Yellow Submarine set to rise again from the depths

The Villarreal invasion fleet storm Barcelona

Another glorious chapter in the incredible story that is the miracle of Villarreal CF was written on Sunday  with an unprecedented invasion of Barcelona by over 10,000 of the Villarreal Yellow hordes.

Spanish football fans don’t do away games, even the top clubs rarely muster as many as 1,000 travelling supporters for even the most important games. Last month several hundred Villarreal fans made a similar length of journey to Murcia. That was, rightly, seen at the time as an amazing act of community support and involvement, by Spanish standards. Yet Sunday’s events totally rewrote the template of what is possible. Villarreal as they have shown consistently for the last 14 years live by different rules and Sunday 2nd June saw something unprecedented in the history of Spanish football. A major football citadel, Barcelona, was overrun and transformed into a home base by over 20% of the population of another town. Spain had seen nothing like this since April 2004 when 10,000 Celtic supporters invaded Villarreal and captivated the whole town with their wonderful attitude and behaviour. (See the side panel for details of the book “Celtic Submari” that describes that invasion and how it led to a New Model of Football relationships).

The Yellow Convoy Buses head for Barcelona

Almost 200 buses left Vila-real and drove in convoy to Barcelona. Over 10,000 Villarreal supporters, almost all wearing yellow tops, made the incredible journey. They took over the Mini-Stadium and transformed it into a sea of passionate yellow. A football stadium in Barcelona. The home team in their famous red and blue strip. The visitors the last La Liga team to split Barcelona and Real Madrid and claim 2nd place in La Liga. A totally unforgettable carnival atmosphere, and amazingly over 80% of the noisy crowd are wearing yellow and supporting the away team. Villarreal went into the game, against Barcelona B, the reserve team filled with the highly talented fruits of Barcelona’s vaunted youth policy, as the second top team in the Spanish Second Division. They knew if they won their last two games, away to Barca B then home to third placed Almeria, then automatic promotion back to La Liga would be guaranteed. The Yellow Hordes inspired their team to play their best football of the season.

Villarreal swamp Barca

Villarreal won 3-0  with a breath-taking display of attractive football that leaves Barcelona outclassed in their own midden. OK so it was the Mini Stadium rather than the Camp Nou, and a Second Division game rather than a La Liga clash, but it was still  a miracle in action,  a remarkable day that will never be forgotten by any of the over 10,000 yellow clad invaders.

The Celtic Submari say TornaremAny   Celtic supporters watching the game on the internet will have been able to spot  a fair number of Celtic tops dotted among the hordes of yellow ones. The Villarreal Celtic Submari were well represented, as by far the the biggest of all the Villarreal Penyas, and many of them wore their green and white tops. The whole day was carried out in the excellent spirit required by the new model of football relationships pioneered by the Villarreal Celtic Submari, based on respect and affection. 10,000 invaders but not a single arrest, no aggression or drunkenness, only good spirited camaraderie. an amazing performance by amazing people, on e that has impressed and captivated all Spain

The invasion was the brainchild of Villarreal CF President Fernando Roig, who previously had his mental health questioned for being the only man in the world to believe a team from a town of 50,000 could have 20,000 season ticket holders. That impossible dream became a reality in 2008 and has been repeated several times since. In his latest miracle, Roig conceived of and subsidised the invasion, at a cost reliably estimated to be around 150,000 euros. At 15 euros a head it was a magnificent investment in his continuous dream of producing a club ‘owned’ emotionally if not financially,  by the community. Not one of that 10,000 army are ever likely to desert Villarreal. In a stroke all the damage, despair and disillusion caused by last year’s avoidable relegation was wiped away to be replaced by a burning sense of “our special team” are doing it again

In June 2011 Villarreal had finished 4th in La Liga, qualifying for the Champions League for the third time. They also were semi-finalists in the Europa League making it a hat-trick of semi-final appearances in an amazing 8 consecutive seasons in European club football. They had a squad packed with talented world class players and a young manager of great intelligence and ability.

Relegated in the last 2 minutes of the season, but the top two kept the faith and the miracle alive

Twelve long months later, in June 2012, Villarreal CF  were out of La Liga, relegated after a season of disaster and maladministration. The whole poignant story of how that eminently avoidable relegation happened, when they were only in the relegation positions for the last 180 seconds of the season, is  available in a GGW special report that makes sad and sorry reading. Was that relegation the end of the Villarreal miracle? And would the Yellow Submarine do as bitter Burriana supporters had been predicting for years, and sink swiftly down through the lower ranks of Spanish football back to the natural level of 5th tier football appropriate for the size of their population?

Sunday’s invasion of Barcelona was the second last confirmation that the resounding answer to both these questions is that the miracle of Villarreal CF is still on-going. The Villarreal supporters stayed true to their own club. If 20,000 season ticket holders for a club in La Liga from a town of 50,000 population  was indeed one of the true miracles of world football, then for a Second Division club to have around half as many is in many ways an even greater and more impossible miracle. But they did it. All season the motto has been “Tornarem” – They will return. The Miracle requires nothing less.

Marcelino at last a Villarreal manager to compete with Pellegrini

To have a manager like Pellegrini was a major ingredient in the Villarreal miracle. And he showed with Malaga, taking them to within 2 minutes of a Champions League semi-final, just how much of a miracle worker he is in his own right. The Villarreal Holy Trinity of Fernando Roig, Llaneza and Fernando Roig Negueroles lost the plot after Pellegrini’s departure and made a series of disastrous and often inexplicable appointments, before and after relegation, including swinging bizarrely from a too old manager to a too young manager within days of relegation. But finally they resorted to their first principles and got it right with Marcelino Garcia, a manager in the Pellegrini Villarreal mould, a top class manager and a top class man. He has taken a squad that is, frankly, poor by recent Villarreal standards, to a position where they are 90 minutes from an automatic return at the first attempt, an essential requirement for keeping the Villarreal miracle alive. Many clubs from towns almost as small as Vila-real have had their moment in the sun, a season or two in La Liga. None have managed to return immediately after the inevitable relegation. Yet once again Villarreal are about to break the mould.

Saturday 8th June is going to be another exhilarating chapter in the story of the Villarreal CF miracle. The Madrigal Stadium will be filled to its capacity as the whole population of the town gather to witness the third promotion in their recent history. A victory against third in the table Almeria will guarantee promotion. Even a low score draw, 0-0 or 1-1, will see Villarreal promoted. Even if they fail to achieve that, there will be a promotion play-off contest involving Girona, Alcorcon and Las Palmas that Villarreal would be strongly favoured to win. But the logic of the Villarreal miracle is that Saturday will see promotion confirmed and celebrated.

On Sunday GGW will provide a full report on the Almeria game and the aftermath, which will surely be joyous celebration of a return to La Liga. After the emotional excitement and consolidation of last Sunday it is surely unthinkable that the script can produce anything other than further confirmation that the Villarreal miracle is still in full play, and that for season 2013-2014,  a town of 50,000 happy inhabitants will once again have over 20,000 season ticket holders welcoming the big Spanish clubs as equals. Once the euphoria of confirmed promotion is over, there will be a time for a more sober consideration of whether Villarreal back in the La Liga can repeat the glorious achievements of the ten magic years from 2002-2011 when Villarreal were the 4th most successful club in Spain and the 12th most successful club in Europe. But for now, for Saturday 8th June it will be enough to be a part of another glorious and unforgettable chapter in the Villarreal CF miracle. TORNAREM

GGW readers can watch the game, which kicks off at 6pm on Saturday on their commuter with any good broadband connection. Google “Villarreal versus Almeria livestream” and you will get a choice of channels. Throughout this season GGW has found the Arabic channels best for picture quality and English commentary.

“Yellow Submarine – the Miracle of Villarreal”, a book somewhat sadly drowned by last year’s relegation can still be bought by clicking on the right hand panel below or from or

GreenGreenWorld back from three month break

Good News,  GreenGreenWorld (GGW) is back from a 3 month break caused by  work commitments of it’s Chief Reporter.

Apologies to all regular readers for the temporary loss of  service but GGW is delighted to announce that it is now back in business and that over the next couple of months there will be at least weekly reports on the events of world football likely to be of most interest to Celtic fans.

Over the next weeks the first sixposts will cover

1) the rise of the Yellow Submarine from the lower depths

2) Corinthians, champions of the world lose their South American crown but gain Sao Paulo State consolation

3) St Pauli end a disappointing season with a bang of hope

4) Riquelme misses another crucial penalty as Ronaldinho  heads for a last hoorah

5) Neymar vows to help Messi stay the best as Barcelona reform

6) Pellegrini  How Manchester City have gone from ridiculous to sublime

Celtic get ready to mug Old Lady, but better beware, she’s on her game.

Beware the Old Lady, not an easy one to mug

On Tuesday the 12th February,  Celtic will take on the Old Lady, as Juventus are known in Italy, a term of affectionate endearment for some, and of scathing abuse for the rest. But Celtic  should beware, because this particular Old Lady is in fine form, remarkably fit and healthy for one her age.  Juventus, the current Italian Champions, sit five points clear at the top of Serie A, above Napoli, and a further 8 points ahead of 3rd placed Lazio. Given that their two traditional rivals for the title, AC and Inter Milan, can only share 4th place, it is very likely that the Old Lady will retain her title this season .

But is she good enough to end Celtic’s Champion League hopes and go on to lift the big one? The Bookies are giving an almost unanimous yes to the first part, eliminating Celtic, but a solid no  to the second, based on a belief that Juventus while a sound team, lack the overall class required  to win the whole tournament. If you fancy Celtic to beat Juventus at home, you can get odds of around 4-1 on Betfair. If you fancy them to avoid defeat at home at Celtic Park there are very generous odds of less than evens. ie you can win £100 on Celtic winning or drawing while only losing £88 if Juventus win. In all the Group games the Betfair layers grossly underpriced Celtic, allowing GGW to fill its boots. Laying Juventus not to win on Tuesday night at 1.88 seems equally generous and GGW would strongly recommend Celtic supporters take advantage of these odds.  Betfair have Juventus at as strong as 5-1 on to reach the quarter finals, reflecting a general expectation throughout Europe that Celtic’s challenge will not survive the encounter with the Old Lady. However Juventus are 12-1 against to win the trophy, with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund all rated as far likelier winners

Pirlo the Juventus class act

So how good are this Juventus side?  The current team are more utilitarian than previous classic Juve sides, and lack star players with the glamour and class associated with the glorious Juventus past, like Platini and Zidane. Pirlo is the closest thing the current side have to that illustrious pair. Yet  while he he is still a world class player, (remember Euro 2012 where he was the key to Italian success) he lacks the extra dimension of pure genius that separates out the very best from the merely very good. Buffon, who seems to have been the Juventus goalkeeper for ever, is also a world class player even now, but none of the rest of the Juventus squad have made the leap beyond international class to the very top tier. As a result the current Juventus team are workmanlike rather than inspiring, but while they have lost in terms of creative flair, they have maybe gained in efficiency and collective cohesiveness. Over the last 18 months they have become extremely difficult to defeat, without making many new friends or even admirers.

Celtic will face one of the few top class teams in the world to regularly commit to a back three system, something Neil Lennon seems to have flirted with as a notion but never really committed to. The normal back three, Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini are all current Italian internationalists and bring  a rugged enthusiasm to ensuring forwards do not prosper against them. The two Juventus wingbacks, Lichtsteiner the Swiss internationalist on the right, and Asamoah the talented Ghananian on the left, are sufficiently advanced and adventurous to justify the 3:5 rather than 5:3 description, but are still defensively sound. Pirlo tends to be anchored in front of this back three, supported by the highly rated Arturo Vidal from Chile and Marchisio, a classic Italian “water carrier”.

It is beyond this solid eightsome base that Juventus’s lack of class begins to show. Frankly they do not have a single top class forward. Their three main strikers are Vucinic, Quagliarella and Matri. All three have been capped, the former for Macedonia and the latter two by Italy, but have not yet established themselves as international class and seem closer to journeymen than superstars. For home games, coach Conte often starts with Vucinic and one or other of the Italian  two on the pitch.  For away games he prefers to start with Vucinic backed up by Giovinco, a  small skilful but lightweight Italian. Such is the collective cohesiveness of the team and the system Conte has them play, that the midfield five have contributed almost as many goals as all the strikers.

There was strong speculation that Juventus were going to address the lack of true class up front during the Winter Transfer Window by bringing forward the arrival of Fernando Llorente from Athletic Bilbao from the summer of 2013. It was rumoured that Matri and Quagliarella would be sold, along with Nicolas Bendtner who has impressed Juventus supporters even less than he did those of Arsenal.  But the window closed with all three still on the books, and Llorente still chafing in Spain. The only arrival was Nicolas Anelka, the most expensive footballer ever, if all his transfer fees are added up. But now  well past a motivated best, he cost Juventus little and will likely deliver the same. So Celtic defenders need have no sleepless nights worrying about Juventus strikers, but will need to beware the shooting potential of all 5 midfielders.

The centre of defence will be crowded and Celtic lack forwards with the class, skill and guile to outwit three international centre backs so the best chance of Celtic success is to go wide and exploit the empty space behind the two wing backs. So Commons, Forrest and  Samaras may be  the key for Celtic success,

Juventus faced a harder task than Celtic on Saturday, having to play a revitalised Fiorentina still chasing a Champions League slot. Unlike Celtic who were able to play almost a whole team of  reserves, Juventus  played only two players unlikely to start against Celtic. This strong line-up were able to rebuff the spirited challenge of the Viola from Florence and goals from Vucinic and Matri gave them the three points that have consolidated their lead at the top of the Italian table. The lack of any meaningful challenger in Scotland meant that Celtic were able to rest almost their entire first eleven, but that advantage may well be negated by the lack of regular top class football the club (and supporters) have to endure week after boring week. As Celtic has demonstrated too often this season it is hard to maintain top form in the absence of regular competitive challenge. So the extra rest may have exacerbated this problem rather than giving Celtic an advantage.

The demands of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament on the two clubs have ended up cancelling out. Juventus will have the marginal advantage that Kwanoah Asamoah, their highly talented left wing back, finished his tournament on Saturday night while Celtic’s Efe Ambrose has his last game on Sunday, in the Final for Nigeria against Burkina Faso. It is likely neither will start on Tuesday night, with De Ceglie a sound replacement for Juventus

Juventus are hard to defeat away from Turin, only AC Milan have beaten them on their travels this season. Celtic can expect the Italian champions to play it very tight at Parkhead and no-one should expect many goals. This Juventus team are hard to beat but they are not unbeatable, and they are certainly not anywhere near as talented individually or collectively as Barcelona. So with a degree of luck and much determination, Celtic can approach the two matches with some prospect of success.  Juventus are rightly favourites to make it through to the next round after two tense encounters but the odds of 5-1 on are insulting to a determined Celtic team. And GGW are fairly confident that Celtic can keep the tie alive through to the second leg by not losing on Tuesday night, and will be laying Juventus not to win at the generous odds of less than evens still available.

Swede Dreams are made of this. Two recent straws point to a Celtic triumph

Helsingborg Two more straws favour Celtic

All the consideration of the respective merits of potential Champions League opponents has now been rendered completely irrelevant. With brutal simplicity the matter has been boiled down to a single truth. To reach the coveted Group Stages place, Celtic have to overcome Helsingborgs IF in a two leg tie; away in Sweden on Tuesday evening, the 21st, and back at Celtic Park for the decisive second leg on August 29th.

So what awaits Celtic in this challenge, and how likely is it that the dream of Group Stage qualification will be realised?

There are two pieces of good news from the last few days which make Celtic an even stronger favourite to progress than they were when the draw was made last week. The first is that on Wednesday of last week Helsingborg sold their most dangerous player. Helsingborg are a competent rather than strong team. Despite being Swedish champions only one of their players made the squad for Euro 2012 and their non-Swedish players are hardly international class stars. On an individual basis the Celtic player pool is far more talented and diverse than the Helsingborg one. Helsingborg do not have a single player of class and distinction, no-one that Celtic need pay particular attention to in order to stifle their threat.

His departure days before the Celtic game a major blow to Helsinborg

Remarkably, the player most likely to have posed a danger to Celtic, Alfred Finnbogason, has been transferred within the last few days to Heerenveen of Holland. Finnbogason signed for Helsingborg on loan in March 2012 and in 5 months contributed around 20 goals, making him by far their most dangerous strike threat. A crucial goal against Slask Wroclaw in the last qualifying Round first leg in Poland emphasised his level of ability. Helsingborg had hoped to sign Finnbogason, an Icelandic internationalist, on a permanent basis but Heerenveen made his Belgian club Lokeren a much higher offer, and Finnbogason himself was clear that a transfer to Holland was a superior career move to remaining permanently in Sweden. So last week, just days before Helsingborg’s biggest game ever, he jumped ship, not even hanging around to see them face Celtic.

The effect on Helsingborg is a bit like as if Celtic had sold Gary Hooper this week. The move will certainly greatly diminish the attacking threat to Celtic from Helsingborg. Celtic fans will not tremble at the news that Helsingborg have replaced Finnbogason with Alexander Bedoya from Rangers. Particularly since it seems their intention to play this midfielder as a striker. The only other striker of note Helsingborg have is the Norwegian Thomas Sorum, a fairly pedestrian player although he did score a hattrick against Slask Wroclaw in the last round. They also have Alvaro Santos, a Brazilian much loved by their fans. But this adoration is due more to his role in securing their previous League title in 1999 rather than any more recent exploits. Alvaro Santos is at best a journeyman who has served mediocre European clubs without particular distinction for a decade before returning to Helsingborg where his fitness has not been in any great evidence. He has only contributed 3 league goals since his return. So not a lot to fear up front.

The other piece of good news is that while Celtic may be slightly discomfited by the embarrassment of their failure to beat Ross County on Saturday, Helsingborg suffered a much more devastating blow to their morale the same day. Beaten 2-1 by the league leaders, their traditional deadly rivals Elsborg, Helsinmgborg almost certainly relinquished all remaining hope of hanging onto their league title. The defeat by their neighbours leaves them 10 points behind Elfsborg with only 11 games left. They did put up a fight, leading 1-0 at halftime before succumbing in a gruelling second half, the physical and mental strain of which is hardly good preparation for the game against Celtic only some 72 hours later. The Helsingborg goal was scored by Bedoya, justifying some of the faith put in him by the coach but really the man is no striker. Sorum, the main man up front, struggled and was replaced halfway through the second half. Alvaro Santos did come on later but showed nothing to worry Celtic in his belated return to competitive action.

Helsingborg tend to play  a conventional 4:4:2, or at least did until Finnbogason’s transfer. Tomorrow, if Helsingborgs really try to win,  Sorum is likely to be joined by Alvaro Santos. If they play more cautiously Bedoya will probably play in the hole slightly behind Sorum.

Par Hansson the only current Swedish internationalist

The Helsinborg defence is well marshalled by keeper Par Hannson, who played all three of Sweden’s Euro 2012 games. He is a sound enough keeper but not outstanding. In front of him is an aging back four, well-organised but without great individual talent. The midfield four are a diverse and polyglot lot. In the middle normally are Gashi, born in Kosovo but now playing for Norway and May Mahlangu, a 23 year old South African internationalist. On the flanks will probably be any two from Bouaouzan a Dutch player of some distinction, and two veteran Swedes, Lindstrom and Anderssen. The two recent signings Bedoya and David Accam a young Ghanaian will probably feature at some stage.

The main danger for Celtic is likely to come from the experience and savvy of the manager, Age Hareide rather than any of his players. Hareide is one of the few managers to have coached title winning sides in three different European countries, if only Sweden Norway and Denmark. He was the coach when Helsingborg won their title in 1999 but is probably best known for an undistinguished spell as boss of Norway following  a title success with Rosenborg. He did not coach Helsingborg to their current title, only taking over, on a temporary basis, when the title winning coach left unexpectedly. Hareide was welcomed back by the Helsingborg faithful but while hugely experienced and crafty, he is not known for an adventurous spirit and is unlikely to send out  a team to attack Celtic relentlessly from the start.

All told Celtic should be far superior to this Helsingborg side and should be able to bring a favourable result back from the tight Olimpia Stadium, before comfortably securing their Group Stage place before their own fans on the 29th.

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Celtic should pray for Israel

Who should Celtic supporters pray to come out the urn with Celtic?

Well, for all that GGW had before the Third Round Draw identified HJK Helsinki as the weakest opponents available for Celtic, disposing of them proved slightly more difficult than might have been expected. However in the end the professionalism and concentration of Neil Lennon’s team allied to their individual and tactical superiority, was sufficient to see them safely through to the 4th and final Knockout Round  of the Champions League. Now only one two legged tie stands between Celtic and the place in the Group Stages of the Champions League which their history and tradition and size  entitles them to expect as their just due.

So which opponents should Celtic supporters include in their prayers tonight to be the preferred opponents  to be drawn against Celtic in Friday’s draw?

All 5 of the clubs pre-identified as the 5 seeded clubs for the 4th Knockout Round (Champions Route) draw made it through safely enough. Given that Celtic are one of them, ranked 3rd, this guarantees that Celtic cannot be drawn against Anderlecht, Basle, BATE Borissov or Dinamo Zagreb. The first two, both ranked above Celtic, would have been difficult opposition, the latter two both ranked below Celtic would have been easier to beat.

The five possible opponents, in order of their ranking are

CFR Cluj of Romania

Helsingborg of Sweden

Maribor of Slovenia

AEL Limassol of Cyprus

Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel

However the level of difficulty as opponents does not correspond to their co-efficient ranking.

Helsingborg beatable but best avoided

Helsingborg are the team currently in best European form and most to be feared. They are far superior in both talent and tactical sophistication to HJK Helsinki. They defeated the dangerous Polish Champions Slask Wroclaw with  victories in both legs. Hopefully Celtic will avoid them but if they are paired together, then there should be no despair. On their best form, Celtic are well capable of being a better side than the Swedish champions. Helsingborg are not seen by most Swedes as being as good as last year’s champions Malmo who only eliminated Rangers because of the tactical naivety of the new Ibrox manager. They are only in 6th place in this year’s Swedish League. Still, they are the main one to be avoided.

CFR Cluj and AEL Limassol are stuffy teams both of whom emerged from the 3rd Round with home and away leg wins, against the champions of the Czech Republic and Serbia, two strong European powers. On that form both would be capable of stretching Celtic but both should be well within the capability of the current Celtic team to eliminate. Both are significantly stronger than the other two teams available, so on that basis, while not to be feared they are better avoided given a weaker alternative.

Many Celtic supporters will probably hope the draw pairs their club against Maribor, as another way of sticking one to Rangers who succumbed to Maribor, without being in any way outclassed, in this stage of last season, albeit in the Europa League. While Celtic could rightly be fairly confident about progression if drawn against Maribor the Slovenians are not the weakest of the 5 possible opponents.

Hapoel Still the best bet

That distinction belongs to Hapoel Kiryat Shmona of Israel. Their level of competence was probably amply demonstrated on Wednesday night when only a last minute goal prevented them from losing away to Neftchi Baku, easily the weakest of the 20 teams in the 3rd Round. Celtic would have little to fear other than their own capacity for complacency and slackness in being drawn against Hapoel, while  a trip to Israel should prove a pleasant diversion for both players and supporters.

So while all 5 possible opponents are teams which Celtic should be capable of beating, Helsinborg are the ones best avoided and Maribor and especially Hapoel are the ones to hope come out the draw paired with Celtic.

GGW will provide a full profile here of whichever opponents emerge from Friday’s draw

Celtic’s most optimistic followers can start planning a trip to Israel

Hapoel Kiryat Shmona hopefully await Celtic in next round

For those Celtic supporters confident that their club will overcome HJK Helsinki in the Champions League Third Qualifying Round and who want to start planning their trip for the 4th Knockout Round stage, then the midweek results in the Second Qualifying round need to be factored into revised calculations of Celtic’s likely opponents.

Some unexpected 2nd Round results have meant that changes have had to be made to the analysis contained in the GGW post “Celtic’s prospects look good” of 19th July.

The major shock of the Round was that Luxembourg champions Dudelange knocked out the much more fancied Austrians, Red Bull backed Salzburg, thus removing one of the clubs set to be seeded alongside Celtic in both the 3rd and 4th Round draws. And in another upset, Israeli Champions Hapoel Kiryat Shmona  overcame an away leg 1-0 defeat to eliminate Zilina earmarked by GGW as the weakest of Celtic’s 5 likely 4th Round opponents. All the other games went as anticipated with Molde and Neftchi Baku confirming their first leg advanatages and all the other seeded teams qualifying. Although Dinamo Zagreb left it latest, needing a goal in the 8th minute of injury time to scrape into the 3rd Round.

The revised 3rd Round Draw has worked well to Celtic’s advantage with ties like Slask Wroclaw versus Helsinborg, BATE Borisov versus Debrecen, Cluj versus Liberac, AEL Limassol versus Partizan Belgrade, and Molde versus Basel meaning that some of the ten strongest team left in the last 20 are guaranteed to be eliminated. Hapoel are likely to eliminate Neftchi Baku but Dudelange will probably lose to Rangers’ old nemesis Maribor.

So the most likely outcome is that Celtic’s list of 5 potential opponents for the 4th Round draw will be two clubs, Partizan Belgrade and Helsingborg, both best avoided although still beatable; Cluj and Maribor as stuffy but beatable Eastern European obstacles; and by far the best option,  a trip to Israel to face Hapoel Kiryat Shmona.

But the Finns HJK Helsinki still have to be overcome first.

GGW will review the picture after the fisrt leg third Round ties on 31st July and 1st August by which time hopefully Celtic will have done enough at Celtic Park to make the trip to Helsinki more comfortable.

Ajax scrubs out any Celtic complacency

Ajax show Celtic there is no room for complacency

GGW Reporter Stephen  O’Donnell was in Amsterdam last weekend covering the Celtic game for GGW. This is his report

“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was down in East Anglia for a wedding last week and I thought, why not stick around for a few days, take a short flight across the North Sea and combine it with the Celtic v Ajax game on the Saturday.   So I booked it on Expedia and the photographer and I were all set. Just a shame Celtic never bothered to turn up really.

That was actually a football cliché, the team did in fact turn up, but they got gubbed four nothing so I’m not sure it was worth the effort in the end.  On our first day we had taken a tour of the Amsterdam Arena and were shown round the stadium by a friendly tri-lingual chap called Daniel, who narrated the details of Ajax’s illustrious history and expounded the pros and cons of the retractable roof to his party of tourists in Dutch, English and Spanish. When I told him we were from Glasgow and we were in town for the game at the weekend, he smiled and said he was looking forward to a nice atmosphere. Then he asked me about Rangers. I managed to keep a straight face and tell him everyone in Scotland was shocked, and how strange it was that this big club, or the phoenix revival version, would now be playing in the fourth tier of Scottish football. But, I suggested, if they were cheating then it was right that they should be punished of course. Perhaps this would be the appropriate juncture to append a note to McCoist and co; the punishments haven’t even started yet, Ally, so spare us the ‘we’ve been punished enough’ routine, it’s pathetic, quite frankly.

The Amsterdam Arena?  Well, for marketing reasons, it’s actually known as the Amsterdam ArenA, and it’s a magnificent ground. But there’s something eerie and unreal about an indoor football stadium. It just doesn’t quite work for me and it’s not hard to see why the idea hasn’t fully caught on, even in windswept and rain-soaked countries like Scotland. Apart from the odd ambience it creates, Daniel explained to us that there is also considerable expense and effort required to ensure the grass receives enough water, wind and light. Giant machines parked round the stadium are continually in use to supply the turf with what nature would otherwise readily provide. The point of having a roof on the stadium was never really made clear.

Two days later and we made our way back to Bijlmer Arena station, this time on a train full of jostling and spirited Celtic and Ajax supporters.

GGW Reporter and Photographer enjoy a beer during the game

The first thing we did after collecting our tickets and finding our seats was to buy ourselves a beer. I managed to drink it, along with several others, over the course of the next ninety minutes or so, while at the same time curtailing my violent, drunken, football supporting Scottish instincts, and instead I watched and enjoyed the game peaceably in the company of my fellow supporters. Who’d have thunk it? The way it works, if there are police chiefs or football legislators reading, is, you buy a card, not unlike a top-up phone card, and you pay for your beers with that. If you run out of credit, and I did, you pay to top it up and more beers are available!

So to the football. I half hoped I might get away with not actually talking about the game itself? Alas, no. Celtic lost four nothing, 4 nil, vier nul. They were three nothing down after twenty seven minutes and looked all at sea defensively. Neil Lennon afterwards took the blame and said he wasn’t too dispirited because they were trying out a new system which they weren’t very used to. Well I distinctly seem to remember them playing three at the back a number of times towards the end of last season, but against these opponents they were simply outclassed. Rogne, Mulgrew and Wanyama were regularly caught out by the movement and passes of the Ajax players and after half an hour, three goals down, they switched to a flat back four. Izzaguire was hauled off at half time, looking a shadow of the man who won player of the year, Stokes looked lively but James Forrest never got the ball in his auxiliary striker role. A flexible 4-4-2 that can shift to 4-3-3, with Scott Brown tucking in against more sophisticed opponents would seem to be Celtic’s best formation. Three at the back went out with Franco Baresi, so I sincerely hope this result signals the end of that particular experiment.

The guy next to me informed me that Ajax had gained direct entry into the Champions League this season, which I knew already but I was just being chatty. Maybe they’ll meet Celtic in the Group Stages, I suggested. Maybe beer in football grounds should be banned after all. It looks a long way off, in the cold light of sober day, but if the Hoops can make it past Helsinki and the rest, and they find themselves in the money-spinning competition proper, then a trip to Amsterdam and the home of Ajax would be well worth a reprise visit. Hopefully Celtic will have their system sorted out by then or a similar, far more embarrassing result in a real fixture of consequence could well be resounding around Europe in a few months time.”

All literate Celtic fans should note that Stephen O’Donnell, a regular contributor to GGW, is shortly to have his first novel published. Paradise Road will be of great interest to Celtic supporters.

Paradise Road a must read for all literate Celtic supporters

Paradise Road is the story of Kevin McGarry a young man from the West of Scotland, who as a youngster was one of the most talented footballers of his generation in Scotland. Through a combination of injury and disillusionment, Kevin is forced to abandon any thoughts of playing the game he loves professionally. Instead he settles for following his favourite team, Glasgow Celtic, as a spectator, while at the same time resignedly and with a characteristically wry Scottish sense of humour, trying to eke out a living as a joiner.

It is a story of hopes and dreams, idealism and disillusionment, of growth in the face of adversity and disappointment. Paradise Road examines some of the major themes affecting football today, such as the power and role of the media, standards in the Scottish game and the sectarianism which pervades not only football in Glasgow but also the wider community. More than simply a novel about football or football fandom, the book offers a portrait of the character and experiences of a section of the Irish Catholic community of the West of Scotland, and considers the role of young working-class men in our modern, post-industrial society.

The road Kevin travels towards self discovery, fulfilment and maturity leads him to Prague, enabling a more detached view of the Scotland that formed him and the Europe that beckons him.

In the words of  an initial review

“Written in a thoughtful, provocative yet engaging style, Paradise Road is a book that will enthral, challenge and reward in equal measure. It will be a powerful addition to the growing debate on some of the key issues facing contemporary Scotland”

Paradise Road can be pre-ordered from the Ringwood Publishing website  for £9.99 plus p&p

Helsinki it is then, a good Champions League Draw

HJK Helsinki the opponents GGW hoped Celtic would draw

Well, Celtic got the draw that GGW had identified as the best option to ensure their qualification for the 4th Knock Out Round of the Champions League, when they came out the urn along with HJK Helsinki.

Helsinki can prepare for a green invasion on 8th August although hopefully the outcome of the tie will have been secured in the first leg game at Celtic Park the week before. Any Celtic fans planning to travel to Helsinki should take loads of money given the extortionate price of beer, with even a small bottle costing about £6 and pints working out nearer £10 a time. Cynics attribute the high Finnish male suicide rate to this phenomenon.

HJK have been Finnish Champions the past 3 seasons and lie second as the current season approaches its climax. They have regular European experience with the highlight being 1998-99 when they became the only Finnish team ever to reach the Champions League Group Stages. They did not qualify but were not disgraced with a home win and an away draw against Benfica the pick of their results. However they have never come close to that level in the past 12 years and while memories of Utrecht will stop Celtic being complacent, it would be a major shock even in Finland if Celtic were unable to overcome this opposition over two legs.

The Sonera Stadium can expect a green and white influx

Earlier this week HJK won their Second Qualifying Round first leg game 7-0 so Celtic fans need to waste no time on KR Reykavik the linked team in the draw. It will definitely be HJK that Celtic face.

As the 7-0 scoreline might suggest, HJK are an offensive side who regularly play with 3 forwards, in defiance of the modern trend to only one striker. For the current campaign HJK invested in two new forwards. Juho Makela, a Finn who was on Hearts books a few years ago without making any impact, was brought back from Australia and has been scoring freely in the League. He contributed a hat-trick against KR so Celtic’s defence should give him no leeway, without having to tremble in their boots. The other signing was 24 year old Demba Savage a Gambian internationalist who can play a bit and will need careful watching.

17 year old wonderkid Joel Pohjanpalo. Celtic should buy him

But the third forward is the one Celtic fans should really watch out for, 17 year old wonderkid Joel Pohjanpalo. GGW suggests all readers of this post should Google his name on You Tube to see him score  a hat-trick in 3 minutes in a recent Finnish match. The fact that one goal was from a header, another with a right foot shot and the third from  a left foot shot indicates the all round level of skill this young player possesses. Finnish commentators reckon he is certainly the best young player they have produced since Jari Litmanen and possibly with even greater potential. Celtic could do far worse than buy him up, after they remove HJK from the competition.

In defence the man Celtic will have to beat to advance is club captain, the 36 year old goalkeeper Ville Wallen. In front of him the back four is led by another two over 30s Rami Hakenpaa and Tuomas Kansikas. The Celtic front men should have too much pace for these tiring old legs.

So quiet confidence should be the reaction to this favourable draw

Late Champions League Draw split helps Celtic

AEL Limassol the revised main danger

The decision by UEFA, taken after yesterday’s GGW article was posted, to split the Third Qualifying Champions Route draw into two pots of 5 seeded teams and 5 unseeded teams has strengthened Celtic’s position. The way the split was constituted guarantees that Celtic can no longer be drawn against main danger Slask Wroclaw of Poland, nor against the Czechs Slovan Liberec, the Hungarians Debrecen nor Rangers old foes Maribor. The 5 teams left as potential opponents(bar major upsets in the 2nd Round 2nd legs) are an easier group. The two most dangerous are Molde of Norway and AEL Limassol of Cyprus neither of whom should be a match for Celtic. The other 3, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova,  HJK Helsinki from Finland and Neftci Baku from Azerbaijan should all be highly beatable.

HJK Helsinki the preferred opponents

So the revised worst case scenario becomes the Cypriots AEL Limassol, and the preferred opposition , mainly on travel grounds, is HJK Helsinki.

GGW will provide a full profile of the actual opponents once the draw is made later today

Celtic’s Champions League Prospects look good

Friday's Champions League Draw should hold no fears for Celtic

The recent troubles of  domestic rivals Rangers, while absorbing, have diverted attention from Celtic’s hard earned right to pursue further European adventures. However the good news is that as the well deserved Scottish champions, Celtic’s route towards the 2012-13 Champions League Group Stages will be through the rather easier Champions Route rather than the Non Champions Route they were forced to pursue in recent years as Scottish runners-up. This means they no longer run the risk of being drawn against a top club from one of the Big Five European Leagues. Instead they will face opposition only from the Champion clubs of the other 41 European Leagues.

The combination of Scotland’s National  Coefficient ranking and Celtic’s own still high club coefficient ranking, mean that Celtic were able to sit out the First and Second Rounds of this qualification process. The First Round saw 6 champions from Europe lowest ranked leagues compete for 3 places in the Second Round. The 3 winners, including Linfield, then joined another 31 Champions in a Second Qualification Round to produce 17 ties. The first legs of this round were played on the 17th and 18th July with the second legs due on 24th and 25th  July. The 17 successful clubs will be joined by Celtic, Anderlecht and CFR Cluj from Romania in the draw for the Third Qualifying Round which takes place this Friday, 20th July 2012 with the games due on July31st/1st August and 7th/ 8th August.

Slask Wroclaw the main one to avoid but still beatable

GGW has previously described how a degree in advanced mathematics plus a qualification in nuclear physics is required to cope with the complexities of the Champions League Qualifying draws. For the Third Qualifying Round there will be ten seeded teams and ten unseeded teams. Celtic are guaranteed to be seeded in this round so they will definitely avoid the main dangers like Anderlecht, Basel, Partizan Belgrade and Salzburg. However predicting who they might face is more complicated. After this week’s first leg games it looks as if all seven of the seeded teams who had to play in the Second Qualifying Round will get through, thus avoiding Celtic. However several of the teams seeded in the Second Round draw but unseeded for the Third Round look unlikely to qualify after poor first leg results. Most notably Ventspils of Latvia who were beaten 3-0 in Norway by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde. It looks like Solskjaer will be a top class manager of the future. More disappointingly Zestafoni of Georgia who would have been the easiest of the ten unseeded options for Celtic to face, also lost 3-0 away to Neftchi Baku of Azerbajan.

Ekranas the one to hope for on Friday

While their recent European form offers no grounds for complacency, Celtic should certainly be good enough to see off even the best of the remaining ten unseeded clubs, like Slask Wroclaw(Poland), Slovan Liberec(Czech Republic), Debrecen (Hungary),  and AEL Limassol(Cyprus). Apart from Molde and Neftchi Baku, the other 4 teams are likely to be Sheriff Tiripol of Moldova, Maribor from Slovenia, HJK Helsinki from Finland and Ekranas from Lithuania. None of these 6 should cause Celtic any great problems although Rangers supporters might argue that Maribor from Slovenia are a team to beware.

So the worst case scenario would be a beatable Slask Wroclaw or Slovan Liberec, at best a highly beatable  Ekranas from Lithuania.

If Celtic negotiate this first hurdle successfully they will take part in the 4th Qualifying Round, the PlayOff Round, victory in which carries with it a definite place in the Group Stages of the 2012-2013 Champions League. Even defeat in this Round guarantees  inclusion in the Europa League Group Stages. The Draw for this 4th Round takes place on   10th August 2012   with the first legs on 21st/22nd August and 2nd legs on 28th/29th August.

Partizan Belgrade the main danger in the 4th Round

Once again Celtic are certain to be seeded for this 4th Qualifying Round ensuring they would avoid the other 4 top ranked clubs, Anderlecht, Basel, Salsburg and Bate Borissov(Bulgaria). If the previous round went as anticipated according to the rankings, Celtic’s 5 potential opponents would be Dinamo Zagreb, Partizan Belgrade, CFR Cluj, MSK Zilinia(Slovakia) or Helsingborg (Sweden). After what Malmo did to Rangers last year, Celtic should be advised not to underestimate Helsingborg. Of the Eastern European alternatives, none of them are mugs. Both Dinamo Zagreb and Partizan Belgrade have European histories nearly as glorious as Celtic’s even if their current status is much lowlier. CFR Cluj are a stuffy team, hard to beat but MSK Zilinia are probably the weakest of the quintet and so should be Celtic’s preferred option.

Zilinia, the one to hope for in the 4th Round Draw

So it is likely that either the Swedish champions or a quartet of beatable Eastern European champions represent the barrier between Celtic and a resumption of what most Celtic fans consider  their rightful location, the Group Stages of the world’s premier Club competition.


As for Motherwell, they will have to pursue the harder Non Champions Route  unseeded, indeed they are the lowest ranked of all the teams involved. In the Third Round they will have to face one of four seasoned European teams, Dynamo Kiev, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen and Fenerbahce. In the unlikely event Motherwell beat one of them, their 4th round potential opponents would include the other 3 plus Spartak Moscow and Braga. So it is unlikely Motherwell will be able to help Celtic by adding positively to Scotland’s club coefficient.

It is one of the less fortunate by-products of Rangers removal from Europe in disgrace that Celtic will have to carry that burden on their own and will almost certainly need a long Champions League run to avoid a situation whereby next year as almost certain Scottish Champions they will no longer be exempt from the Second Qualifying Round, meaning European action as soon as mid July 2013.

So while recent memories of opponents like Braga and Utrecht should prevent any complacency, it should be well within the capabilities of Neil Lennon’s current squad to overcome moderate opposition and qualify once more for the big time, the group Stages of the Champions League.

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