Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Talking Points from the Premiership

Celtic go through the gears when it matters
Celtic made it 29 games unbeaten in domestic competition and if you look at the scoreline without watching the highlights, you would be excused for thinking it was another stroll in the park for Brendan Rodgers' men.

At half-time the online chatter was pretty much focused around whether St Johnstone would be the first team in the country to beat Celtic since, well, St Johnstone did at the tail end of last season. 
An early goal from Liam Henderson settled the nerves that I had pre-match but a Bitton masterclass in how not to defend a header and a Dedryck Boyata OG made it 2-1 to the hosts at the break. 
A lacklustre Gary Mackay-Steven was replaced by a returning Moussa Dembele on 59 minutes and thanks to that terrible refereeing decision from Craig Thomson he had an opportunity to level things up from the penalty spot, he duly dispatched it and the result was only ever going one way after that.  A Dembele strike put the Bhoys 3-2 up, the league's top scorer, Scott Sinclair, made it four before the big French striker finished off a fantastic team move to make it a five-star performance from the Champions elect.

It's now 95 goals for the season from Celtic and 23 of them from the 20-year-old Dembele. 
Who can stop this ever improving juggernaut that is Celtic under Brendan Rodgers? Inverness in the Scottish Cup at the weekend? I wouldn't think so...PF

Foran's stay of execution
It's actually questionable whether a loss to Dundee would have meant the end for Richie Foran - the Caley Thistle board do not rush to dismiss managers - but the question would have been asked rather loudly, especially after a dreadful first half in which Inverness picked up where they left off at Hamilton on Tuesday, and not in a good way.

But the comeback from two goals down, on the back of an outstanding performance after the interval, at least allows one to use the narrative that 'the players are still playing for the manager' and that there's still the chance to turn this around.  But that would be a big conclusion to jump to.  Caley Thistle's last three games were all winnable - against Partick, Accies and Dundee - and they managed to pick up as many points (two) as they missed penalties.

And just look at the upcoming fixtures.  After Celtic away in the cup next week, they have Hearts away, Rangers at home and Celtic at home.  It will be a shock if they are still within three points of the sides above them after that.  Their next winnable fixture is not till 11 March.  And if ICT are still in the mire at that point, surely there isn't enough time for Foran's successor to rescue them.  In hindsight, they might wish they had lost to Dundee and got a new boss in who had enough time to change things and prevent relegation. LS

The biggest "embarrassment" was McGhee
Despite the best hopes of referee Andrew Dallas, the sending off of Motherwell's Carl McHugh didn't sufficiently distract from his earlier decision to book Hearts' Malaury Martin for the heinous crime of being a yard away when one Motherwell player tripped over his own teammate (No, I'm not kidding).

That's partly because the McHugh decision was right - he hacked Don Cowie with his foot raised and his studs showing, catching the Jambo on the ankle.  It was dangerous and wild.  This author has very little time for those sort of challenges - in all his years of playing in kickabouts he's never fouled anyone like that, nor seen a foul like that.  Jumping in with studs raised or two feet is a deliberate decision by a player, not a natural movement.

So for Mark McGhee to label the decision an "embarrassment" was almost as remarkable as his "never in a million years" rant that it was part of.  Whilst Dallas is a dreadful ref, he got this one spot on.  One wonders whether McGhee was looking to deflect blame from his side's latest poor result at home (no-one has conceded more goals on their own patch this season), their lacklustre performance with eleven men or his immediate tactical changes to try and hold out for a draw...which allowed Hearts to turn the screw and score jjust six minutes after McHugh's dismissal, as well as making sure that there was no chance of a response.

And so presumably Motherwell will put their money where McGhee's mouth is and appeal the decision?  It turns out they won't.  Given they already wasted several hundred pounds they don't have last week fruitlessly contesting Scott McDonald's Ibrox red, the 'Well board thankfully aren't as stupid as their manager is. LS

Aberdeen have depth...up to a point
Partick Thistle were stubborn, stuffy opponents at Pittodrie; for long periods it looked like Aberdeen might not manage to break them down, until substitutes Jayden Stockley and Ryan Christie struck in the last quarter of an hour to give the Dons a precious victory that moves them into second spot.

Expect to see more of Christie in the coming weeks; Derek McInnes will likely use him in a similar manner to how he deployed James Maddison - often nominally on the left but with licence to drift inside and take advantage of whatever space is available.  Christie is particularly adept at this and will prove a real asset.  Stockley is a fine backup option at centre-forward, not quite consistent enough to frequently dislodge Adam Rooney but good at holding the ball up and capable of getting some goals.

Aberdeen will feel pleased about the strength of their bench - Peter Pawlett, Miles Storey and Anthony O'Connor were also amongst the subs.  But whilst that seems like impressive depth, there is precious little beyond the matchday eighteen - teenager Frank Ross would have been next man up.  If the Dons were to suffer a few injuries, particularly in midfield, then they'd have a problem.  Keeping everyone fit is crucial to their hopes of holding off Rangers and Hearts. LS

Brophy's time to shine
This was supposed to be the season that Eamonn Brophy pushed on; now 20, the Hamilton striker showed plenty of flashes of his potential in the second half of last season, including a great goal against Celtic last February.

One year on, and he hasn't really made much progress.  Brophy has been largely confined to the bench not so much because of the excellent form of teammates but because he hasn't impressed when the opportunities have arisen.  But Alex D'Acol's early injury meant an introduction after 15 minutes against Kilmarnock and a lovely shot on the turn earned him only his second goal of the season.  Just as well really, as he'd earlier spurned a glorious opportunity.

Whilst D'Acol has been decent in spades, Hamilton really, really, really need a regular goalscorer if they are to finish above eleventh.  This is Brophy's time to shine. LS

Rangers struggle against mid-table opposition again
We’re a long way from the days where teams like Ross County would be content to get away from Ibrox without a sound thrashing, but Rangers still have aspirations to be challenging for the league in the near future.  If that’s the case, a game against a team with two wins in their last ten should at least be fairly routine.  While defeats to Celtic and Hearts are painful, it is results against the likes of Ross County, St Johnstone, and Kilmarnock that show that this Rangers team isn’t much better that the one that was in the Championship last season.

Even though they’ve won more than they’ve lost, few mid-to-lower table teams have been dismissed with the ease that a good team should expect.  Mark Warburton pointed to the number of shots Rangers had on Saturday, suggesting they were unlucky not to win.  On another viewing, Ross County were unlucky not to be out of sight by half time.  And even when they did create chances, the home side lacked the quality to finish things off; this was exemplified by one Joe Garner chance in the second half where he found himself one-on-one with the keeper but looked like he’d never been in that situation before. That’s "One Point Five Million Pound Striker Joe Garner", to give him his full name.

Things are drifting at Ibrox and it’s clear on the pitch but Warburton shows no sign of being able to change things.  He wants to play a game based on passing the ball out of defense, but when you have Clint Hill and Philippe Senderos at the back then maybe that game plan needs to be adjusted.  Enough money has been thrown at the problem to pretty much guarantee a top four finish, but currently the team looks as far away from Celtic as it has done since 2012.  The problem with rebuilding the team, from the manager down, is that it’s been a long time since Rangers have a had an ownership that would suggest such a project could be competently executed. IM

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

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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