In the musical “Damn Yankees,” the manager of the Washington Senators breaks into one of the theatrical performance’s songs about having “heart.” It’s guts, the will to face adversity, the ability to believe that you can overcome sometimes overwhelming odds.
One can only hope that Heart of Midlothian FC were paying attention. Because after the thrashing they received at Celtic Park yesterday . . .
When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win That’s when the grin should start
After its usual methodical — some might say “slow” — start with Olivier Ntcham scoring off a rebound at the 30-minute mark to go into the locker room at halftime with a 1-0 lead, Celtic shifted into another gear and, in quick succession scored at 46 minutes (Christopher Jullien) and 52 minutes (Callum McGregor), waiting a bit to score again at 67 minutes (Ryan Christie) and then at 80 minutes (Jozo Simunovic).
And while it could be a little disconcerting to some to think that Edinburgh could end up a city with only one club in the Scottish Premiership, Celtic on the other hand is a club that is reaching new highs.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that the league, for the second year in a row, may have been won again at Rugby Park — this time by Kilmarnock’s Eamonn Brophy slotting a right-footer against The Rangers™ making it 2-1 Killie with two minutes remaining — the Celtic team that put on a show Wednesday night in Glasgow fired on all cylinders.
Greg Taylor is fitting in nicely and delivering crosses with apolmb. Christie walked on to the pitch in the second half and, a few minutes later, ended up on the score sheet. Even Simunovic, who many of the so-called Celtic faithful have written off (shame on them!), marshalled the ball around the Celtic half of the pitch on defence for most of the game and, on the last Celtic corner of the game, headed in a delivery into the net with a quick nod to wrap up Celtic’s scoring.
My Man/Woman of the Match? Whomever put on the “Theme from Hawaii 5-0” on the stadium PA after Simunovic, who wears number 5, scored to make the tally — wait for it — 5-0.
OK, seriously: This time, I’d give it to Ntcham, whose ball handling and passing in traffic has been outstanding as of late. Putting back the rebound early in the game didn’t hurt, either, but the Frenchman is showing his worth to the Celtic. Though Taylor is getting better and better now that he’s got a few games under his belt, he easily could have been considered the Man of the Match as well.
It’s a good problem to have — indecision regarding who to give Man of the Match to when there are so many good players performing at peak levels.
But officially, the Man of the Match on Wednesday was McGregor. And rightfully so.
Taking a look at all that’s going on in Scottish football over the last couple of weeks, it appears that distractions are rearing their ugly heads and overwhelming the general public in general, and football fans in particular, in tsunami-sized waves of falsehoods.
Celtic fans tried to kill Alfredo Morelos. No wait, that paper-thin perpetrator under Fredo’s Lamborghini is actually a private investigator hired by Morelos’ pregnant wife to place a tracker on his car to keep tabs on him.
So, let’s deflect.
Sky Sports — let’s turn on the Sarcasmatron™ and see what it calls them . . . it says “a paragon of sport journalism” — produces an interview with a player who can’t understand English, yet he claims there’s racist abuse directed toward him at Celtic Park. But wait: Those subtitles aren’t exactly a match to what he’s saying. In fact, they’re arguably not even close.
The total weight of this disingenuous behaviour could stun a team of oxen.
Thank God for Michael Stewart, who has both the gravitas and the courage to tell the truth, taking to heart the Latin phrase, Fiat justitia ruat caelum — let justice prevail though the heavens fall. To his immense credit, Stewart is doing what journalists should be doing everywhere, but sadly aren’t; especially in Scotland, apparently.
As a former journalist, I can go on for days here regarding how important Stewart’s statements are and the heroic nature of the stand he is taking, just by merely highlighting the truth. But I will spare you.
But speaking of the Motherwell game . . .
All distractions aside, what I did want to write about today was yesterday’s game at Fir Park, where Celtic got off to its usual meticulous start in the first half, going into the locker room with a meager 1-0 lead, and came out of the gate in the second half like gangbusters, ending the game with a 4-0 score, and a wider goal differential in its seven-point lead in the table.
Rather than do the usual “five takeaways,” I am going to make this brief, sort of.
During the transfer window, we had a flurry of greeters bemoaning the fact that we need [fill-in-the-position-of-your-choice-here] or we are doomed to extinction. This while ignoring that there really was only one blemish on the season so far, on Dec. 29. One misstep that has seen us atop the league virtually all season and accomplishing one of three steps toward the Quadruple Treble so far.
So I am going to assume they will go contentedly silent now. Maybe.
It’s not only the obvious things that set us apart atop the rest of the league, like the tandem of Odsonne Edouard and Leigh Griffiths — twin strikers from separate mothers — working like a well-oiled machine at the front, or how the crowd in the 3-5-2 midfield is seemingly flawless in their ball-handling, moving the ball efficiently up the field. It’s not only Fraser Forster rejecting everything that comes remotely near him in goal.
It’s also in the little things, too: Patryk Klimala and Stephen Welsh both showing promise; the former showing speed and skill in two brief stints at the end of the last two games, and the latter having a good game in his debut. Tom Rogic and Jozo Simunovic getting back up to speed; especially the latter, who has put together back-to-back adequate games as a starter. And then, to add to the returning wounded, Ryan Christie showing some flash in the Motherwell game, starting the Christie to James Forrest to Callum McGregor goal in the second half.
But wait, there’s more. Mohammed Elyounoussi is training and will be back soon, followed by Hatem Elhamed and Jeremie Frimpong. Once we’re back to full strength, we should be unstoppable.
Most importantly, what someone needs to do, or should have done, immediately after the final whistle at Fir Park was to wake up Peter Lawwell and have him sign Forster immediately after the game. For life. Right now. As great as our backups are — and both Scott Bain and Craig Gordon are top-notch, even though we haven’t seen them all season — neither one of them is making these same saves. The Wall is in his own class, in his own league, in his own universe.
Forster needs to be Celtic for life.
The same applies to Edouard as well. Though he’s under contract until the end of the 2021/22 season, he needs to be kept around at all costs. Chris Sutton is absolutely right when he says Edouard is “the closest thing to (Henrik) Larsson I’ve seen in a Celtic jersey.” If anyone on the planet can speak with authority on this topic, it is Sutton.
One more thing
Kristoffer Ajer and Christopher Jullien might be getting slagged a bit on their defensive lapses in the Motherwell game, and there is no argument there — Ajer’s missed tackle could have sullied the clean sheet that Celtic came away with had Motherwell scored. But they didn’t. And to their credit, Kris and Chris are always in communication, and you can see them discussing play during the celebration of Edouard’s first goal.
Additionally, Motherhell — sorry, Motherwell — clearly have worked hard on consistently being a team of hammer-throwing Steelmen; no secret there. They also happen to be third in the Scottish Premiership table, which makes them first-of-the-also-rans behind Celtic and Glasgow’s other club. They’re third in the table for a reason, and on Wednesday, taking advantage of Celtic’s defensive lapses is probably the main reason why they lead the rest of the pack.
Now, for the rest of the season, let’s focus.
Focus on our positives far, far outweighing our negatives, because they do. Neil Lennon has been nothing short of masterful in handling suitable lineups in the face of multiple injuries. Focus on the two prizes needed to complete the next treble; one cup down, one cup and the league championship to go. Focus on the fact that, despite all these infantile shenanigans going on in Scottish football drawing away everyone’s attention (and we’re not even going close to the disciplinary garbage the SFA is pulling), Celtic is playing its best football in quite some time and, barring any disasters, we should prevail.
To be honest, I really, really like the 12 noon (or thereabouts) kickoff times in Scotland. Yes, I have to drag my sorry butt out of bed at some ungodly pre-sunrise hour, but at least I get to watch the game live and, for the most part, unfettered.
The 5:30 p.m. (10:30 a.m. Pacific) kickoff puts me right square in the middle of a workday on a Saturday or a Sunday (yes, I work weekends. Don’t ask). And, generally speaking, while the Bhoys seem to excel when I’m away from the screen — thank God for Celtic TV and their rebroadcasts (best $18 a month I’ve ever spent, and I highly recommend it) — I’d really like to be there watching when the action actually happens.
So I get home from a fun-filled work day — yes, that’s sarcasm — and spend two hours watching the game, start to finish, and head over to The Celtic Noise to talk about it with the merry band of forum denizens who have had a head start. One thing I always look forward to is Sandman’s ratings, which are posted first on the Noise and then posted on The Celtic Star; quality analysis and it can only be found here.
But anyway, my five takeaways from the Celtic-Hibernian game are as follows:
1. Captain. Leader. Legend.
Broony. Damn. Just damn. You worry as the seasons pass that a guy who carries the team might– just might — be feeling the trappings of the twilight of his career, and you think to yourself, but dare not say aloud, that he may retire before the 10 in a row. But then he pulls something like this to make you feel like a complete idiot. Two goals. Two brilliant goals, as a matter of fact. And instead of buying just one Broony DVD, you’re tempted to buy a whole case and give them out as Christmas presents (“Here, Mom, Merry Christmas!”) because . . . damn. Scott Brown has definitely earned his place in Celtic history, and the process for commissioning a sculptor to create his statue outside Parkhead should start soon.
2. Mohammed Elyounoussi should stay
Mo Elyounoussi is a goal-scoring machine. Full stop. It must be a blessing to know where to be, showing up at the right place at the right time, as Elyounoussi seems to do. Both of his goals were impeccable, whether it was a header on a cross from James Forrest or a pass from Odsonne Edouard in front of the net (more on this in a bit). I would like to think that the board will pony up the money to keep Big Mo wearing the hoops, but that remains to be seen. One can always hope, no?
3. When Boli is out, an attack vector is lost
First things first: This is not a knock on Jonny Hayes. Hayes is a solid player and can start pretty much on any other team in the league. His speed and ball handling are impeccable, and we’re lucky to have him wearing the Green and White. However, when Boli Bolingoli was taken out at halftime — I understand it’s a hamstring — the Celts lost one of its two threats down both the left and right side that kept Hibs unbalanced for pretty much the first half. Here’s hoping it’s not a serious injury.
4. Unselfish Edouard shares the wealth
No doubt goalkeepers everywhere have nightmares about Odsonne Edouard. Those nightmares — at least the ones that don’t involve the goalkeeper standing in the goal mouth in his underwear — probably consist of Edouard coming down the pitch with the ball and eluding all the goalkeeper’s defenders and delivering a Celtic goal. But add one more layer to this nightmare: French Eddy passing the ball to another Celt for the assist instead. It happened twice against Hibernian: One went to Callum McGregor and the other was on Elyounousi’s second goal. Eddy ended up with a grand total of zero goals and two assists; not that he was complaining. When Edouard approaches the goal, defences start to collapse around him, freeing up one or two teammates who are ready to score. So now, not only do goalkeepers have to worry about Edouard scoring, they have to worry about him passing it away to open teammates.
5. Hibernian is not really that bad
At the moment, Hibernian is staring relegation in the face in the standings. But truth be told, the 5-2 score betrays the fact that they played Celtic fairly strong in the Betfred Cup semifinal. Sure, Celtic should have won 8-2 if not for some unlucky bounces — damn goalposts! — and Melker Halberg was clearly offside in their first goal. But never mind. I am sure that the coaching staff have some positive takeaways from the semifinal game. Also, completely unrelated, “Sunshine on Leith” is a great song — probably second to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as far as football songs go.
Meanwhile, Celtic takes on Nazio — sorry, Lazio — in Rome this week, and it would be great to steal a win away from the fascists.
First things first: If you haven’t been reading the ratings following each Celtic game by the Celtic Noise poster known as Sandman, you should. This fine fellow usually hits the nail on the proverbial head every game, and his observations — with the wit and wisdom only the Sandman can provide — are always of the highest quality.
[Also, if you’re a Celtic supporter and you’re not on the Celtic Noise forum, you should be. A lot of news and insight can be found there, along with some non-Celtic banter as well. Tell ’em “lcafiero” sent you.]
As for Saturday’s game, Ross County held on for as long as they could in the first half after a stunning attack by Celtic, only to have the floodgates break open at the beginning of the second half, where Celtic cruised to a 6-0 win.
Five takeaways from the game are as follows:
1. Thanks, Manchester City
An observation: There are few clubs south of the border in the Premier League that are, as of today, more soulless than Manchester City. It may not have always been so, but it appears on the surface that they said, “Jeremie who? Yeah, whatever,” before letting young dynamo Jeremie Frimpong leave for the Hoops. And there are probably a few — several? a score, maybe? — Man City fans who are bemoaning the fact that he’s no longer at that club, but their loss is our gain. No doubt Frimpong’s moves on the pitch has sent more than one Ross County player to the trainer’s table to treat a twisted ankle, and his assist on James Forrest’s goal was a gem. The kid looks like he’s got a promising career with the club.
2. Welcome back, Wizard
Tom Rogic gave the Celts a full 90 minutes on Saturday — when was the last time we could say that? While it was pretty much an unremarkable game for Rogic — a few opportunities missed, and a couple of miscues which could be credited to “shaking off the rust” — one facet of his game stood out against Ross County: defence. The Wizard was on the receiving end of several of turnovers by Ross County, which as it turned out constantly kept the Staggies on their heels. Great to see the big Aussie performing on both offence and defence, and clearly it’s been a long time coming. Welcome back, big guy!
3. Dude, where’s my goal?
It’s great to see Mohammed Elyounoussi starting to get into the swing of things for Celtic. He’s definitely a welcome addition to the club and, sure, I’m even willing to give him a pass for saying that his Norse countryman Kris Ajer may go on to bigger and better things someday — is there any argument there, as much as we’d like The Big Viking to stay at Parkhead? But I have to draw the line when Elyounoussi starts stealing goals: Boli Bolingoli took a shot late in the game, around the 72-minute mark, that could have been his first goal as a Celt; except that shot was deflected into the goal by Mo Elyounoussi. No doubt that was part of the discussion during the celebration of Mo’s second goal . . . .
[I kid: Mo’s second goal was a great deflection, but I’m still waiting for Boli to get his first.]
4. Damn that post!
Chances are this is a direct quote from Callum McGregor after his shot in the first half glanced cleanly off the post, and Odsonne Edouard couldn’t get the rebound to go in. It matters little, because in the fusillade of shots that finally went in at the beginning of the second half, McGregor got his goal back. Which leads us to our fifth takeaway . . .
5. Ross County: New kids on the block
Ross County played better than the score would indicate. That may sound funny coming on the heels of a 6-0 drubbing, but hear me out: As the new kids on the block, so to speak, in the Premiership, Ross County had every expectation to come to Parkhead with stag-in-the-headlights sensibilities. But they hung in with the treble champions for 45 minutes, at least, and Ross County keeper Ross Laidlaw (say that three times quickly) made some pretty remarkable saves in the first half. Laidlaw and a Ross County defender — or defenders — lurking in the goal mouth in the right place at the right time prevented Celtic from being up at least 3-0 at the half; specifically a Christopher Jullien header and a rebound from a shot by Bolingoli, both successfully cleared. I’m all for giving credit where credit is due, and while you have to play a game for the full 90 minutes (86, so says Steven Gerrard, if you play for The Rangers™), Ross County clamped down pretty hard on the Hoops for awhile there, and while lessons were learned, hopefully they will recognize that there are some positives to come out of this thrashing.
But note, Ross County: Nir Bitton can kick anyone’s ass on your team, either individually or collectively. Please keep that in mind.
[Blogger’s note: My apologies for this post being so late. After a power outage last week, my WordPress settings have been hell to fix, and I finally got it up and running yesterday. Also, because we are no longer in fire season here — but not yet out of the woods, so to speak — I am going to forgo the wildfire threat level posts at the end of each blog item, resuming it in the spring.]
International break is a challenging period of time in which I have to find a diversion or two (or three) to make up for the lack of Celtic games for the span of nearly two weeks. A daunting task, to be sure, but because I haven’t really paid attention to baseball all summer — shocking, I know — and because now that the Oakland Athletics are out of the playoff running, there’s really nothing to watch.
Also, I can watch the Bhoys in Green playing for Scotland as well, which I will certainly do, though I understand that I should brace myself. Nevertheless, I trust Steve Clarke to do the best job at the helm, and I know Celts Callum McGregor, James Forrest, Ryan Christie, and Greg Taylor will be up to the task.
But more importantly — perhaps most importantly — I want to thank the Socceroos in Australia for only taking Daniel Arzani to play for the Aussies, and leaving Tom Rogic to continue his recovery so he can regain his prior form and be the force in the midfield that he has been in the past.
I know that it could be a disappointment for Rogic not to make the national team, and I empathize with the Wizard of Oz. However, as history shows, Rogic always returns from international duty dinged up, to put it mildly, and hopefully his break from the rigors of international play will bode well for upcoming games for Celtic.
Meanwhile, Odsonne Edouard dons the jersey of “Les Bleus” and plays for France, and the Norwegians get the services of Mohammed Elyounoussi and Kris Ajer. Nir Bitton and Hatem Abd Elhamed suit up for the Israeli team, while Ireland’s U21s get the services of Lee O’Connor and Jonathan Afolabi. Northern Ireland’s U21s features Conor Hazard and Liam Hughes.
[62 degrees. Wildfire threat level today in rural Santa Cruz County: High. Rolling blackouts imminent.]