Thursday, August 15, 2013

Optimism Abounds!

Any Scottish football fan will tell you that it's the hope that kills you.

But the performance and narrow defeat at Wembley, following on from that sensational win in Croatia in June, will inevitably give members of the Tartan Army a strange feeling they've not had for a while.  It's called 'optimism'.

A wee note of caution here - our back four is still absolutely horrendous.  Given the injured Gary Caldwell's poor 2012-13, the defence on Wednesday was probably Strachan's first choice quartet, yet it included a right-back playing at left-back, a right-back who has been frozen out by his club, a centre-back who can only get a game for his club at right-back, and Grant Hanley, for whom the greatest accolade bestowable is that of being the second ugliest player in the national squad (after Leigh Griffiths, of course).  And that pumping the under-21s got at Bramall Lane suggests that we haven't got any new faces coming through any time soon.

But we've come on leaps and bounds under Strachan.  The organization of the side is far superior than it was under Mister Four-Six-Oh - whatever you do, don't talk to Tell Him He's Pele writer John Maxwell about the shape of the central midfield when Levein was in charge, or he'll go on about it for hours - and, unlike his predecessor, he's gone for the novel approach of using players in roles that suit them, which must be a relief to Shaun Maloney.  Having a 34 year old centre forward is not ideal, though much humble pie has been scoffed after that stunner of a goal from Kenny Miller, but Steven Fletcher probably offers an upgrade in this area when he returns.

It's a dangerous thing, optimism.  But I'm more confident about Scotland making it to Euro 2016 than I have been since about 2009.  To be fair, I think the chances are now 'slim-to-middling' rather than 'virtually nil', but it's a start.  And lets face it, I am a cynical bugger.

If you're a Scotland fan who also happens to support Aberdeen, then right now you're probably so optimistic that you expect all your lottery numbers to come up this weekend as well.

To be fair, I'm at least as excited about their lunchtime kickoff on Saturday as I am about Caley Thistle's game against Motherwell (more on that later).  Derek McInnes' Dons have six points out of six.  They looked good in beating Kilmarnock on opening day, and then came from behind to record a deserved win at Fir Park last weekend, even without the injured Barry Robson.  They've looked good defensively, with largely the same solid back four from last season, and, unlike in recent times, they are very dangerous going forward.  Jonny Hayes looks back to his best, while it is just possible that Peter Pawlett, a useful winger when he isn't diving, is beginning to live up to his potential.

Oh yeah, and Niall McGinn appears to be just as potent as he was last season.

After this impressive start to the season, Pittodrie looks set to be sold out for the third game of the campaign.  The opponents?  A certain team from Glasgow, of course...(no, not Partick Thistle).

When I was a student in Aberdeen, I remember there being one or two occasions like this, where the team were in good form, at the top end of the league, and the numbers at home games would skyrocket.  And when the Old Firm came up, there would be a huge demand for tickets.  If the fans start getting optimistic, they start going to matches.  The trouble is, of course, that when the team plays crap, they stop coming - as we saw with some of the rotten attendances last season.

It's a real opportunity for Aberdeen, this - a win on Saturday would be a huge success.  Heck, some of the fans might come back.  In 2002, the Dons finished top four, and won nine home games in a row at one point.  I was at a home win over Livingston in May where the attendance was 19,000!  And not many of them were Livi fans...

And it is, I suppose, as good a time to play Celtic as any.  Many players have been on international duty this week.  They have an away game in Kazakhstan on Tuesday night, and the players hop straight onto an 8 hour flight after the Aberdeen clash.  And we know that, last season, the Bhoys were most vulnerable before and after European games.

That said, Celtic are still the favourites.  An away win would puncture the Aberdeen bubble pretty spectacularly.  After they return from Kazakhstan, they host Inverness, who are, at the time of writing, the only other team with maximum points from two matches.

So much for predictions that ICT would struggle without Andrew Shinnie.  They were sluggish early on against St. Mirren but destroyed the Paisley side in the second half (aided by some of the worst defending in the history of the universe, to be fair), then won at Tannadice far more convincingly than the 1-0 scoreline suggests.  Terry Butcher has managed to compensate for Shinnie's departure by using new signing Jamie Vincent in a more advanced role.  Vincent doesn't have the same level of flair, or the ability to create something out of nothing, but he is powerful, quick, industrious, and has the knack of consistently being in the right place when an attack develops. 

Terry Butcher's insistence on pressing teams high up the pitch, and the pace in the forward line, make them very difficult to play against, especially when chasing the game.  Their defence, very underrated last season, has started this campaign with two clean sheets, which isn't too shabby considering they only managed back-to-back clean sheets once in the league in 2012-13.

The bottom line is that, as a Caley Thistle fan, I'm also in real danger of becoming optimistic about the season ahead.  Saturday afternoon sees a home game against Motherwell, who are always difficult opponents but are clearly less frightening than last season.  At least two-thirds of my brain keeps telling me that James McFadden is due a performance.  If that happens, that 100% record probably goes down the pan.  If it doesn't, ICT could travel to Celtic Park as the side top of the SPFL.

Hey, a guy can dream!

On the other hand, if Celtic win their next two games, beating the sides who have started the new season most promisingly, despite having to chop and change the side as a result of their Champions League obligations, then, frankly, that little smidgeon of hope that there might be a title race will be well and truly snuffed out.  And it won't even be the end of August...


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