With the 4th Old Firm game (and probably the most important for our title aspirations) on the horizon I wanted to take a look at both squads and compare them at this stage in the season.
As we arrive at this juncture in the season both sides can claim that they have lost important players. In particular, Celtic have lost their talismanic goalkeeper, Artur Boruc, and influential winger, Aiden McGeady, whilst the huns have lost their goalscorer, Kenny Miller. Additions to the squads have been heavily weighted in Celtic’s favour seeing Forster, Majstorovic, Izaguirre, Cha, Mulgrew, Juarez, Kayal, Ledley, Ljungberg, Hooper, Stokes and Murphy all sign on. The dark side, however, have added ‘Spit the Dug’, Foster, Jelavic and Bartley. Rangers squad is small but settled whilst Celtic have gone through another rebuilding phase but where are they at now.
My predicted line-ups for Sunday (withstanding injuries) are:-
Wilson Majstorovic Mulgrew Izaguirre
Brown Kayal Ki-Sung-Yeung Ledley
Papac Bougherra Weir Whittaker
‘Spit the Dug’ Davis Ness Weiss
As I mentioned above Celtic lost Artur Boruc to Fiorentina in the summer via a deal which was part business, part players desire to leave. Filling the shoes (or boots) of ‘The Holy Goalie’ was always going to be tough and Celtic tried for a recognised keeper with the likes of James and Given being approached. After failing to get their men Celtic turned to Newcastle’s 3rd choice keeper, 6’7″ Fraser Forster, who arrived with a glowing reference from Paul Lambert at Norwich where Forster spent last season. So far Forster has shown, as expected, glimpses of both potential and inexperience. A mix of fine saves have been peppered with a clumsy appearance when the ball is at feet and a limited command of the 6 yard area despite his size. My opinion on Forster has always been that we should not be developing a goalkeeper for another club. Forster can do well in the game, that I am sure, but we should not be providing the playground within which he learns.
The huns, on the other hand, have a keeper whose behaviour off the pitch has grabbed the headlines just as much as his performances on it. Allan McGregor established himself as No.1 following the glorious Le Guen era :-). He has undoubtedly improved over the years as a keeper and plays with a confidence and a swagger that is required for that position. Often in Old Firm matches he has made saves which have prevented us from grabbing more than we have got. Whether they can hold on to him is another matter but whether established clubs want to bring a player with his character to their team is also up for debate.
Due to the fact that McGregor is an established player and a good shot-stopper then I would tip the balance in the huns favour within this position.
An area of the park within which Celtic have struggled to develop for the past few seasons. McManus, Caldwell and Loovens were never accepted by the fans due to their shaky performances whilst at full-back we lacked quality. The first step in the right direction for me was the appointment of Johan Mjallby. We needed someone on the training ground who had the character and the passion whilst knowing what it took to play in that position. Mowbray unfortunately lacked the character and the passion whilst Grant was surprisingly subdued. Majstorovic and Rogne have, until recently, been the pairing of choice for Lennon. The signing of Rogne, who has shown potential, must be credited to the Mowbray regime although he is not yet the finished article. Majstorovic was blatantly a signing made in an attempt to sacrifice the technical for the physical and has been met with some success. In the modern game both these players, however, are open to being turned and ran at but will rarely lose a header or a 50-50. Recent injuries to both these players has seen Charlie Mulgrew deputise at Centre Half and so far he has equipped himself well with composed performances belying the limitations he has shown when playing left-back.
Whilst filed under the category of defenders Wilson and Izaguirre have proven in recent weeks that they are very much attack minded with their marauding runs down the wing. Izaguirre has been an outstanding addition to the squad showing real class with the ball at his feet and an engine sponsored by Duracell. His link up play with the wide midfielders has given opposition players food for thought as he can deliver a great ball in to the box. Mark Wilson is like a veteran at the club although his appearances to years with Celtic ratio has been greatly affected by injury. At present Wilson is also showing a quality in his play which has saw him force his way back in to the Scotland squad as well as chip in with a few goals to the point he is currently ahead of Lafferty in the scoring charts!
Rankers rely heavily upon this area of the field looking to soak up pressure and hit teams on the break. Weir and Bougherra are their partnership of choice at centre half with Papac and Whittaker as full backs. Weir brings experience to the team, however, as the season goes on his boots appear to get heavier as he struggles to cover in a manner which he did 20 years ago!!! A consequence of this ageing player is that the other defenders are worried about leaving him without a carer, therefore, limiting their attacking forays. Bougherra does still enjoy a dribble (as does Weir but not in the same sense of the word!) and a charge forward which can bring about some degree of success but I am not sure what the huns think when he loses the ball and is caught upfield leaving Old Father Time watching the shop.
Papac signing a new contract was met with a degree of joy from the huns and I know from blue-nosed family and friends that he is well thought of within Castle Greyskull. Having not taken in many of their games my knowledge of him is limited but I can see what is appealing about his play. He appears to be quietly effective in his role and brings something to the defensive side of their team. Whittaker, on the other hand, is a player I do rate particularly around his attacking play. Whittaker appears to be able to run at pace and go past a man whilst chipping in with a few goals through his apparent “If you don’t shoot, you don’t score” mentality.
Defensively both teams have their strengths and weaknesses making this area of the park even in my opinion. Celtic have addressed an area of the team which needed stabilised, however, the pursuit of other players suggests this is not the finished article. The Dark Side have built recent success on their defence but must surely be concerned with the obvious effect on the cornerstone of this area through age and regular matches.
Without a doubt the key battleground for the match on Sunday and I will try and remain balanced in my opinion but please forgive me if I wander off into expressing my love for the Celtic midfield.
Scott Brown, Beram Kayal, Joe Ledley, Kris Commons and, latterly, Ki-Sung-Yeung have brought a mix of both physical and technical attributes to the party and formed a partnership which has been mouth-watering at times. The arrival of Ledley, Kayal and Commons appears to have freed Brown of whatever shackles he had been playing with and brought his performances back to the level which made him a £4.5m signing. Kayal (alongwith Izzy) has been the signing of the season. He chases the ball around the midfield like a jack russell chasing a wind-floater and snaps into tackles with aggression and effectiveness. Opposition players and fans hate him (remind you of anyone else who played that position?) and are continually moaning to refs about his style. Ledley arrived with a reputation and the well-publicised nature of the chase for his signature weighing heavy on his shoulders. Initially he appeared unsettled and not the box-to-box midfielder we had seen on BBC1 on a Saturday night for Cardiff. Recently, however, he has began to dictate the midfield and play passes which are direct and effective (Exhibits ‘A’ and ‘B’ are 2 assists in the last 2 OF games). Kris Commons won the hearts of the fans with his Nacho Novo-esque “I said No!” proclamation. That is where the similarities between those 2 ends, however, as Commons has settled immediately and shown that he could be a great addition to the squad with his goals and assists belying the £300,000 transfer fee paid to Derby. (Only just learnt that Sunday’s game will be Commons home debut!-surprised)
On the other side we have Davis, Ness, Spit the Dug, Edu and Weiss. The loss of ‘Elbows’ for the season is just as big a blow to that lot than losing Kenny Miller was. McCulloch epitomises their philosophy on football by kicking everything that moves and protecting Grandad at the back. What’s the difference between him and Kayal? Kayal is firm and fair, McCulloch is dirty and cowardly. Davis is the pick of the bunch within that area for me. He can play a pass and offers support to the attack. Unfortunately for them, however, his impact in these matches has been minimal primarily due to the limitations of those around him. ‘Spit the Dug’ was a signing only they would make given the players reputation. The January window was closing and Spit was being touted around clubs like a well rode whore. Everyone said ‘no thanks’ but Rankers said ‘yes please!’. Don’t get me wrong Spit can play a bit but his temper and attitude curtails this and his antics off the park make him unattractive to those with morals. Rankers selection of Jamie Ness has been met with widespread fanfare within the Scottish media. Credit has been given for “throwing a youngster in” (Forrest? MacGinn?). Ness has shown some nice touches in his 2 OF matches and can obviously be pleased with his strike in the 2-2 game. He has, however, been swamped by Celtic’s energy and hunger in this battlefield and tired before disappearing towards the latter end of these games but who else do they have – Fleckaldinho? Vladimir Weiss is a player who was as confused as a 13 year old trying to work out their sexuality when he signed for them. A week before signing Celtic were the only club he wished to play for (heard that line somewhere before!) yet after signing HE apparently turned Celtic down in favour of signing for the Dark Side. I prefer to believe that Celtic had a look and concluded that we had the same if not better already at the club. Weiss as a player enjoys to get the ball and run and run and run and run and run and run and run and…………..you get the picture. He appears to be a frustrating player who has the potential to do something but flatters to deceive.
Celtic, for me, win this area hands down and have far superior players both on the park and in reserve who can change a game particularly in McCourt and Forrest. The possession play when with the ball and the hunger to retrieve it when not is a style of play which I welcome and so far has brought with it some success.
If ever a transfer showed how much Rankers are skint it was the sale of Kenny Miller. Despite my own personal feelings of hatred towards him he knew where the goal was and single-handedly kept them in the title race.
Gary Hooper arrived from Scunthorpe with a pedigree for goalscoring and a small price-tag which had many in the media quipping ‘can he do it at a big club?’. His reply has been an unequivocal ‘yes!’. Hooper hit the ground running and initially filled a void in the team which had been missing – a poacher. He was not interested in getting involved in the midfield or out wide but would just stay between the posts and in the box and feed off the scraps. His impact was such that when he was stretchered off injured in December his loss was mourned and concern shown for how long he would be out. Fortunately this was not as bad as first feared and he appears to have returned just as strong and hungry as before. Hooper, however, has also been well supported in matches this season by both Stokes and Samaras. Hooper and Stokes in particular appear to have clicked and are linking up well and complimenting one another but it appears Stokes may be the one sacrificed in these matches to accommodate an extra midfielder. Samaras, on the other hand, continues to frustrate with his level of performance in the recent 2-0 victory at Ibrox not being seen often enough. That said he appears to be someone who the huns do not know how to handle and who Grandad hates to be isolated with.
Miller leaving the huns was very much welcomed and quietly sniggered at by myself. Jelavic was purchased in the summer by all the money they could find stuffed down the back of the couch. He is not a similar type of player to Miller, therefore, has required them to change their counter-attacking ways. Jelavic will not play on the shoulder of the last man and run away from him ala Miller but will run the channels and appears to have a nice touch for a big man. His impact has been limited by an ankle injury early into the season and it is yet to be seen whether he will be the replacement for Miller which the Establishment are praying for. Lafferty and Healy are Plan ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ for the huns, both of whom do not exactly strike fear in to the heart of defenders.
Miller’s departure has shifted the balance of power in this area towards Celtic. Hooper, Stokes and Samaras V Jelavic, Lafferty and Healy is a no-brainer for me in terms of who has the better quality but as we know this does not win you matches and that quality must be shown on the day.
Celtic go into this game the form team and are at home, therefore, will be the bookies favourite, a label which I am not always comfortable with. The huns will come and play their usual game knowing that avoiding defeat is much more important than winning. I expect Lennon and his staff to ensure that the players do not get caught up in the fans desire to slaughter the huns and play in the manner which we have done since the turn of the year. Rankers are a wounded animal who, as my analysis above has hopefully shown, do not possess any greater quality than us but do have a squad that know how to win titles. Here’s hoping that quality shines through on the day!!