The numbers game

As a relatively new Celtic fan — only four seasons still makes me a neophyte in the grand scheme of Hoops history — one of the things that, at least to me, has always ranged from a mild mystery to a downright conundrum is the club’s assigning of player numbers.

This observation first occurred to me while I was still grieving the departure of Mikael Lustig, who had sadly moved on from Celtic to KAA Gent, before ending up now at AIK in Stockholm. His number 23 went immediately to a new acquisition at the time, Boli Bolingoli. I thought it was odd that the number of a beloved Celt would be transferred so quickly, but I guess it is par for the course in the football world.

You move on, and your number is up for grabs, apparently. It’s as simple as that.

Or is it? Is there more to it than meets the eye, a certain metaphysical reason behind a player ending up wearing the number of a legend?

This number 8, Kyogo Furuhashi, has the monumental task of filling the legacy of the previous number 8, Scott Brown. History is on his side, because Brown admirably filled the legacy of a previous number 8, Paul McStay. Photo credit: The Celtic Star

We have a new number 8 who replaces a recently departed number 8 — departed in a football sense, that is. Little has been said about Kyogo Furuhashi inheriting Scott Brown’s number. On the surface there may seem to be few similarities between the two, but if you look back the Hoops legend from Dunfermline and the new kid from Nara may be more alike than meets the eye, primarily and most importantly, both are quick and good with the ball. Also, it can be argued that Brown inherited the number from another Celtic legend, Paul McStay, and Brown admirably filled the legacy of that Hoops great.

We could go on and on about this, because examples here are plentiful: Liel Abada’s number 11 runs through the scenic route of the retraced steps of Scott Sinclair back to Bobby Lennox, while the number 5 has a magical and mystical significance insofar as the last player to wear it, Jozo Simunovic, scored after 67 minutes in a game honouring the greatest number 5 to play in green-and-white, Billy McNeill.

Then there’s the iconic number 7: Last worn with historical significance by the King of Kings, Henrik Larsson, but with a lineage that goes back to the greatest of all Celts, Jimmy Johnstone.

Josip Juranovic or Gary Hooper? Time will tell . . . Photo credit: The Celtic Star

Today, photos of new Celtic acquisition Josip Juranovic have the new player wearing number 88, that of a Celtic historic goal-scoring magician, Gary Hooper. During his time with Celtic, Hooper — who is still playing in Australia — was an exciting player to watch, and it remains to be seen whether the magic of the number rubs off on the Croatian defender joining Celtic from Legia Warsaw.

This magic sometimes transfers — Brown to Furuhashi seems, at least so far, to be proof of that.

But sometimes it doesn’t — Lustig to Bolingoli being Exhibit A here, to say nothing of Albian Ajeti’s number 10, with a pedigree that spans the timeline through Moussa Dembele, Jan Vennegor of Hesselink, John Hartson, Tommy Burns, and Bertie Auld.

You can say it’s only a number, but fate, superstition and the football gods may have other intentions. No one knows for sure.

Nevertheless, on Thursday we have the second leg against Alkmaar Zaanstreek — AZ to the cool kids — away in the Netherlands, bringing with us a 2-o advantage from last week’s Europa League match at Parkhead.

Mon the Hoops!

Looking ahead to next season

While the math is still there — barely — for Celtic to pick up 10 in a row, let’s put aside the contortionistic algebra on that one for a moment and take a look at what the next season may have in store for Celtic. To be certain, the team landscape, and the leadership on the field and in the boardroom, will look much different.

John Kennedy’s first start at the helm was an inauspicious 1-0 win over Aberdeen in a hard-fought contest. Would a stellar end to the season earn him the reins of the club for the following year? Not likely, and with all the candidates being bandied about like tennis balls whizzing over the net at Wimbledon, it appears that Kennedy is keeping the seat warm, so to speak, for whomever is coming in.

New manager

I’m going to go out on a limb and make this prediction: Next season’s manager will be Steve Clarke.

In an age of COVID — get used to that phrase, because the virus and its effect on society, in general, and football, in particular, changes the entire — spending will be tight. So when watching the budget is a matter of survival, as it is now, the more flashier names on the list that come with a high price tag are out the window. And that’s OK, as Celtic doesn’t have to go far for a replacement.

The hallmark of Scotland national team coach Clarke’s tenure at Kilmarnock was consistently having Killie punching above their weight, so to speak. Evidence of that is the downward spiral toward relegation the club has suffered after his departure. Clarke’s talent for motivation probably could have been used this season, but for next season he would have the bhoys primed and ready.

Should they stay or should they go?

Ideally, everyone should stay. They won’t, of course, but there’s always that hope.

Odsonne Edouard and Kris Ajer should be paid a king’s ransom to stay. However, there has been a lot of interest regarding Edouard, and lately Arsenal is the latest in a long line of clubs with interest piqued for Eddy, and AC Milan keeps badgering Celtic for Ajer. Clearly, with large clubs come large offers (even in an age of COVID) which might not be resisted.

However, we do have several options on this front. As mentioned ad nauseum in the past on these pages, Celtic has an artesian depth of talent on the bench and in the reserves, so we may be in good shape without having to make expensive signings — Conor Hazard and Stephen Welsh are proof that our Reserves produce excellent players for us as well as for other clubs, in the case of Cameron Harper going to the New York Red Bulls of the MLS, and wherever Karamoko Dembele ends up next season if it isn’t Celtic.

Patryk Klimala should get a good run for the rest of the season to see how he will fare up front, and my sense is that there’s a solid striker there. A tandem of Klimala and either Leigh Griffiths or Albian Ajeti clearly would not be the same as having Odsonne Edouard up front, but it might be adequate while we have goal scorers behind them in the midfield, like Mohammed Elyounoussi.

Bringing back Jonathan Afolabi and Maryan Shved from their loans would be a sensible option, especially since the latter has had his butt kicked by the Mechelin coach which has inspired Shved’s interest in playing again. His performance in Belgium has been fairly remarkable as of late and he may finally be reaching his potential.

The nucleus of a great team is here already, and it’s a tragedy that due to injury or poor game choices, this season has ended up the way it did. But there have been bright spots in the dark season as well: Jonjoe Kenny’s loan spell has been fairly remarkable, as has the play of Ismaila Soro. David Turnbull has proven he is a player to bulid a team around for the future. Add to the mix a fully healthy Mikey Johnston and James Forrest, not to mention a fully healed Christopher Jullien, and the future looks a lot better than it does now.

We won’t have the luxury of seeing everyone on today’s team in the Hoops next season. However, the potential is phenomenally high for next year’s team to put aside the dumpster fire this season has become and return to the top of the table, wire-to-wire.

Meanwhile, on to Tannadice for Sunday’s match against Dundee United. Mon the Hoops!

Now, that’s more like it

Well, that’s better: There are few things better than a 4-0 drubbing of Kilmarnock to lift the spirits and put a spring in your step on the way to Saturday’s match at Celtic Park against Motherhell . . . sorry, Motherwell.

Of particular note in Tuesday’s game — outshining Scott Brown’s remarkable header, as well as both Odsonne Edouard and Albian Ajeti finally finding their groove — was the play of transfer acquisition Jonjoe Kenny and Celtic Reserves promotee Stephen Welsh. Kenny, an unknown factor going into the game, showed great potential for the full 90, while Welsh continues to improve as he gains playing time with the first team.

Welsh even acquired a unique nickname, courtesy of The Celtic Star’s Sandman, who rates players on a game-by-game basis, and whose ratings should be part of your post-game experience whether on The Celtic Noise forum or from The Star.

Rather than bemoan the fact that the Celts should have been playing like this months ago, as some are, I will take this victory and move on to Saturday. Hopefully they can do the same to Motherwell at Celtic Park.

But wait, there’s more . . .

While Kenny was the only move to Celtic FC over the transfer window, with a couple of key players leaving and woefully mentioned in previous posts, the Celtic FC Women’s team was active in the transfer window, losing three players but gaining four others.

Stanford’s Mariah Lee joins the Ghirls in Green.

Of special note to us in California is the Ghirls in Green’s acquisition of former Stanford University forward Mariah Lee. Lee, formerly of the Seattle-based OL Reign of the National Women’s Soccer League (and a club, formerly called Seattle Reign, which is now under the umbrella of Olympique Lyonnaise . . . pun completely intended), made her own mark for the Stanford Cardinal, and was a teammate during her college days of current U.S. Women’s Team phenom Catarina Macario.

Fun fact: Lee is a concert violinist.

Green joins Jacynta Galabadaarchchi, Izzy Atkinson, and Anna Filbey on the Celtic Women’s team. Australian Galabadaarchchi joins Celtic from Napoli, Ireland’s Atkinson joins Celtic from Shelbourne in Dublin, and Wales’ Filbey comes to Celtic via Tottenham Hotspur.

Welcome to the Hoops, Ghirls!

There once was a man named Ajeti

There’s nothing like an exciting new player to get the poetic juices flowing in Celtic fans. And in the spirit of a thread on The Celtic Noise forum around Celtic striker Albian Ajeti, the Swiss forward could be gearing up for his own song in the near future.

But before we get to that point, break out the dictionary, because “Ajeti” is sort of hard to rhyme.

Fortunately, that has never stopped us before here at ’67 in the Heat of Felton. Challenge accepted.

‘There once was a man named Ajeti . . . .’

So as the sun rises on the Central California coast, yours truly has written a few limericks — yeah, I know . . . “the poor man’s poetry” — during his coffee and Raisin Bran to start the day.

To wit:

There once was a man named Ajeti
Who kicked the ball into the netty
When Saturdays loomed
Opponents were doomed,
Their fans became moany and fretty.

Or . . .

That trick from the Swiss guy Ajeti
turned centre-backs into spaghetti.
And when the ball crossed,
with their goalie tossed,
It quickly went into the netty.

If we reverse the order so “Ajeti” isn’t the rhyming word . . .

Ajeti, a bearded Swiss fellow,
made goalkeepers turn into Jell-o.
A cross that was long
from wee lad Frimpong
Would always make Celtic fans bellow.

Or, to address more immediate concerns . . .

Ajeti – and let me be blunt –
Needs Edouard to help him up front,
or Griff would be nice,
or Klimala twice,
Oh, Lenny — please do take a punt.

Give it a shot. Feel free to put your best efforts in the comments below, or swing by The Celtic Noise forum to the thread about Ajeti and unleash your inner poet.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the Poetry Police are pulling me over and asking for my poetic license and registration . . . .

Mon the Hoops!

So Nir, yet so far

Celtic’s performance on Sunday against Hibernian in the club’s 3-0 win was outstanding across the board; so much so that the silence from the doomsday brigade populating Celtic Twitter has been deafening. Let’s take a quick look at the match, and single out those who deserve special mention in a game which displayed why Celtic is the club in command this year.

Scott Brown? The armchair Steins on Twitter said he needed a rest, but he came out roaring on Sunday to have a great game, and in some folks’ opinions, he should have had Man of the Match honours. Greg Taylor? Improving on the wing with every game, and more importantly on Sunday, showed his defensive prowess by shutting down Martin Boyle, Hibs’ go-to guy, for the entire game.

I suspect there’s a bingo game going on with all the talentless hammerthrowers in the SPFL to see which one of the bastards can be the first to cripple Sunday’s Man-of-the-Match Jeremie Frimpong. Hibernian’s candidates gave it their best shot on Sunday, but still the Oh-My-Days Kid came up sprinting and doing what he does best: Speeding past hapless defenders.

David Turnbull looked sharp and his play on the pitch overall was remarkable. As an aside, my only concern on Sunday — a minuscule one at best, and one that’s easily rectified — is that nearly every corner he took was a line-drive with little altitude for the skyscrapers like Shane Duffy, Kris Ajer, and even Odsonne Edouard, in the box.

But truly, the man who deserves the highest praise on Sunday, and high praise every day that he’s a Celt, is Nir Bitton.

Nir Bitton took the game to Hibs on Sunday and proves how important he is to the club.

For seven years, Bitton has simply played the game — and played the game well — for Celtic. No fanfare. No drama. No should-I-stay-or-should-I-go chapters. Just a player who is proud to wear the hoops and plays where he’s asked. And though not perfect, he plays wherever asked to as near a perfection as a player can.

Listed as a midfielder, Bitton is blessed with the ability to play in the back like a world-class violinist plays a Stradivarius, as was evident in the Hibernian game. Though some criticize his pace as “slow” — I prefer to use the term “methodical” — yesterday his ball distribution from the back, mostly to Frimpong, and advancing up the field with the ball like, well, a midfielder, were sights to behold.

It’s players like Bitton who make the game enjoyable. To say he’s a throwback to another era where players played for the jersey is maybe a little over-the-top, but Bitton — who has found his niche and who seems to appreciate his place in Celtic’s history — “gets it.”

In short, he understands what it means to be Celtic.

And Jock Stein would probably agree: His jersey fits.

In the meantime, let’s hope Albian Ajeti heals quickly. Mon the Hoops!

Livi on the edge

Over the last couple of seasons, Livingston has been a thorn in the side of Celtic, punching way above their weight every time they play the Hoops. And while the Bhoys in Green came away with a 3-2 victory on Saturday at Paradise, it was one of those where you see why Livi is one of those teams that are beatable, but are never really down until the end.

First things first: Nice of referee Gavin Duncan to ignore a hand foul for a penalty in the Livingston end, just to have Kris Ajer — sliding to block — get a hand foul in the Celtic box for a penalty a minute later. Complete bullspit, like four additional injury-time minutes, but at least Duncan has something to talk about when he goes to the Mason’s lodge after the game.

But never mind. A few minutes later the Bhoys equalized when Callum McGregor scores, and with the exception of a late goal by Livi — an absolute rocket from about 30 yards out at 78 minutes — the Bhoys essentially never looked back. What should have ended 3-1 instead ended 3-2.

Ryan Christie, who has been taking a brunt of undue criticism on social media, easily shut his critics up by improving his game up front, and ended up putting the ball into the back of the net a few minutes later. It seems that it doesn’t matter what set-up Celtic plays; whether it’s 3-5-2 or 4-4-2, there’s always a place for Christie in the lineup.

Albian Ajeti put away a goal early in the 2nd half to put the game away for Celtic on Saturday.

Albian Ajeti is also showing that the latest transfer window can easily be considered a success so far. Greg Taylor, who didn’t have a great game last week, had a fairly remarkable one this week. So it will be hard for those on social media who can never seem to find any thrill or happiness in victory to name a scapegoat for Celtic in this match.

It also seemed like a typical Celtic game: 71 percent possession, a clear advantage in passes completed (588-158, 86 percent for Celtic) and crosses (14-6), an obviously an advantage in scored goals (3-2, none of them gifted). All of that equals another victory and three more points.

And, for the moment, a spot at the top of the table.

As for McGregor, the man of the match: It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without him in the midfield. In addition to being a scoring threat, which he showed today, McGregor is a controlling force in the middle for the Hoops. In making each and every prudent and beneficial pass in the midfield, and being the go-to guy when players are double- and triple-teamed. More times than not, McGregor has gotten the Celts out of many a jam.

So tomorrow would be a good time for some “Sunshine on Leith” so Hibernian comes away with a victory, and only tomorrow “Mon the Hibs” are the words of the day.

Firing on all cylinders

Now, that’s more like it. Here’s a Celtic score line that speaks volumes: Odsonne Edouard 4′ (penalty), Albian Ajeti 20′, Shane Duffy 59′, Kris Ajer 64′, Patryk Klimala 75′, Vasilis Barkas clean sheet. All three strikers scoring is always a good look and speaks well of playing a 3-5-2. So now it appears that Celtic is firing on all cylinders as we get back on track in the Premiership.

There are several good takeaways from this game, of course, as there would be with any 5-0 victory.

Barkas is the real deal

The jury has been out on Vasilis Barkas for a few games now, having to fill the shoes . . . er, gloves . . . of Fraser Forster, “The Wall,” in goal. But with each game he plays, he makes his case well. Today against Ross County we have a decision: Barkas is the real deal and an adequate replacement for Forster. Barkas owned the goal for 90+ minutes today, turning away each Ross County shot — and there were a few good ones — admirably. With a couple of exceptions — mostly miscommunications between Barkas and defenders which turned out to be awkward moments instead of full-blown disasters — Barkas had a picture-perfect game.

Not to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, of course, but I’ve noticed something over the last few weeks which provokes a question: Would it kill Barkas to actually clear the ball out of the Celtic end instead of passing it to one of the backs? He did it only once against Ross County.

Shane Duffy scored in his debut for Celtic. The Ireland captain is making an immediate impact for Celtic in his first game for the Hoops.

Shane Duffy is awesome

It took all of 59 minutes for Shane Duffy to “open his account,” as it were, with the Hoops, with a smashing header from a corner. The previous 58 minutes, however, had the Irish captain keeping the door closed on the Ross County attack with intimidating form. He’s definitely an impact player and a welcome addition to a club which, to be honest, has been a little shy at times in mixing it up physically with opposing teams. If we are done with the transfer window — which has been mentioned — we are in good shape going forward, and Duffy appears to arguably be the best acquisition in this window, and Celtic fans will be hungry to see more from the big man from Free Derry.

Spreading the love

Happiness is when all three of your strikers score, and that’s what happened at Victoria Park. True, Edouard’s goal was on a penalty, but still. Ajeti continues his Scott Sinclair-like start for the Hoops — and hopefully he can keep up the pace — by scoring once again, and while Klimala muffed an early sure-fire goal, he picked up one later in the game. But that’s only three — two other goals came from the backfield: Duffy on a set piece and Ajer straying forward, as he has a tendency to do, capitalized. Having goals coming from a variety of players is always welcome, and the ball movement — especially from Jeremie Frimpong on the right — was an exclamation point on the effort. We need more of this energy going forward.

One more thing

Well, two actually, but we’ll put them together here. First, you would think that a 5-0 game would be pretty one-sided, but give Ross County its due. The game was a lot closer than the score would have you believe, and the Staggies had many opportunities to score after having the proverbial winds taken out of their sails after the first penalty. The game was not as one-sided as the score line would indicate, and it’s the kind of performance that should serve as a warning to other clubs. But ultimately credit the Celts for their systematic and clinical play, especially in the second half, to keep the Bhoys buoyed for 90 minutes and credited with a victory.

On to St. Mirren on Wednesday. Mon the Hoops!

Back again, in more ways than one

First things first: Thanks to a lightning strike just north of here a couple of weeks ago, the area has been in the throes of a massive wildfire. Now contained at 35 percent, we are allowed to “repopulate” our homes in Felton as of Saturday, and not a moment too soon. All of which is to say that it has been a perfect homecoming for me as the Hoops win 3-0 against Motherhell — sorry, Motherwell — at Paradise on Sunday.

So the minor blessing in disguise is that I missed much of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past week, and only intermittently — when the absence of rolling blackouts would allow — got to witness the travesty against Ferencvaros and the drama on social media that followed.

But the game against Motherhell started off slowly and picked up momentum when Neil Lennon decided to play two strikers in the 2nd half. James Forrest finally got onto the score sheet in the first half, 2nd half sub Albian Ajeti took an excellent pass from Kris Ajer and found himself one-on-one with a helpless Motherwell keeper to hit the back of the net, and Christopher Jullien put the game away late on a cross from Jeremie Frimpong.

Wakanda Forever: Christopher Jullien pays homage to the recently departed “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Boseman after scoring a goal against Motherwell on Sunday.

I’m going to forgo the takeaways to simply make a couple of observations moving forward.

3-5-2 uber alles

I get it, Lenny and I’m with you here: It’s impossible to play two strikers up front when your star gets his Achilles tendon raked by some hammerthrowing ned in the previous SPFL game and your new acquisition has not played in awhile (to say nothing of the other striker who is in the doghouse for making too many Tik-tok videos when he should have been training). But the only way you’re going to get Patryk Klimala to sink or swim is to throw him into the deep end of the pool, so to speak — and my money is on that he’ll swim. Fast.

Let me also add this caveat to this observation: I am new to football, and I expect my observations may be that of a neophyte. I played a grand total of three games when I was in my early 20s — a fullback whose specialty was standing in the near post during corners in our end — as a favor to a goalkeeper friend whose team needed bodies (and only three games because the team eventually disbanded). Normally I watch games twice before writing about them, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything, and I pore over the games to get a better understanding of the nuances in each game. All of which is to say, yeah I’m new to this, but I’m doing my homework.

So subbing in Klimala changed the complexion of the game pretty quickly, even though he did not score. Adding Ajeti to the mix, who did score, also proves that we should have started with two strikers up front from the start. But rather than do what many of the self-proclaimed experts that populate social media are doing, I’m willing to give Lenny the benefit of the doubt and trust that he’s learned a lesson here. Going forward, I think we’re going to see more of Klimala, possibly starting, and possibly Ajeti, too.

So while I’m giving out advice, let me add this . . . .

Start Jeremie Frimpong

Hatem Elhamed has been doing great over the last few games, but there has been something missing when Jeremie Frimpong is not in the lineup. We saw just what is missing in the 2nd half of the Motherwell game. The kid has the moves, both on and off the ball, and the post-game Motherwell training tables were full, no doubt, of twisted ankles of players who unsuccessfully challenged the Oh My Days Kid.

I’m not sure what the solution is to getting Frimpong into the game, because someone will have to be pulled in order for him to make the starters. Elhamed has been phenomenal overall for the Hoops and unless we can move someone in the midfield, maybe, and put Frimpong there . . . it’s a difficult call which I’m sure the brain trust at Celtic are currently dealing with.

One more thing

For those of us in California, it is heartening to see our native son Cameron Harper picked for the first team over the last few games. We are fully aware of his talents, and it’s good to see they’re being noticed by the club.

So it looks like the Hoops are back on track with their win over Motherwell. And barring any other wildfires that may cause further evacuation, it looks like this blog is back as well. Now to fill in the time during the international break before we go into Victoria Park against Ross County a week from Saturday.