Monday, January 30, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Can Celtic remain invincible?
Even without a recognised striker, the Celtic juggernaut continued on the way to six-in-a-row, with a thumping win over Hearts leaving them unbeaten in domestic competition for 27 straight games, eclipsing the start of the famous Lisbon Lions.  Goals from Callum McGregor, Patrick Roberts and a Scott Sinclair double restored the lead at the top of the table to 22 points and the result never really looked in doubt.  

Craig Gordon was rarely tested, Kieran Tierney and Christian Gamboa were given the freedom of the wings as they looked to punish the Hearts back line and a reborn Dedryck Boyata looked in imperious form in the heart of defence yet again.  The tactical know-how of the Celtic manager showed again when he moved James Forrest to the right from the left and put Patrick Roberts through the middle. This move reunited Tierney and Sinclair on the left-wing, a partnership which has provided dividends time and time again. 

Even the loss of Stuart Armstrong in the warmup didn't hinder the home side; Nir Bitton came in and showed what can do in the middle of the park.  With Eboue Kouassi still to strut his stuff, depth is not a problem.  

Ahead of the visit of Derek McInnes and Aberdeen on Wednesday you have to ask who can take points off Celtic, never mind beat them.  It'll take a touch of class, a bad decision and/or a one-off bad display from Celtic. (and maybe one or two 'honest mistakes' - Ed ;-))  At the moment though, they really do look like they could win the treble and go unbeaten till May.  Can anyone stop them?  PF

Hearts' misery compounded by injuries
The bottom line is that Ian Cathro's tenure at Tynecastle has so far produced just four points in six league games, along with extreme difficulty in getting past Raith Rovers in the cup.  And their Premiership defeats include blowing a two goal lead against Dundee, a toothless loss at home to Aberdeen, and now this shellacking at Celtic Park which came even though the injury-hit hosts had to deploy Scott Sinclair up front.

Cathro must feel like he's walked under a ladder whilst stepping on a black cat.  Not only are too many players out of form, but he's lost pretty much the entire defence that he inherited from Robbie Neilson.  Whilst Faycal Rherras will return from international duty soon, and Alim Ozturk was no great loss, the departure of Igor Rossi left him without his best centre-back, and now John Souttar is lost for the season with an achilles injury.  With Callum Paterson already on the treatment table till the summer, defensive options are very limited...though not so much so that Juwon Oshaniwa is getting a game.  Yet.

Hearts have been busy in the transfer window - Alexandros Tziolis became their seventh January arrival today.  But moulding all these players together will prove a short-term test.  And yet if form does not pick up soon, it won't only be Kris Boyd going after the Jambos' manager, whose inexperience and different way of doing things are a very easy stick to beat him with. LS

Ajer could be an inspired Kilmarnock signing
So much for Kilmarnock struggling in the AC (After Coulibaly) era; they only went and scored three goals in a game for the first time in the league this season, with Kris Boyd on target for the first time since September.  Loanee Sean Longstaff grabbed a late winner here which gives Killie much-needed breathing space at the bottom.

The star man was another temporary arrival - Kristoffer Ajer, the thirteenth loan signing Lee Clark has made so far this season.  The Celtic teenager had to fill in at centre-back here, given his new team's injury problems, but strolled through the match defensively; more crucially, his willingness to bring the ball out from the back gave Kilmarnock control over the game.  Observers likened his ball skills to those of ex-Bhoy Virgil Van Dijk, which is high praise indeed for the eighteen-year-old Norwegian.

Clark's recruitment policy has frequently smacked of throwing youngsters against the wall and hoping a few stick.  Ajer has stuck harder and faster than any of the others, and will be a major weapon in their fight against the drop. LS

In Hyndman, Rangers finally have the midfielder they need
Emerson Hyndman is the latest American to play for Rangers, and on first viewing he could be one of the best.  Granted, Alejandro Bedoya and Carlos Bocanegra aren’t going to end up in the Ibrox Hall of Fame.  But Claudio Reyna held his own in a very good team, and DaMarcus Beasley was fun to watch, while Maurice Edu at least scored a last minute winner in an Old Firm game.

Obviously it’s early days, but on Saturday the Bournemouth loanee not only worked hard, but added some composure to Rangers’ attacks that has been sorely lacking.  His work in the build up to his victory-sealing goal was lovely to watch and just reward for a Man of the Match performance. Had Rangers picked up Hyndman instead of Joey B****n at the start of the season then we all might have saved ourselves a lot of drama...and the Gers might be out of sight for second spot.

Motherwell must have thought it would be their day after Michael O’Halloran’s early red card, but they weren’t able to take advantage after Scott McDonald first missed an open goal and then got himself sent off.  The home side were unable to create anything of note and it became a case of whether the visitors could break them down.  There was little controversy surrounding the red cards, but McDonald’s tackle looked particularly egregious given the victim was a senior citizen, albeit one that can’t stop scoring.

The three horse race for second place looks very much that it will be down to two, particularly if Rangers beats Hearts on Tuesday.  It’s no title race, but the battle between Aberdeen and Rangers is probably going to the most interesting thing about the second half of the season, at least in the top six. IM

Niall McGinn is back to his best
The outcome of this Friday night match - thankfully under fully operational floodlighting - could perhaps have been a different one had Paul McGowan's attempted lob from 25 yards out dipped into the goal instead of crashing off the crossbar.  But once Ryan Jack opened the scoring with a convincing header (followed up with some less than convincing 'dabbing'...) there never seemed to be any reasonable doubt as to the end result.

Niall McGinn, the creator of the opening goal, added a double of his own in a dominant display that was possibly one of his best ever in a Dons shirt.  His first goal was as stunning as McGowan's would have been had it gone in - controlling a knock down from Ash Taylor with the inside of his right thigh before swiveling to strike a left foot volley from similar distance.  His second goal came late in the second half, nodding in a cross from Jonny Hayes.  McGinn looked tired in the early part of the season after his summer efforts with Northern Ireland; he looks revitalized by a winter holiday.

The home support emplored Aberdeen 'Don't sell McGinn!'.  Even if he stays through the January transfer window, the decision will be out of the hands of Niall's employers if he chooses not to extend his contract beyond this summer.  It would be understandable if he decided to move on in the event that a significant offer did emerge for him, and nobody could reasonably begrudge him such an opportunity after years of quality service for the Dons, but hopefully the contract situation can be sorted out sooner rather than later. MI

Accies have reasons to be positive...
To the outsider a three-nil defeat looks pretty comprehensive, but both Tommy Wright and Martin Canning agreed post-match that, until Graham Cummings put St. Johnstone ahead early in the second half, Accies were actually the better team in Perth.  "We'll play better and lose" was Wright's take on the game.  Had Ali Crawford not made a dreadful hash of a glorious first half chance, Accies would probably have come away with a result of some sort.

That will be of some solace to Canning, though less so to a support who are baying for his blood and threatening boycotts until his dismissal.  Hamilton were actually under-strength for this clash, particularly at the back with Georgios Sarris, Massimo Donati and Michael Devlin all suspended; the latter two will be back for the crucial midweek tie with Inverness, while new signing Blair Adams may be fit to start at left-back.  It's a match that may define their season, but they have a wee bit more reason for optimism than their opponents. LS

...but Inverness don't
Caley Thistle could at least claim a rare clean sheet (just their second in the league this season) to go along with their point against the Real Jags, but that was about as far as the positivity could stretch in the Highlands.  This was a truly dreadful game, where the visitors had much the better of the possession and the paltry chances.

Richie Foran explained afterwards that Gary Warren and Greg Tansey were playing through illness, but that went very little way towards explaining his side's toothless attacking play, or the fact that several other players were, shall we say, blowing out of their arses in the final quarter of the match.  For long periods the home side had ten men behind the ball; the eleventh, Henri Anier, committed more fouls than he had touches.

Foran lost the tactical battle for the umpteenth time this season.  Whilst he started with a 4-4-2 (Anier alongside Lonsana Doumbouya), Partick Thistle had, like everyone else, identified that by keeping their wide players high up the pitch they could eliminate Inverness' hope of getting width from their full backs.  And so Steven Lawless and Chris Erskine wreaked havoc between the lines and Thistle were dominant in possession even after Foran switched to 4-2-3-1...then swapped 'wide' men Liam Polworth and Larnell Cole...then moved Polworth into the centre with Anier going wide...then subbed the ineffectual Doumbouya for Iain Vigurs.  Pep Guardiola this was not.  Had Partick's final ball not been frequently terrible - step forward, Callum Booth - they would surely have headed south with all the points.

Inverness have gone eleven league games without a win for the first time in their history.  Foran's status as a club legend has protected him from a lot of criticism, but there was a real sense that the fans' patience is running out.  The trip to Hamilton is huge, and it's not escaped attention that the last time the club sacked a manager (Craig Brewster) it was after a defeat at New Douglas Park. LS

Paul Fisher (PF) is our Celtic correspondent, and spent a number of years helping with Celtic Live.  He is actually a professional journalist.

Martin Ingram (MI) is our Aberdeen Correspondent.  Legend has it that he is the tallest man in the Red Army, and he has the greatest beard that Lawrie has ever seen.  He writes regularly for Aberdeen fanzine The Red Final.

Iain Meredith (IM) is technically our Rangers Correspondent, though these days he tends to support them ironically.  He only agreed to help with this blog so he could tell his wife that he's "only watching the game to help a friend out".

Lawrie Spence (LS) has ranted and spouted his ill-informed opinions on Narey's Toepoker since September 2007.  He has a life outside this blog.  Honestly.

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