Scottish football’s cold harsh winter in Europe

Barcelona v Celtic

Barcelona v Celtic in the Champions League Photo: Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Celtic’s rather dismal failure to qualify for the Champions League group stage has heaped pressure on manager Ronny Deila and prompted the now annual round of introspection in the Scottish game that follows such results.

The Scottish champions were careless in the first leg against Malmo and, by their own admission, scarcely turned up in the second. Deila suggested that his players underperformed on account of “wanting it too much.” Scott Brown admitted to being “ashamed” afterwards; an honest assessment from an honest player.

So, just how bad have we become in Europe? The honest truth is that the performance of most Scottish clubs in European competition has been less than impressive for quite a long time now and not much has changed this season.

St Johnstone lost to a team from Armenia (that’s quite shameful since Armenia are ranked 24 places below Scotland in UEFA’s coefficient rankings). Inverness Caley lost to Romanian opponents (a lot less shameful than St Johnstone’s effort since Romania are ranked nine places above us). Aberdeen deserve some credit for a decent run (including an excellent victory over my Croatian team, Rijeka)  but still passed up a good opportunity to reach the Europa League group stage by losing to a side from Kazakhstan (Kazakhstan currently sit just three places below us in the rankings).

The problems of Scottish football are well documented and there are no quick or easy fixes. Our current coefficient ranking is 24th out of 54 UEFA member organisations. That’s an interesting ranking, not least because next year’s European Championships will be contested by 24 nations for the first time. The coefficient ranking is based on the performance of club sides in European competition and it gives a good overall indication of the state of the game across Europe. We probably are around the 24th best footballing nation in Europe right now.

Will we therefore be one of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016 in France? Things were looking very positive on that front until Friday night’s inept display in Georgia. To be fair, it was the first such display under Gordon Strachan. Prior to that game, he was rightly raking in plaudits for the job he’s done as Scotland boss.

He didn’t initiate a revolution; he stuck by a core group of players that he trusts, gave them some confidence, added a dash of freedom to express themselves and we seemed at long last to find ourselves competitive in a qualifying group (and a pretty tough group at that).

I’ve looked at the last three rounds of fixtures in the group, starting with tonight’s game against Germany at Hampden, and predicted the results of all the teams still in with a chance of qualifying. By my estimates, Germany will comfortably finish top with Poland in second place while we will finish the group in third place, just marginally ahead of the Republic of Ireland. If I’m right, then a play-off would then await.

I’m predicting a 2-0 win for Germany tonight and partly for that reason I’m not intending to get up at 2:45am to watch the game. Nothing will be decided tonight, but with three qualifying games to go we are definitely entering what Sir Alex would refer to as ‘squeaky bum time.’ And trust me, bums don’t come much squeakier than those of the tartan army. If we can somehow squeak a point, I’ll be delighted with that.

Overall, Strachan has shown that solid (even, at times, entertaining) performances can be coached out of our current squad. His coaching ability is the single biggest difference that has made us more competitive in this qualifying campaign compared to almost any other in recent memory, at least since the famous double victory over France in our ultimately failed bid to reach Euro 2008.

Coaches are important then but the stark fact remains that we need better players, both in the national side and in our top club sides. Wales are on course to qualify for Euro 2016 thanks, in large part, to having a world class player in Gareth Bale leading their attack. Developing such players will take time, investment, and cultural change – all things we’ve known for a long time.

One thing that might also help would be a switch to summer football in Scotland, something that’s been much discussed but never gained too much momentum. I used to be a sceptic but I’ve changed my mind since I left Scotland to live in the tropics. I now go back once a year and in the last couple of years it has been for Christmas. I always go to a game when I’m back. At that time of year, it’s always freezing, usually wet, and the pitches look like beaches (but not of the tropical variety).

Those are not great conditions to play football in and they are not good conditions to watch football in either. So, buckets and spades at the ready, I’m advocating summer football in Scotland. Traditionalists be reassured, we won’t notice that much difference since “summer” in Scotland tends towards the cold and the wet anyway.

Summer football won’t happen in Scotland any time soon but let’s hope that at least some Scottish players are playing football next summer – in France.

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Celtic progress without making much progress in Europe

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon www.flickr.com

Celtic Park. Photo by: Brian Hargadon
http://www.flickr.com

Congratulations to Celtic for qualifying from the group stage of the Europa League and ensuring that there will be European football in Scotland after Christmas this season. The Scottish champions went through despite a 3-1 loss to Salzburg last night with Astra beating Dinamo Zagreb in the other game in the group.

Pleased though they will be to go through, the defeat to Salzburg seems to me like a pretty accurate reflection of where Celtic are right now in European terms. I didn’t see the game but assuming the Austrian’s victory was as comfortable as the score line suggests then I wouldn’t expect Celtic’s current European adventure to last very much longer.

Looking at the starting line up from last night there’s definitely a lack of quality in the team and in the squad. Craig Gordon remains an outstanding goalkeeper on his day and still belongs on the European stage; Van Dijk is a very accomplished central defender and has a long list of suitors; Scott Brown and Charlie Mulgrew have both starred of late for Scotland; but overall there is a lack of the sort of player who can really make the difference at the highest level (or indeed the level of the Europa League).

In contrast to some clubs (naming no names), Celtic have been very prudently run over quite a considerable period of time. The board have made sound financial decisions but there’s no doubt that there’s been slow and steady erosion in the quality of player at Celtic. Neil Lennon’s departure as manager was a sure sign that he didn’t feel the club could continue to compete at the same level that they had in recent years.

Lennon and his side probably slightly overachieved in the Champions League when they qualified for the knock out stages and the squad at Parkhead now resembles an ok but not great Europa League one. Exactly the sort of squad that might lose comfortably to Salzburg and the Austrians are far from the strongest side left in the tournament.

Transfer windows have brought little cheer to Celtic fans of late and they must anticipate January with some trepidation again. When was the last time that Celtic’s squad was stronger at the end of a transfer window than at the beginning? I doubt it will be strengthened this January but it may again be weakened.

While we’re on the subject of the Europa League, let me pay tribute to the heroic exploits of my Croatian team Rijeka. Rijeka is my wife’s home city and I’m a regular visitor. I always try to go to Rijeka games if they’re playing while I’m there. Their stadium, Kantrida, cut into a rock and perched on the edge of the Adriatic Sea is simply one of the most beautiful places to watch the beautiful game that I’ve ever seen.

Last night Rijeka beat Standard Liege 2-0 to keep their qualifications hopes alive in a tough group that includes Sevilla and Feyenoord. Star striker Kramaric is attracting a lot of attention and so sadly I fear that if they do qualify their squad may be weaker by the time the knock out stages start. But anyway, Forza Fiume.

The Monday Post

newcastle

Newcastle. Photo by Nigel Taylor, http://www.flickr.com

Today we’ll take a quick look back at a few things that happened in the world of football this weekend. This may become a more regular feature (part of the purpose of this Blogvember challenge is to try out some different kinds of post) so if you like it, don’t hesitate to say so.

All (kind) comments shall be gratefully received.

I watched two and a bit games this weekend – Newcastle v Liverpool, the Manchester derby, and a bit of Napoli v Roma (see yesterday’s post for why I love Italian football).

As a Liverpool fan, Saturday’s game was painful viewing. Suarez was always going to be tough to replace, and Sturridge being injured has hugely compounded that problem, but the current issues at Anfield seem to run a bit deeper.

I have written elsewhere on this blog in praise of Rodgers but I think his summer transfer policy raises serious questions. Most of the attention is understandably focused on Balotelli (when has that ever not been the case in his career?) but I actually think he was a gamble worth taking at £16 million.

The early signs have not been great but he’s still adjusting to Liverpool’s style of play, he’s hardly played in partnership with Sturridge, and the team as a whole is struggling. His performances have been mixed to say the least but he’s been working hard and has largely avoided controversy (one overly-eager jersey swapping incident aside).

I’m much more concerned by a defence that appears shakier than last season despite some considerable investment in it and a midfield that is nowhere near as commanding as it was last season. The sparing use of Coutinho baffles me.

Rodgers spent some big money in the summer and the side appears stronger as a result. Southampton’s side that is. We took three of their best players and we now sit seventh in the table, behind Swansea and West Ham. Southampton are second.

Lambert, Lallana and Lovren are all decent players. Lambert has not yet had much of a chance (wrongly in my view), Lovren is quite elegant on the ball but lacks authority as a centre half (authority is in short supply across our whole back four and our goalkeeper Mignolet has never had a deep or lasting relationship with the concept), and Lallana looks a little overawed and a lot overpriced.

The Real Madrid – Liverpool game starts at 3.45 am on Wednesday morning in Malaysia. I don’t think I’ll get up for that one.

The Manchester derby was an intriguing game that sparked on several occasions without fully igniting. I predicted in Saturday’s post that City would win and they deserved to. Smalling proved once again that he’ll soon be playing on a smaller stage and van Gaal described him as “stupid.” It’s certainly true that the next club he joins is not likely to be Mensa.

Manchester United actually performed very creditably with ten men and Blind showed that he’s a truly class act. It’s been a very bad start to the season for the red devils but I still expect them to comfortably finish in the top four. There’s so much talent in that squad and despite the desperate start, van Gaal is the real deal.

Roma lost 2-0 in Naples and face a Champions League trip to Bayern Munich in midweek. Bayern beat them 7-1 in Rome a few weeks ago so they’ll probably travel with all the confidence of Mignolet coming off his line at a corner.

The happiest sight of the weekend for me was that of my beloved Dundee United at the top of the table in Scotland. Well played boys.

We also have a league cup semi final against Aberdeen to look forward to. The other semi final will see the reuniting of some firm old friends in Glasgow. Ally McCoist has sensibly appealed for calm ahead of the return of Celtic v Rangers for the first time in almost three years. He might get his wish and I hope he does but I suspect it’s about as likely as Liverpool winning at the Bernabeu this week.