Tuesday, October 26, 2010

League Cup Quarter Finals Preview

Quarter final time in the Co-operative Insurance Cup this midweek. The lesser of our major competitions. Still nice to win it though.

And it would be even nicer to get through these games without the merest hint of a refereeing controversy. Please.

Aberdeen v Falkirk
As the last lower division club left in the draw Falkirk will have been happy to get Aberdeen, a team that has turned cup embarrassments into something of a specialist subject of late. The Dons got past Raith to lay a few ghosts to rest in the last round though and put in an improved performance in dealing with Hibs on Saturday.

Falkirk will be out to build on Saturday’s thumping win over Queen of the South and to prove that their removal from the SPL is only temporary. Beating Hearts in the last round was quite a statement of intent.

Mark McGhee’s not being without his problems of late but he seems to see the offer of redemption in the road to Hampden so it’s unlikely he’ll leave much to chance tonight. For that reason, Aberdeen to win.

Motherwell v Dundee United
As you were folks. I’m tempted to just point you in the direction of last weekend’s SPL preview as much of what I said there still applies to this knockout rematch.

By all accounts United were less than impressive on Saturday and I’d expect an improvement tonight. I still think Motherwell will edge it though.

Tonight’s referee is Willie Collum. Craig Brown has watched a lot of football, talks some nonsense but also has a lot to say that people should listen to. Here’s his verdict on Collum’s Old Firm performance:

"I watched the game and thought the referee was very good," said Brown. "He was put in a hell of a position before the match. He could have ordered two players off right at the beginning of the game, but I give him credit. He used discretion, he was firm and he was positive."

Just saying.

Kilmarnock v Rangers
Way back in August Kilmarnock lost only 2-1 at Ibrox on the opening day of the season. Since then Rangers are undefeated in a competitions and Kilmarnock have shown that they won’t be the relegation fodder some predicted without actually getting the results some of their performances have merited.

Strangely Killie have lost five of their SPL games 2-1. I think Rangers might get a few more than that tomorrow though. A comfortable away win.

St Johnstone v Celtic
The first of a double header between these two and our quarter final televisual spectacular. For anyone living on a distant planet Celtic lost the Old Firm game at the weekend and aren’t all that happy about it.

If there’s any lingering hangovers about the defeat to Rangers then St Johnstone is probably not the best place to go and the Saints have a bit of cup pedigree over the last few seasons.

I can’t see past a fairly routine Celtic victory though. And Neil Lennon might just get another chance to outfox Walter Smith in the semi final.

* A few more words of wisdom about Celtic, the Old Firm and the League Cup on A Different League.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Look On The Bright Side

So, how was your weekend?

Still smarting that your team played like a bunch of ten year old girls with spatial awareness issues as they tried to impress their new manager?

Still howling at the injustice of conceding a blatant non-penalty?

Cheer up. At least you're not a Feyenoord fan.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Celtic 1 v 3 Rangers: Testing Times For Neil Lennon

Did Willie Collum do Celtic a favour when he took his off the action and awarded Rangers a phantom penalty at Celtic Park today?

Don’t be stupid. Of course he didn’t.

But, by allowing Celtic to ask questions of his performance, the referee might just have let them dodge a few bullets of their own.

Or at least allowed Neil Lennon a little bit of breathing space.

A quick glance suggests that Lennon has turned the club around since he was handed the keys to Tony Mowbray’s collapsing empire.

This, after all, was his first SPL defeat as a young manager learning his trade. But, and apologies for the cliche, Old Firm managers are not given time. It’s not an environment to learn in.

We might justifiably write off his Scottish Cup semi final defeat to Ross County as being an almost impossible task given his inheritance and his impassioned honesty following that game was to be applauded.

But Lennon’s Celtic have failed their big tests. Out of two European competitions before the summer had ended and now a second half capitulation in the first Old Firm game of the season.

The new Celtic are showing worrying signs of retaining a fatal brittleness when the games really matter. It’s one thing to build a team capable of winning against the SPL also-rans, quite another to create a team that can do that and step up a gear when the going gets slightly tougher.

Lennon is also unlucky in running into a Rangers team that has a settled feel, stuffed full of players that understand exactly what this two team league within a league involves. And, for all their limitations in finance and personnel, it’s no accident that Rangers are undefeated in all competitions this season.

Today’s penalty decision can’t be used to hide from the conclusion that the better team won today. We might even say that before Collum’s error Celtic had a degree of fortune. Shaun Maloney’s enforced early withdrawal changed the shape of the game in a way that seemed to suit the home side, Rangers were uncharacteristically slack in giving Gary Hooper the space to score the opener.

Yet somehow Celtic still managed to look diminished in the second half, almost immediately conceding the equaliser and offering little as Rangers pushed on and Kenny Miller got the second.

The season remains in its infancy. Three points is nothing at this stage even if the momentum has now swung slightly towards Ibrox.

But Lennon must feel that being Celtic manager is a constant series of examinations. Arguably he has now failed in four - or at least three - of the biggest.

He’ll face more over the course of a long season. He can only be judged a success in the role if he comes through at least some of them unscathed.

He still has time to do that. Come May I might be eating these words as he hoists the championship trophy aloft. Already there is much to admire in the way he has set about transforming Celtic.

For now though Neil Lennon the manager remains, like his team, a work in progress. I wrote yesterday that this Old Firm was the chance for someone to score a psychological victory for the season ahead.

Walter Smith will be quietly satisfied that he’s done just that. The apprentice in the other dug-out might be getting just a touch nervous.