Friday, October 26, 2012

SPL: Motherwell v Hibs

An acquaintance, for whom the glass is forever half empty, insisted to me last Sunday evening that Hibs would be in the bottom three of the SPL after the next three games.

That is mathematically possible. And this particular lover of life had, unlike me, endured the trip to Dingwall to see goalkeeper Ben Williams do a Highland fling in losing three goals and three points to Ross County.

He also told me that he "fears" for Hibs at Fir Park tonight. He didn't quantify the extent of that fearfulness but his solemnity of tone suggested Motherwell winning 3-0 or 4-0 - at 16/1 and 28/1 - wouldn't be outlandish.

Clearly I've got some really quite depressing friends. But his pessimism is indicative of where this SPL season is going.

Last week Hibs again displayed a certain fragility that earlier results might have masked.

That's enough to convince many that talk of (bottle) green shoots of recovery is overstated.

But if you're convinced that Pat Fenlon is turning things round at Easter Road you can point to some encouraging wins and some sound performances.

The optimist will argue that a win against Motherwell tonight would push Hibs into second place in the SPL table. That's progress.

The truth, as is so often case, probably lurks somewhere in between for Hibs and most other clubs.

A few weeks ago Motherwell were looking to go clear at the top of the table. They've since dropped back into the pack but a win tonight will take them from sixth to third.

16 points separate leaders Celtic from Dundee at the bottom. But only eight points split second placed Inverness and Dundee United in eleventh.

While Celtic haven't yet made the dash for glory that many predicted there does seem to have been a levelling among ten of the twelve clubs.

That might make the league thrillingly competitive or an orgy of mediocrity. Maybe it can be both at the same time.

It will also make it harder for anyone else to track Celtic if they do make a break. And it makes predicting the outcome of a majority of games something of a lottery.

It looks that way this evening.

Another Friday night experiment - although this perhaps owes more to ESPN filling a schedule hole than a commitment to improving the fan experience.

Tonight is actually a good chance to track the progress of Friday night football. This is third Friday game between these two since 1995 and the second in two seasons.

The TV free and abandoned match last year - Pat Fenlon's first game in charge of Hibs - drew an attendance of around 6700. That was a slightly larger crowd than turned up for Sky's live goalless draw in 1995.

If you're going to have an experiment it is useful to be able to draw comparisons. Tonight offers those comparisons.

Will the Friday night pioneers who turn up be entertained this evening?

Ladbrokes Game On!Goalless draws (10/1) are rare indeed in this fixture these days. This season Hibs have have looked less comfortable away from home, conceding 11 goals in 5 matches and taking just four points.

Motherwell - whose early season fluency seems to have deserted them - have taken five points from four home games, scoring six goals and conceding five.

And both come into this on the back of away defeats to teams below them in the league.

Tonight's odds - Motherwell are 21/20, Hibs 5/2 and the draw 12/5 - actually push me towards the draw.

A scoring draw.

1-1 is 6/1 while 2-2 is 14/1.

I always need to back Hibs though - although I suspect that this might contribute to whatever jinx it is they are toiling under at any given time - so I'll take a 2-1 away win at 11/1.

Combining that with Eoin Doyle as first goalscorer - for no other reason than an increasing appreciation for the cut of his jib - swells the odds to 50/1.

And because one day he must surely treat the SPL to his flying geriatric goal celebration I'll take my normal flutter on Shefki Kuqi as last goalscorer at 8/1.

One day.

Am I confident? No.

But a predictable unpredictability might be the SPL's calling card this season.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Barcelona v Celtic: An underdog's life

Having finally cleared one long standing Champions League hurdle with their away win in Moscow, Celtic must topple giants this evening.

Barcelona away is a fixture that makes most teams tremble. It looks a hopeless journey for our plucky Scottish champions, a side who have only just registered a maiden away win in this competition.

If Celtic will be prohibitive favourites in all their domestic matches this year they must accept the role of underdogs tonight.

As Gary Linton recalled in his post last night, it's not that long ago since Celtic were knocking Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup or taking a rare Champions League away point at the Nou Camp.

Not that long ago, but it feels like a footballing lifetime. In the intervening years Barcelona have come as close to any team of our generation to reinventing how football should be played.

Celtic, in common with most sides, have been stranded in their wake, stuck playing the football of mere mortals.

Abandon hope all ye who enter Catalonia?


But, as Jose Mourinho was rather narkily explaining recently, Barcelona are not currently Spanish or European champions.

There has also been a vulnerability at times, a reliance on a mismatched defence made up of converted midfielders.

Unfortunately for Celtic they retain the ability to simply score more than the opposition no matter how many they concede.

Every silver lining has a cloud.

All this could be good news for the myopic Celtic fan or the neutral with an inkling for a shock.

Because a winning bet on Celtic this evening would be a lucrative affair.

A Barcelona win is priced at 1/12. A Celtic win is a whopping 20/1. The draw is 10/1.

If a football match is a two horse race then the bookies see this one as a sprint between Frankel and Robert Louis Stevenson's Modestine.

Ladbrokes Game On!Gary's prediction of a 2-1 Barcelona win is 12/1. By contrast a 1-0 win for Celtic is out at 40/1, remarkably the same price as a 7-0 win for Barcelona.

Celtic's ambitions in this competition are likely to be realised away from their two clashes with Barcelona.

Anything tonight would be a huge result and a massive bonus. It looks highly unlikely.

Celtic will need to thrive without much sight of the ball, they'll also need to figure out a way of stopping the superlative stealing Lionel Messi without giving Barcelona's other stars room to thrive. It could be like trying to herd cats.

Better sides than this Celtic team have failed to do any of that successfully.

I've got to - and I suspect I'll not be a lone voice here - plump for a comfortable Barcelona win.

3-0 at 11/2 or 4-1 at 12/1.

David deserves more glory in this competition. But tonight should belong to Goliath.

All odds from Ladbrokes #gameon

Always remembering

Monday, October 22, 2012

Barcelona v Celtic: The magic men

Tomorrow night Celtic face the sternest test of the Champions League campaign with a trip to face Barcelona. Spanish football enthusiast Gary Linton, the Messi of Twitter @AlbaEspana, takes a look at a Barcelona side where attacking brilliance and a winning mentality continue to overcome a makeshift defence.

The best team to ever play the game, they play the most beautiful football in the world. They’re not human beings, they’re all robots.

All these things and many, many other things have been said about this Barcelona side. To be honest, it’s all true, well maybe not the robots part, but frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if it was!

They have Messi, they have Xavi and they have Iniesta. That’s not all, they have Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Jordi Alba, David Villa the list could go on and on.

What Celtic must realise and what Celtic manager Neil Lennon already knows, is this side will hurt you from all angles, and they’ll hurt you bad.

It’s not a one man, two man or even a three man team, it’s an eleven man team, coaching staff, substitutes, tea ladies, kit men, pitch man and of course the most important part of this fantastic and special club, the fans.

Neil Lennon, the Celtic manager, was in the Celtic side that beat Barcelona in the 2003/04 UEFA Cup fourth round. Víctor Valdés, Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández played in Celtic's 1-0 first-leg victory, and they all featured again in the goalless second leg. That is a result that will stay with Celtic fans that were there for those two legs, it will stay with Lennon and all other players who managed to triumph over this fantastic side.

Because since then it’s not looked so good for Celtic, it’s not looked so good for many clubs (we’ll get back to that a little later). Barcelona in recent years found a new man to manage them, they found Mr Pep Guardiola.

A man who won it all with Barcelona, a man who toppled all that came his and his team’s way, he may or may not have ‘built’ this team, but he certainly put his stamp on it, made them play his way and made them win his way. The way that’s got them mentioned by almost every single football fan as the greatest ever side to play the game.

He’s now left, he’s no longer at Barcelona but all the players still are. Their new boss is Pep’s second hand man, Tito Vilanova. With Tito in charge they’re still the same old winning Barcelona. Tito has been in charge of Barcelona for 13 matches, in those 13 matches he’s won 11, drawn one and been defeated once.

Yes, back to the part where I mentioned it’s not looked so good for Celtic against Barcelona since that 2003/04 UEFA Cup win.

In 2004/2005 Henrik Larsson struck against his old club with Deco and Ludovic Giuly also scoring when Barcelona won 3-1 at Celtic in the UEFA Champions League group stage. Lennon appeared along with Valdés, Puyol and Xavi and all four were present in the Camp Nou return, together with Andrés Iniesta, a 60th-minute substitute. It finished 1-1 after John Hartson cancelled out Samuel Eto'o's strike.

A couple of seasons went by and Barcelona and Celtic met again, this time in the 2007/08 round of 16. It was going well for the Scottish side; they went 1-0 up through Vennegoor of Hesselink in the 16th minute, and then found themselves level moments later when Messi scored, they then went back in front with a goal from Barry Robson. It wasn’t enough and eventually goals from Henry and a second from Messi saw Barcelona win the first leg, the second leg was all to play for, but Barcelona did what Barcelona do, they won. They won the return leg 1-0 courtesy of a Xavi goal for a 4-4 aggregate victory.

Now let’s get back to Tito Vilanova and today’s Barcelona. As I said  they are "winners" with just a single defeat so far for Tito at the hands of Real Madrid in the super cup second leg. However, since that defeat they’re unbeaten in their last eight games, with seven wins and a single draw, again against Real Madrid, this time in the league.

Messi’s on form, 27 goals for club and country in his last 16 appearances, Xavi’s back, Iniesta’s back and so is David Villa. The likelihood, looking at past meetings and recent results, is a Barcelona victory.

But wait: there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Barcelona do have "some" problems. Pique doesn’t look likely to feature in the game, Puyol is out injured, Abidal is still sidelined as he’s been for the whole season and of course Dani Alves is still out injured.

So they have to go with a 'make shift' back line. Young Montoya has recently filled in at right back; they've got to go with the centre back pairing of one former midfielder turned defender in Javier Mascherano and a midfielder playing as defender who still likes to act at times as a midfielder in Alex Song. That’s unless Tito goes with Adriano (a left back or left midfielder) at centre back but even then you’d still have a very 'unreliable' and not 'up to scratch' defence.

They are also missing a pivotal part of the 'defence' in defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets who is suspended following his red card on match day two.

Now I know, I know what you’re thinking, Barcelona are Barcelona and whoever plays will fill in just fine. You may be right.

But I know one thing for sure; I’d rather go up against a back line like that instead of a back line featuring Pique, Puyol and Alves.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Sevilla who put two past them a couple of weeks back, or even Spartak Moscow who did the same. If you don’t believe either of them just ask Deportivo La Coruna who, just this weekend, put four past them, that’s right four.

They did in the end lose the game 5-4 but, come on, I said 'some light' at the end of the tunnel.

Prediction: Barcelona 2-1

Possible starting XI: Valdes – Alba, Mascherano, Song, Montoya – Iniesta, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas – Tello, Messi, Pedro.

Match facts: Celtic

  • The 3-2 win at FC Spartak Moscow was Celtic's first in 21 attempts away from home in the UEFA Champions League. They had lost 19 of the previous 20.
  • Fraser Forster and Scott Brown have played all 540 minutes of Celtic's campaign, qualifying included.
  • Ten of the side that started on match day one were making their group stage debuts, with Brown the sole exception.
  • Victor Wanyama's next yellow card will incur a ban.

Match facts: Barcelona 

  • Barcelona have won 99 games in the UEFA Champions League, group stage to final, and scored 346 goals.
  • Lionel Messi has been UEFA Champions League top scorer for an unprecedented four successive campaigns.
  • Xavi Hernández has completed 236 of his 266 passes so far, both the highest in the competition. Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano are second and third respectively.
  • Barcelona have completed 1,400 of their 1,627 passes; both competition highs.
Read Gary's blog at Alba España