Greetings. Welcome to the Monday Takeaway, my impartial look back at the sporting weekend. The credits this week include Craig Levein, Steven Gerrard, Scott Brown, Steve Clarke, Cristiano Ronaldo and my special guest Lewis Hamilton. All feedback welcome. Just keep the tackles clean.
Hot Hearts handled well by cool-hand Craig
In football, as in poker, you can only play the hand you’re dealt.
But Craig Levein is proving adept at producing a couple of aces just when the chips are down.
Hearts fans could easily have been forgiven for thinking their title ambitions could fold after key men John Souttar and Iche Ikpeazu suffered injuries that will sideline them for most of the season.
Instead, cool-hand Levein raised the ante with the 2-1 win over Aberdeen that keeps them firmly in the game with virtually a quarter of the league season gone.
Hearts are in the same place as they were after the first round of games – sitting proudly at the summit.
Seven wins, one draw and one notable defeat to Rangers means the rest are all still playing catch up.
Factor in their run to the semi-finals of the Betfred League Cup and it’s clear that Levein has instilled serious self-belief and resilience into his players.
Hearts may lack the superstar lustre of, for example, Celtic. But something smells like team spirit down Gorgie way.
They are at the top on merit and playing with a carefree, attacking swagger that suggests they will not be easily displaced.
And therein, of course, lies the real card trick; staying ahead of the dealer.
Celtic, especially, have finally found their true form with the 4-2 win that ended Hibs’ four-match unbeaten run. Green shoots of recovery that move them ominously into second place on goal difference.
Kilmarnock, meanwhile, could overtake them at the top this weekend on goal difference if they deliver a comprehensive knockout to struggling Hamilton while Hearts and Celtic battle it out at Murrayfield for a League Cup final place.
Newly-promoted Livingston continue to defy all the odds by scaling uncharted peaks with Rangers and Hibs still well in contention to last the course and distance. It’s all to play for.
This is, of course, another pivotal week for the Old Firm. Combat in Europe on Thursday night is followed on Sunday by the trench warfare of the league cup semi-finals.
Steven Gerrard’s men have been boosted by the news they take on a Spartak Moscow outfit suffering domestic strife and internal turmoil. Manager Massimo Carrera paid for his side languishing well off the pace in in the Russian Premier League with his jotters on Monday. His fate was sealed by Sunday’s home defeat Arsenal Tula. Rangers are currently top of Group G after a 2-2 draw at Villarreal and a 3-1 home win against Rapid Vienna. Free-scoring Celtic, meanwhile, travel to Leipzig hoping to carry their improving domestic displays to finally find some consistency in the continental arena. Brendan Rodgers’ men have fired 10 goals in their last two SPFL matches.
And they will need that clinical edge against a side bracketed with them on three points, three behind Group B pacesetters Red Bull Salzburg.
The table stakes remain high for both clubs. Progress in Europe isn’t just about the colour of money; it’s about credibility
Here’s hoping they both go all in and deliver a winning hand.
Brown earns right to ponder his own bush tucker trial
Scott Brown and Billy McNeill, superb Celtic skippers.
Strewth! Brendan Rodgers didn’t exactly do much to quell talk of Scott Brown leaving Celtic at the end of the season for a new life in Australia.
Possibly for one very good reason. Deep down, Rodgers knows this is likely to be his last season in the east end of Glasgow.
So finding someone to fill Brown’s considerable boots will be another manager’s problem.
Rodgers continues to veer off script over the summer transfer window during which he insists the club “stood still” and failed to “go into another gear’.
His latest broadside followed the thumping 4-2 win over Hibs last Saturday, a clear signal that he’s still unwilling to let the issue go. As if he’s picking away at an old scab that refuses to heal.
Another sign, perhaps, that a frostiness endures between him and chief executive Peter Lawwell, despite the party-line denials on both sides.
But forget any talk of Rodgers being lured to Newcastle. One call to Rafa Benitez would surely confirm what everyone in football knows – the Magpies are a basket case of a football club.
Why swap Paradise for purgatory and put yourself under Mike Ashley’s autocratic heel?
At some point, though, Rodgers will be lured away. Which, of course, will start a familiar managerial guessing game. Having done an outstanding job at Hibs, Neil Lennon would be a big pick among some fans for a return to his old stamping ground.
But another SPFL boss could well creep up on the inside rail. Steve Clarke’s stunning transformation of Kilmarnock would surely make him part of any conversation among Parkhead’s power brokers.
Brown, on the other hand, owes Celtic zilch. He has been the club’s most influential skipper since Billy McNeill. He has been front and centre of Celtic’s dominion over Scottish football over the last eight years or so, filling the key role of on-field lieutenant for three managers.
And he is quite entitled to weigh up the options for escaping Glasgow’s Old Firm goldfish bowl.
Even at 33, his absence- if it comes to pass – will be keenly felt. Celtic on Saturday surrendered significant midfield authority when their captain succumbed to a rare injury and was taken off.
Getting him fit for Thursday night’s Europa League clash with RB Leipzig will be imperative.
Crisis-hit Madrid haunted by the ghost of Ronaldo
Marcelo’s goal for against Levante on Saturday ended a drought that had seen toiling Real Madrid fail to score for 482 minutes.
So far this season, they have lost three of their first nine league games, the latest of them the 2-1 weekend defeat to Levante.
These are troubled times at the Bernabeu. Los Blancos have won just one point in their last four games in La Liga. Form that will surely see the noose being applied to the neck of under-fire coach Julen Lopetegui less than five months after his appointment.
Next up for Madrid is the simple challenge of league leaders Barcelona at the Nou Camp.
And to think they said Cristiano Ronaldo was washed up and wouldn’t be missed…
Lewis lags behind Prost and Senna in the lane reserved for Formula One’s most electrifying drivers
Brilliant formula one driver that he unquestionably is, Lewis Hamilton remains hard to like. An enigma wrapped up in mottled shades of grey.
Perhaps it’s the blinding arrogance that radiates from behind the perma-shades.
Or the testiness that often shows up in post-race interviews.
No one could possible dispute Hamilton’s credentials as a racing driver par excellence.
And he is heavy odds-on to wrap up his fifth world title in Mexico this weekend after seeing the champers placed on ice after stalling in the land of the free on Sunday. In fact, it’s impossible for him not to win it provided he can keep his Mercedes on the track.
That achievement will leave him just two titles short of Michael Schumacher’s magnificent seven – and few would bet against him applying the downforce to overtake that mark.
A letter from the Palace will surely be in the post.
But the feeling persists that Hamilton can’t match the likes of Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna for the sheer edge-of-the-seat thrills that used to make Formula One so intoxicating and unpredictable.
Does that matter? Probably not. Chutzpah is often a key part of any successful sport person’s DNA.
In Hamilton’s case, though, it would be nice to think there’s a personality in there waiting to be found behind the bling.