SPFL: Celtic's Mid-Season Report
The pre-season expectations were simple for Celtic: win everything domestically and qualify for the group stages of the Champions League.
On the first count the titleholders can no longer achieve their objective—a League Cup third-round exit to Championship strugglers Greenock Morton saw to that.
The second was completed in August with a 3-2 aggregate victory over Shakhter Karagandy in the qualifying play-off round.
Despite this seemingly straightforward way of measuring Celtic's season thus far, gauging performance over a five-month spell is rarely so simple.
With that in mind, we've decided to rate how well Celtic have fared so far by dividing their season into six different categories (domestic form, European form, the first team, youth players, transfers and the management) and scoring marks out of 10 for each.
Domestic Form: 9/10
The only reason the Hoops don't receive full marks for this category is the Morton result.
Everything else has gone swimmingly for them domestically: An impressive return of 54 points from a possible 60 and a 7-0 victory away to Hearts in the Scottish Cup demonstrates that.
With 52 goals scored and only 13 conceded in domestic competitions so far, it even seems harsh to take a mark off just for the Morton defeat.
European Form: 5/10
The Hoops navigated the opening two qualifying rounds fairly easily and survived a 2-0 away defeat to Karagandy in the final round when they won the return leg by three.
However, the 2-1 win over Ajax at Celtic Park aside, the team's performances in the group stages were rather lacklustre.
Victor Wanyama, in particular, proved a massive miss in central midfield, while the perennial problem of retaining possession continued to hinder their ability to compete suitably in the final third. This was something which perhaps cost them more in their 1-0 defeat in the Amsterdam Arena than it did during the 6-1 humbling they received at the hands of Barcelona in December.
Giving them 5/10 could be considered harsh on Neil Lennon's men, given the enormous gulf in spending power that exists between them and their three group opponents. Nevertheless, both the fans and Lennon himself expected better.
First Team: 7/10
Fraser Forster remains a mainstay between the sticks for the first team, while the back four have stayed largely consistent so far.
One exception is the right-back berth. Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig both play at a dependably high level, but also suffer from niggling injuries which usually keeps one or both of them sidelined at alternate points in the season. Darnell Fisher has stepped up from the youth team when injuries have overlapped, and continues to impress. Centre-back Virgil Van Dijk and left-back Emilio Izaguirre have been the stand outs at the back up until now.
Midfield has seen the most changes this season. But whether lining up with a flat four, five or in a diamond, the constants have been captain Scott Brown and top scorer Kris Commons. Joe Ledley has been as consistent as ever since returning from injury, while Charlie Mulgrew has again shown a fantastic degree of versatility when shuffled to play as an anchorman.
Wide positions continue to be a problem for the Hoops. Georgios Samaras has played well when started wide left, but precipitates a more direct style than the passing football the fans prefer. Summer signing Derk Boerrigter has managed only four league starts and James Forrest just six. Adam Matthews has been moved to right midfield at times, to combat injuries, and has performed well.
The forward line has been a source of much debate this season.
The loss of Gary Hooper left a goal-scoring gap which has yet to be filled. Anthony Stokes has performed well in his usual deep-lying role, while the signing of Teemu Pukki from Schalke has, as yet, proved unfruitful. The similarities between the two perhaps necessitate the signing of a poacher, though Amido Balde and Bahrudin Atajic are yet to be given substantial playing time to prove their effectiveness.
This was a particularly hard category to mark.
Despite having a relatively young squad (they have an average age of only 24.5) and two key players who are under 23 in Virgil Van Dijk and Adam Matthews, Celtic still seem reluctant to give players from their development squads substantial playing time.
Tony Watt was loaned out to Belgian side Lierse in the summer, while Bahrudin Atajic, in particular, is a young forward Hoops fans have been muttering about for years. And since coming on to score a sumptuous lob away to Motherwell in December, the muttering has turned into a question: Why has he only been given 23 minutes of first-team football this season when the senior strikers were struggling to score?
That said, special praise must be reserved for the one youth product who has managed to break through to the senior ranks somewhat this campaign: Darnell Fisher. The young right-back has impressed in his seven appearances so far, which are made even more remarkable by the fact the two other competitors for the spot—Matthews and Mikael Lustig—are among the best in the squad.
Transfer Business: 6/10
Overall, Celtic's summer transfer business can be described as reasonable.
Certainly, the signing of centre-back Virgil van Dijk from FC Groningen was inspired. The Dutchman has rarely put a foot wrong in either domestic or European competition and could be a good bet to make the Netherlands World Cup squad, according to his manager.
Van Dijk aside, the quality of acquisitions has been questioned by fans, but replacing the indomitable presence of Victor Wanyama and the goal-scoring ability of Gary Hooper was always going to prove tough.
Forwards Teemu Pukki and Amido Balde have yet to settle in to any great run of form—though the latter has only been given the equivalent of just under three full games in which to shine.
Central midfielder Nir Biton has been decidedly average since joining from FC Ashdod, while former Ajax winger Derk Boerrigter threatens to be an explosive player for the club but hasn't quite found his feet so far.
Steven Mouyokolo, meanwhile, managed just two competitive appearances before succumbing to injury. He's due back in late February.
The Management: 8/10
With the turn of the year, management duo Neil Lennon and Johan Mjallby completed a calendar year unbeaten home run domestically.
And they are still unbeaten in the Premiership this season—an achievement which cannot be underestimated.
It's the same story in the Scottish Cup, where they trounced Hearts 7-0 at Tynecastle in December.
In fact, the only domestic failing on their part has been defeat in the League Cup to Greenock Morton.
In Europe, however, the duo were unable to replicate anything close to the achievements of last season, losing five of their six matches. It's hard to criticise the management too much for the manner in which the players performed, but they do have to share some of the blame.
Lennon himself admitted, according to Michael Grant of The Herald Scotland, that the team had been "weak," especially in their last match—a 6-1 demolition at the hands of Barcelona. The Celtic boss also touched on an as-yet-unchanged feature of their play in Europe: inability to keep possession.
There was no bravery on the ball tonight. We were weak and that's not been like us... there were some really loose passes in difficult areas and we didn't play anywhere near our strengths.
Still, the main objective was to qualify for the group stages, and they achieved that. The meek nature of their exit disappointed many, including Lennon and Mjallby. But unless the purse strings are significantly loosened in the coming months, failing to reach the last 16 can't realistically be held against them. A shot at the Europa League was a reasonable expectation, though.
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