In the latest edition of Tartan Talk, Scott Binnie talks about Celtic’s heroics in Russia, an England call-up that verifies the quality of the SPL, Scotland boss Craig Levein eating humble pie too late and more.
Hoops Dare to Hope after Muscovite Magic
Celtic secured a terrific 3-2 win away to Spartak Moscow last week in the Champions League, giving them four points from their first two games and a very realistic chance of qualifying from the group.
Gary Hooper, who has been simply incredible this season, got Celtic off to a great start after 12 minutes but Emmanuel Emenike scored either side of half time to put the Russians 2-1 up. Juan Manuel Insaurralde was dismissed for Spartak in an incident that showed the value of the additional officials, referee Tony Chapron changing his decision to continue play following consultation with one of his goal-side assistants.
Neil Lennon knew Spartak were there for the taking and he sent winger James Forrest on for central player Victor Wanyama, the young Scot having a key role in the equaliser. Forrest shot from the right side of the box but the ball deflected off of the Spartak keeper, only for Dmitri Kombarov to put the ball into his own net. The Hoops kept the pressure on and Georgios Samaras earned Celtic a deserved victory with his 90th minute header.
Celtic are second in the group on four points, two behind leaders Barcelona, three in front of Benfica and four ahead of pointless Spartak. Celtic now face a double-header with Barcelona, and they’ll hope for two draws between Benfica and Spartak.
Regardless of what happens in the two games between the sides currently propping up the Group G table, Celtic have bounced back superbly following the disappointment at home to Benfica in their opening game and have now given themselves a serious opportunity of getting out of the group. To earn any points at all against Barcelona is a bonus for all but a few teams on the planet, but if Celtic can take at least three points from the return fixtures against the Russians and Portuguese then Neil Lennon might just lead his men into the Last 16 of the Champions League. Even a third-placed finish and subsequent run in the Europa League would be huge for the champions.
In other great news for Celtic, their keeper Fraser Forster has been called up to the England squad for their qualifiers with San Marino and Poland. With first choice stopper Joe Hart in blistering form for club and country, it’s doubtful that Forster will win his first cap just yet, but it’s refreshing to see that Roy Hodgson (or someone in his staff at least) is paying enough respectful attention to the Scottish game to reward Forster with a deserved national call-up.
Humble Pie for Craig Levein. Has the Horse Already Bolted Though?
Speaking of international squads, and requesting forgiveness for the unpleasantly corrosive mix of metaphors in the above sub-heading, Scotland boss Craig Levein has finally relented and selected Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher for the games against Wales and Belgium, along with namesake Darren Fletcher. Ex-Hibs striker Steven had been in the cold with national team boss Levein since Fletcher had made himself unavailable for a game against Northern Ireland in February of last year via text message to another member of Levein’s coaching staff.
Massive fan pressure has mounted on Levein since then, particularly recently with the team toiling in front of goal, and after two disappointing draws against Serbia and Macedonia last month it looks like the former Dundee United manager has accepted that the good of the country’s football team is of greater importance than his own ego and pride.
Fletcher didn’t cover himself with any glory with the way he withdrew himself from selection but nor has Craig Levein since then. At times he has come across as petulant and moody, defying public opinion just for the sake of doing so. He relented with Jordan Rhodes, finally calling up the red-hot striker to the full team only to relegate him to the bench in favour of aging striker Kenny Miller, who is now playing out the twilight of his career with Vancouver Whitecaps in the MLS.
Before Rhodes’ withdrawal from the squad due to injury, Craig Levein had the option of leaving £22million of striking talent in Rhodes and Fletcher on the bench in favour of playing the 32 year old ex-Celtic, Rangers and Derby County front man on his own. Given some of Levein’s decisions, this wouldn’t have been a shock.
Fees don’t necessarily dictate the quality of the player (Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, here’s looking at you lads), but there is no question that these two should be ahead of Miller in the pecking order up front. No, they haven’t done it for Scotland yet, but with just a dozen caps between them, they haven’t exactly been given a chance.
In all honesty, after two points from the first two games against Serbia and Macedonia, I think it’s too late to mount a serious run at qualifying from a group that contains Croatia and Belgium, but better late than never. At least this way, we Scots will be more likely to be able indulge our tendency for a glorious failure or two.
Gers Taste First Defeat on Journey Back to the Top
Rangers suffered perhaps the worst result in their 140+ year history on Saturday, a 1-0 defeat to Stirling Albion, a club who sat bottom of the Scottish Football League at the beginning of the day. Stirling’s captain Brian Allison bundled home the winner in the 8th minute and what followed was a defensive display that would have had European Champions Chelsea gazing jealously at Forthbank, on the very minute chance their megastars are even aware of the existence of the Scottish Third Division.
Admittedly, Albion rode their luck at times: Lee McCulloch hit the post, Marc McCulloch cleared Sebastian Faure’s header when the ball looked to be over the line, and a number of, shall we say ‘robust’ challenges, on Rangers players that could have resulted in a red card or two for the home side went unpunished. Of course these are not excuses, nor are they sufficient explanation for a full-time team with the second highest wage bill in Scotland failing to score against a side technically the ‘worst team in Scotland’ at the start of the match. Coming from someone who has seen all but a few of Stirling’s games this season, that title is one that is completely unjust. Individual errors and low confidence have plagued the Binos, but after they saw off the Ibrox giants, confidence is unlikely to be an issue. Montrose, Berwick and co – beware the Binos.
Returning to Rangers, the result saw a number of fans and experts raising questions about Ally McCoist’s suitability to the managerial role at Ibrox. Is he good enough? Many point to his issues on the pitch last season before administration saw Rangers deducted 10 points. Let’s not forget that it was his first season in charge, or that Rangers’ best player Steven Naismith was out injured and star striker Nikica Jelavic was unsettled and ultimately sold to Everton in January. McCoist has also endured a more torrid time than most managers will ever need to in their debut season, so whilst these aren’t meant to be excuses for McCoist’s struggles, they should serve to put some perspective onto his record.
As McCoist said after the game, the club were always expecting a tough ride in the SFL and they haven’t been disappointed in that regard so far. They’re still massive favourites to win the league and they’ll do so in some style. Things will click into place for Rangers soon, whether it comes with the return from injury of Andy Little and David Templeton or with a ceremonial dropping of many of the underperforming senior players, and they will pull away from the pack.
Partick Face First Test of Championship Credentials
There are teams in Scotland outside of the Old Firm and one of the most impressive so far this year has been First Division Partick Thistle. They snatched a draw last weekend when it looked certain that Raith Rovers would walk away with a 1-0 victory, and admittedly I had written the first draft of an article explaining why that result strongly suggested Thistle would win the league. Had that article been finished and published online I’d be a bit red-faced right now given that Thistle went down 3-1 to Morton at the weekend, their first defeat of the season.
As with Rangers, one league defeat doesn’t necessarily derail a title campaign, but now that Dunfermline have edged in front of Partick at the top of the table, the Jags will need to get winning again immediately to stop the Pars creating a gap in the race to win promotion to the SPL. If Thistle do come back from this defeat with more victories, then they’ll have proved their mettle once again. It’s easy to win games when you’ve won all the ones before, but coming back from disappointment and defeat is a different thing altogether.
Highland Heartache for Third Division Clubs
At this time of the season each year, teams from outwith the ranks of the SFL leagues get the chance to stake a claim on the park that they’re good enough to hold their own against the teams in the Second and Third Divisions in the early rounds of the Scottish Cup. It has occasionally seen these sides go on to face much more glorious opposition, like when Auchinleck Talbot managed to hold their own against SPL Hearts for nearly the entire game, going down 1-0 to a late goal.
In the last round of Scottish Cup ties, three Highland League sides and one East of Scotland League team saw off Third Division opposition. Edinburgh City beat Montrose 3-1, Deveronvale beat Peterhead 3-2, and after two tough draws, Nairn County beat Clyde 3-2 and Buckie Thistle beat Annan 2-1 after replays.
Montrose and Annan are two of the poorer teams in the league, but Peterhead were widely fancied to be the team to push Rangers closest at the top of the table this season. They are a strong side, yet they were turned over by a team who haven’t been granted the opportunity to ply their trade in the top four tiers of Scottish football. On the displays in the Scottish Cup, it looks like some of these teams would do just fine.