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Demolition Derby

27 Aug

This article originally appeared in Just Football as part of their ‘Your Boys Took One Hell of a Beating’ series.

While Martin O’Neill’s appointment as Celtic manager was warmly welcomed by the club’s fans in July 2000, the general consensus was that he would have a huge task on his hands to build a successful side.  Although the Irishman was handed a sizeable transfer budget, it was thought that he and his new club may have to play second fiddle to their great rivals.

Rangers had won 11 of the previous 12 league titles, including the last two under Dick Advocaat.  With David Murray’s millions funding the Ibrox club, they were expected to continue their domination of the Scottish game.  One ‘expert’ in the media believed it would take Celtic as long as five years to challenge again for the league title.

The first Old Firm contest of that season took place at Celtic Park on 27/8/00.  Although the home side had opened their league campaign with four straight wins, even a point against their old foes would have been a step in the right direction – a sign that this time, Celtic weren’t going to meekly roll over.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, could have foreseen what was about to unfold.  Ten years of failure and submission had led to Celtic holding an inferiority complex as big as their 60,000 seat stadium. However, the balance of power between Scotland’s big two effectively shifted in just over ten minutes.  It went something like this:

1 min

A great start.  An early corner for Celtic, and Henrik Larsson’s mis-hit shot is turned into the net by Old Firm debutant Chris Sutton. 1-0

8 mins

Another corner and another goal – this time a header by Stilian Petrov, as he rises above a stunned Rangers defence. 2-0.

11 mins

If the first two goals produced wild celebrations amongst the home support, the third prompted complete and utter bedlam.  Pocket genius Lubo Moravcik twists and turns on the byeline, before his cutback is met by Paul Lambert, who calmly guides the ball into the far corner, past former Borussia Dortmund team-mate, Stefan Klos. 3-0.

15 mins

If the match wasn’t already over, it should have been at this point.  Larsson, through one-on-one with Klos, tries to go round the keeper instead of picking his spot.  The German gratefully smothers the ball.

21 mins

Fernando Ricksen’s first Old Firm game comes to a premature end as the Rangers defender is replaced by Tugay.  Playing at right-back, the Dutchman has been torn to shreds by his fellow countryman, Bobby Petta.  Ricksen’s next visit to Celtic Park later in the season isn’t any more successful as he receives a red card before half-time.

40 mins

A lifeline for the visitors.  Claudio Reyna’s header appears to have been saved by Jonathan Gould but the ball is ruled to have crossed the line. 3-1.

50 mins

Any hopes Rangers have of a second-half fightback appear to be snuffed out as Larsson scores one of the finest goals ever seen in an Old Firm match.  After receiving a chested pass from Sutton around 30 yards out, the Swede skips past Bert Konterman, nudging the ball through the Dutchman’s legs.  As he heads in on goal, Larsson opens up his body as if ready to curl a shot inside Stefan Klos’ left-hand post.  The German keeper tries to anticipate the strike but seconds later he’s grounded and can only admire Larsson’s glorious chip which sails towards the opposite side of the goal.  Larsson wheels away in celebration as the ball drops under the crossbar and into the net. 4-1.

53 mins

A Billy Dodds penalty narrows the deficit as the visitors hang on in there. 4-2.

62 mins

The goal that finally ends the match as a contest.  Petta’s free-kick from the right is met by Larsson, whose glancing header leaves Klos rooted to the spot. 5-2.

80 mins

Already on a yellow card, Barry Ferguson receives his marching orders after deliberately handling the ball and subsequently throwing it away.  Unfortunately for Ferguson, it’s not his only Old Firm battle that day – he is later involved in a street brawl with Celtic fans.

90 mins

The cherry on top of the icing on the cake.  Petta’s ball down the left wing is collected by Stephane Mahe and the Frenchman’s low cross is met at the far post by the outstretched foot of Sutton.  The striker ends the match as he started it – putting the ball in the opposition net and thus, in one game, scoring more goals than he had in all of the previous season at Chelsea. 6-2.

The importance of this result, and the manner of the victory, cannot be underestimated.  A narrow win could have been attributed to good fortune or home advantage, but this was different – Celtic had swept aside their biggest rivals with a breathtaking display of power and pace.

This was no plucky, hard-fought win – more a signal of intent.  During much of that season, O’Neill would describe Rangers as the “benchmark”, but he was fooling no-one.  Despite losing 5-1 at Ibrox in the next meeting of the sides, Celtic were comfortable league champions as they completed their first domestic treble since 1969.

During his time in Scotland, Martin O’Neill won three SPL titles, three Scottish Cups, a League Cup and reached the 2003 UEFA Cup final.  This match was the catalyst for that success, as Celtic didn’t just overcome a psychological barrier, they smashed it to pieces.

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Overrated Players Of Our Time – Madjid Bougherra

8 Jul

The Scottish media have come up with some great transfer stories in recent years.  Steven Fletcher to Real Madrid was good, Kenny Miller and Scott Brown being linked with the Milan clubs even better.  However, possibly the best of the lot was the suggestion that Madjid Bougherra could be on his way to Barcelona.

There have been plenty of Old Firm players who didn’t deserve the hype that surrounded them, and Bougherra appears to be the latest.  By SPL standards, he’s a decent defender, possibly his biggest asset being his ability to bring to break from a back.  However, he simply doesn’t have the temperament to be a top-class centre back.

During his time at Rangers, Bougherra has regularly made numerous unnecessary tackles and challenges to the detriment of his team.  The Scottish Cup replay at Celtic Park in March was a prime example – a needless stamp on Gary Hooper’s leg halfway up the pitch could have been a straight red itself.  It was then followed up with the childish reaction where he grabbed at Calum Murray’s arms, in an attempt to stop the referee sending him off.

Bougherra may well move on before the end of the transfer window, but the chances of his next stop being one of Europe’s top clubs are slim.

Review Of Predictions 2010/11 – Europe

11 Jun

Let’s get this over with.  The second part of my predictions for the season:

 

La Liga: Barcelona

Serie A: Roma

Bundesliga: Werder Bremen

Ligue Un: Lyon

Eredivisie: Ajax

Liga Sagres: Benfica

Champions League: Barcelona

Europa League: Liverpool

 

Well I did tip Barcelona for the title and the Champions League.  No, I don’t think I was the only one.  At least Ajax provided some consolation.  As for Serie A and the Bundesliga, let’s move on.

Safe to say I will be keeping my predictions for next season to myself.

Review Of Predictions 2010/11 – UK

6 Jun

At the start of the season I foolishly set up a page showing my predictions of how league titles, cups and European competitions would be won in the Scotland, England and Europe.  While the page disappeared some months ago, I suppose I had better review how many I got right.  First up are those from the UK:

SPL

1. Celtic

2. Rangers

3. Dundee United

4. Hibernian

5. Motherwell

6. Hearts

7. Hamilton Accies

8. St Johnstone

9. Aberdeen

10. Inverness CT

11. St Mirren

12. Kilmarnock

Scottish Cup: Rangers

League Cup: Rangers

Div 1: Dunfermline

 

I failed to pick the SPL title winners and once again, to their credit, Kilmarnock proved me wrong.  I’m been expecting them to go down for a few years now but they more than survived this time around. I also managed to jinx Hamilton Accies.  At least I went for Dunfermline in the First Division.

 

English Premier League

1. Chelsea

2. Manchester United

3. Arsenal

4. Manchester City

5. Tottenham

6. Liverpool

7. Everton

8. Aston Villa

9. Sunderland

10. Fulham

11. Birmingham City

12. West Ham United

13. Blackburn Rovers

14. Bolton

15. Newcastle United

16. Wigan

17. Stoke City

18. Wolves

19. West Brom

20. Blackpool

FA Cup: Tottenham

League Cup: Manchester City

Championship: Nottingham Forest

 

Sadly, I was right about Blackpool going down, though they made a much bigger fight of it than I, and many others, predicted.  Going for Chelsea to win the title looked a smart move in the opening months of the season but it wasn’t to be.  I was also very wrong about tipping West Ham and Birmingham to finish mid-table.  At least I said Manchester City would win a trophy.

 

You think these are bad? Wait till you see my European predictions.

Overrated Players Of Our Time – David Bentley

28 Apr

A great example of everything that’s wrong with the English Premier League.  Vain, cocky, overpaid and rarely fulfils his undoubted potential.  A guy who wants to be David Beckham, unfortunately he turns out to be David Bentley.

The early signs were promising.  Brought through the ranks at Arsenal, he showed plenty of ability with the Gunners but never made the breakthrough.  There were decent spells at Norwich and Blackburn, however, even after earning his big move to Spurs, he’s never developed into the type of player that many expected.  There have been some high points – the hat-trick against Manchester United while at Ewood Park and the wonder strike for Spurs at the Emirates spring to mind – but Bentley now finds himself on loan at Birmingham and it’s not clear where his long-term future lies.

He was expected to be Beckham’s successor in the England side, but that opportunity appears to have gone too, with Aaron Lennon and Theo Walcott now preferred.

Still only 26, a player as naturally gifted as Bentley should still have time to make an impact at the highest levels of the game.  However, it seems more likely that he will drift from one club to another, every now and then rising above those around him with a moment of magic.

Does Bentley really have the motivation to take his game to another level, or, like many players of his generation, has the money and the recognition all come a little too easily?

Overrated Players Of Our Time – Gareth Barry

23 Apr

It’s been suggested that the beginning of the end for Rafa Benitez at Liverpool followed his rant about Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.  At the time Benitez’s side were clear at the top of the English Premier League, yet he still seemed to lose control during his verbal assault on one of the many enemies he made during his time in English football.

However, surely the biggest error in judgement from the Spaniard came when he had the ridiculous idea of selling Xabi Alonso to fund a deal for Gareth Barry.

On one hand you have Alonso – World Cup winner, exquisite passer of the ball and fine all-round midfielder still starring for Real Madrid.  Then you have Barry – a fairly solid performer for Aston Villa over the years but nothing more.  Decent defensively, he also chipped in with the odd important goal, but far too slow to be considered a top-drawer player and in no way a match-winner.

To be fair to Liverpool, they obviously weren’t the only club who rated Barry, as he is now at Manchester City.  However, their bizarre attempts to land the inferior Barry cost them an outstanding footballer, as there was no way that Alonso could remain at Anfield.

Overrated Players Of Our Time – Michael Ballack

2 Mar

On the surface Michael Ballack has had an impressive career: appearances in Champions League finals and World Cup semi-finals, league titles in Germany and England and captain of the German national side.  Such a CV could only belong to one of the best players in the world.

As well as being physically strong, Ballack possesses excellent technical ability and is effective in the air.  His commitment to his team cannot be questioned either – he selflessly drove Germany to victory in the 2000 World Cup semi-final against South Korea, scoring the winner despite knowing he would miss the final due to a yellow card.  

However, has Ballack ever truly done enough to merit the praise he has received in some quarters?  Well frankly, no he hasn’t.  While there’s no doubting his talent, there are very few big occasions – when it really mattered – where he has taken a game by the scruff of the neck.  He has the ability to dominate matches but, over the years, he hasn’t done so. 

In his early days at Stamford Bridge, he was described as playing like he had “a huge cigar in his mouth.”  That’s perhaps a bit harsh, but it’s not unfair to suggest that Ballack could have asserted himself more when competing at the top level.