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  Indeed Rangers seem to have spent the past two years making the mistakes that they originally made on the road to ruin.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.