Greetings. Here is Monday’s Takeaway, an impartial look back at Scotland’s sporting weekend, in particular the Old Firm showdown, as well as a look ahead at Scotland’s impending double-header against Belgium and Albania. All feedback, observations, corrections and so on warmly welcome…
By Ken McNab
Familiar script for Celtic but French farce provided a tale of the unexpected for Brendan Rodgers. Old Firm fans are unlikely to be familiar with the beard-stroking ruminations of long-deceased French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. Monsieur Karr fancied himself as a purveyor of sardonic bon mots and often wielded his pen like a sword as he railed against the upper echelons of Parisien high society in the 19th century. But his most famous – and laconic – verbal endowment is one that can be applied all too easily as the smoke clears from yesterday’s derby in the east end of Glasgow. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Celtic’s 1-0 victory over their old foes maintains their mastery of this fixture – Brendan Rodgers has yet to taste the bitter sting of defeat to Rangers since he pitched up at Parkhead two seasons ago. Steven Gerrard, in contrast, was left spitting fury at the officials over what-might-have beens, should-have-beens after suffering his first defeat as Ibrox boss. Forget the merits of right and wrong – the unavoidable bottom line is Celtic had Rangers in a chokehold for the vast majority of a largely one-sided match that was long on pulsating drama but short on a competitive edge. Four times only the width of the woodwork saved Allan McGregor from picking the ball out of his net. At other times the Rangers keeper was in simply sensational form, defying Celtic with saves that both managers later hailed as world class. A performance only tarnished by his off-the-ball kick at Kristoffer Ajer in the first half, a moment of red-mist madness which would have seen him make the walk of shame had referee Willie Collum seen it. He’s lucky that no action will be taken in retrospect after the SFA’s Compliance Officer was equally myopic. Easily forgotten in the frenzy are salient observations. Celtic started the game with the same line-up that dismantled Rangers 5-0 at Parkhead last April – a chastening result that clinched seven-in-a-row. So the ineluctable conclusion to draw is that a revamped
Rangers under Gerrard are indeed narrowing the gap on their old rivals. James Tavernier was the only from yesterday’s line-up to have played in that game. A work in progress underlined by advancement in Europe and a sense of improvement in player quality. Yet they remained damned by statistics. They lie seventh in the Premiership having made their worst start to a domestic campaign for 29 years. Consistency remains their Achilles heel, a weakness underscored by points dropped to Aberdeen, Motherwell and now Celtic. But even the most blinkered can see Gerrard is fashioning a team that will not be pulled into the same quicksand that swallowed up the club’s most recent managerial regimes. Neither will he be defined by this defeat to his former manager at Liverpool. Away from Celtic’s orchestral manoeuvres on the park, the overture to the match was extraordinary. Moody Moussa Dembele’s behaviour on Friday – the last day of a botched transfer window for Celtic – was disgraceful. A training ground confrontation with Rodgers was swiftly followed by Peter Lawwell punting the stroppy Frenchman back to his homeland while pocketing a very large cheque from Lyon. Job’s a good ‘un. But coming on top of Dedryck Boyata’s grandstanding and attempt to engineer a move away to the English Premier League or abroad – an act of petulance that arguably cost Celtic a Champions League place – suspicion lingers of trouble in paradise. Rodgers is right to ask what the hell happened as a couple of key transfer targets were allowed to slip through green fingers. And it’s easy to imagine the French collection at Celtic – Dembele, Odsonne Edouard, Olivier Ntcham and the Gallic-inflected Boyata huddling in corners pointing fingers at Le Gaffeur and creating unrest from the inside. An intolerable situation which no manager can allow. Boyata’s revenge for still listing Parkhead as his place of employment is to allow the clock to wind down on his contract so he can leave Celtic for nothing. Player power at its worst. Ntcham, left, preceded his goalscoring heroics of yesterday with a tweet of support for his departing countryman Dembele, which contained a thinly-veiled jab at his manager. Sacre bleu. Scott Brown was quick to roll out the familiar musketeer mantra of all for one and one for all in the wake of yesterday’s win. An assurance fans would rightly expect from their captain of everyone basking in a footballing garden of Eden.
Given the events of the field over the past few weeks, however, it suggests that there are one or two thorns amid the roses. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, a man who knew a thing or two about Gallic gall, had his own sanguine view of such circumstances: Display is like shallow water, where you can see the muddy water.
Olivier Ntcham may have scored against Rangers but Celtic’s foreign legion have tested the patience of manager Brendan Rodgers by putting him in a corner over the Dembele desire for a transfer to Lyon.
Stubbs sacked by Saints
Hearts continue to confound and impress this season. Sitting comfortably at the top of the Premiership, they head into the international break with four wins from four. Not bad when you consider they’ve had to endure a revolving-door of change on the personnel front. Steven Naismith’s hat-trick in the 4-2 weekend demolition of St Mirren suggests they will not miss Kyle Lafferty, pictured here competing with Lustig in the Celtic match, who opted for a return ticket to Rangers. It has also earned the in-form striker a recall to the Scotland squad for this Friday’s friendly clash with Belgium. The Tynecastle outfit, having already inflicted a win over Celtic, are clearly in good fettle, having raced out of the blocks to set a very good early pace. But there is a long distance left to run and it will be interesting to see if they have the stamina in the long run. But the result will undoubtedly have provided a tonic for manager Craig Levein, still recovering at home from a heart scare. Saturday’s win tasted that bit sweeter for the Gorgie faithful since it also hastened the dismissal of Alan Stubbs’ three-month reign at St Mirren. Pictures at the weekend showed Stubbs, tortured by his own dugout demons, looking for all the world like a man who knows he’s in the wrong movie. Aside from guiding Hibs to their first silverware for 114 years when they won the Scottish Cup in 2016, his managerial record is lamentable. Taking over from such a popular figure as Jack Ross was always going to present a challenge, one that, ultimately, Stubbs was not equipped to make. The Paisley Buddies are not a bunch known for their patience. And it was inevitable that the end credits would roll as they did on Monday.
Friday friendly for Scotland v Belgium
From Tartan Army to Spartan Army for the Nations League Alex McLeish’s second-time around reign as Scotland boss starts in earnest this Friday with the friendly against Belgium at Hampden. The match is only an appetiser for the main course – the first Nations League encounter against Albania on Monday. That’s right, Albania. Not exactly a name guaranteed to put bums on seats. No need for woad to be applied to the faces of fans in a bid to muster that old Braveheart spirit. Half-hearted renditions of Doe A Deer ringing out from half-empty stands. From Tartan Army to Spartan Army. Let’s be honest, it’s tough to get worked up about the Nations League, isn’t it? Does anyone really understand it? Does anyone really care? McLeish, pictured left, meanwhile, must cajole and coax his players to deliver results that at least give us reasons to believe in a shaft of light at the end of a long dark tunnel. One player providing a beacon of hope is Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, who on Monday was made captain of his country. An honour well deserved and another sign of the marvellous progress he has made since he played for zilch at Hampden as an amateur for Queen’s Park. Proof that football can still deliver Roy of the Rovers-type stories. Wage against the machine David De Gea on Monday signed a new deal at Manchester United for the eye-watering figure of £350,000 a week. Allegedly. And he’s not even the highest-paid player at Old Trafford. Step forward without shame Alexis Sanchez, United’s invisible man. Under-fire chief executive Ed Woodward didn’t blink when he ponied up a contract that could earn Sanchez more than £25 million a year should he hit all his bonuses, including £75,000 for every game he starts. It’s mad, isn’t it? Football has long since gone crazy when it comes to money. Truth is that as fans we have become inured to the life-changing sums now banked by what are often mediocre players. It’s no longer a game where, even at the higher end, punters can still feel a flatcap affiliation with the guys on the pitch. But don’t blame the players. Market forces rule in football as in any other line of business. And the players are entitled to take the vast riches if they are on the table. Last week saw the 10th anniversary of Sheikh Mansour arriving at Manchester City and depositing a blank cheque in the pursuit of glory. Which really means competing with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona on the world stage. An achievement that has so far eluded them, even with Pep Guardiola’s hand now on the tiller. Proving that money can’t always buy success on the pitch. But it can buy you a Bentley for a week’s wages to sit alongside the Maserati.