had to do was win 1-0 and they were through.  Instead they conceded with about half an hour left of the tie, leaving them looking for two goals to get to extra time.  Not good game management.  To rub salt in the wounds for Scottish Football, on the same night – Shamrock Rovers made the group stages.

All of which is worrying for Scottish Football.  Not only are Scottish football teams not good enough, but they are depriving themselves of the chance to garner experience of European Football.  Unfortunately, there looks to be no signs of any changes being made.