Thursday, February 02, 2006

Victory Papers Over Serious Cracks for Celtic

In a history peppered with records, successes and remarkable feats, Celtic last night were a mere whisker from the unenviable achievement of elimination from three cup competitions in unprecedentedly shambolic style. Following the very public humiliations by Artmedia Bratislava in the Champions League second qualifying round and Clyde in the third round of the Scottish Cup, Motherwell were denied a hooped scalp by a combination of a lack of killer instinct, denial of some borderline penalty decisions and a late defensive blunder.

Gordon Strachan's Celtic were soundly outplayed last night, and the manager must have been mightily relieved at being spared another public immolation in the face of on-field catastrophe.

It has been a most peculiar season thus far for the new incumbent of Glasgow's East End's hottest seat. Faced with the twin challenges of transitioning the aging but erstwhile successful side of his universally adored predecessor and, in turn, handling the very difficulty of following such a venerated figure in the eyes of the club's support, Strachan will have returned a 'satisfactory' verdict on the first half season of his tenure.

The Hogmanay victory over their closest rivals, Hearts, left Celtic seven points clear at the top of the SPL. The 'Palaver in Bratislava' had been largely forgotten - or at least Strachan's culpability in it had been diluted; the team had begun to play some extremely attractive football, the squad fitness levels were evidently improved and even the early season defensive problems appeared to have been minimised due to diligent work on the training ground.

Capping it all was a resounding double of victories over Rangers in the SPL and CIS Cup in November, the elation at which was, of course, multiplied by their bitter rivals bedraggled state. Roy Keane's signature in December further served to augment the feelgood factor at Parkhead.

Of course such optimism is usually punished in football, and Strachan is having the dimensions of his task further reinforced at present. In retrospect, Celtic's current league position must be taken into context with the plight of a Rangers team who endured the club's worst winless run in their 132 year history, and with the bizarre machinations of the Romanov dynasty at Hearts, where George Burley's unbeaten record was rewarded with the sack.

Now, while Rangers would appear to be too far in the distance to be a threat, Hearts will have taken Celtic's uncertainty and their own January player investment as a sign of reinvigoration of their title bid.

In the shape of their grim performances against Dunfermline, Clyde, Dundee United and last night against Motherwell, their is ample evidence that an eight point lead is currently not watertight insurance for Celtic. While the defensive woes have returned, to blame the admittedly unsettled back four is only partial explanation. The absence of closing down by midfielders - due to pressing of opponents being contrary to messrs Nakamura and Maloney's instincts, to Neil Lennon's fading engine and to Stilian Petrov's tendency towards anonymity - has left the beleaugured back four subject to repeated pummelling from even the most modest opponents. As one of the panellists on Setanta's coverage of last night's game mentioned, Dundee United were made to look like Real Madrid as they stole through for their equaliser on Saturday.

Furthermore the teak-toughness and competitive spirit which characterised the success of the O'Neill era has been conspicuous by its absence, and the thought arises that Strachan has thrown the baby out with the bathwater in endeavouring to move to a more elegant style of play without retaining the more unpleasant, but fundamental, precepts of winning football. Indeed, one message board contributor recently made the alarming comment that "sometimes this season I feel like I have been transported back in time to the Tommy Burns years" in reference to the pretty but ultimately unsuccessful football of that era.

Strachan's post-match comments were predictably harsh last night, claiming it to have been a worse performance than those in Bratislava and Broadwood. "There cannot be joy, euphoria or happiness. I am not having it, just being in the cup final. There are standards that have to be set. What this has done is crystallise the job I have to do here" added the manager.

While the Celtic support are aware of the rebuilding task in hand, what will worry them is the fact that, at this advanced stage of his first season in charge, Strachan has not yet resolved the team's fundamental frailty, and that his team could exhibit such diffidence in an important match. Crucially, it would appear that the manager's vision for his team is an awful long way from being incarnate on the field.

4 Comments:

Blogger Victoria Derbyshire said...

Honestly tom-
you do publish some utter tosh sometimes.
Victoria D.

5:30 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

Don't hold back Victoria! Anything in particular you take issue with?

5:37 p.m.  
Blogger Tom the Tim said...

I share your nervousness re this season's denoument.The ,as yet, reluctance to employ Roy Keane's considereable talents, vis a vis, his ability to control and dominate a midfield, especially at SPL level,is culpable, bordering on criminal negligence and appears to add fuel to the theory that he was not his signing. He has one came to come up with some answers before we meet the Dark Forces, who will destroy what tok the field last night.

Don't you agree, Victoria?

6:21 p.m.  
Blogger Tom the Tim said...

Sorry, should read "one game"

6:22 p.m.  

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