Thursday, September 09, 2010

Scotland update: Lee Wallace out for six months

It's being reported today that Lee Wallace got a serious knee injury in the Liechtenstein game, with reports that he could be out for six months or even the entire season.

If so it's a big blow for a squad without much depth in many key positions and gives manager Craig Levein yet another headache.

It doesn't do anything for Hearts' season either, of course, who lack proper cover at left back.

Scotland impress no one on rise to the top

There's no easy games in international football anymore eh?

Lithuania are obstinate brutes who will exploit every trick in the book (and a lax referee) to boot their opponents out of the game. Liechtenstein can score a slick goal if you go to sleep. Poor Scotland - seeking form, fortune and a reason to believe in themselves again - have been put through the mill this week.

Still, Lithuania's win over the Czech Republic changes everything. On the one hand, it allowed Scotland to go top of the group with four points - never mind that it's a false position. But next up it's... the Czech Republic, who'll be looking to smack Scotland and make up for lost points.

So Craig Levein has a lot of work to do between now and then, because there are question marks all over the pitch. The manager has also showed himself to be worryingly sensitive to outside influences, appearing to change the formation for Liechtenstein in response to criticism that his team wasn't attack-minded enough.

But just because you've got more strikers on the pitch, it doesn't mean your team will be any better going forward - a basic lesson that any half-decent manager should have learnt long before they get near a technical area. Football is all about possession, and 4-5-1 isn't necessarily more defensive than 4-4-2.

The curse of injuries makes it difficult, but what Scotland need is a settled system, where everyone from keeper to centre forward knows their roles and what needs to be done.

Levein has bought himself time to try and do this. Here's hoping he finds the right solution.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Levein faces first real test

Qualifying for Euro 2012 starts tonight, ready or not. Hold your breath, Scotland.

The striking thing about Craig Levein's first team for a competitive fixture is the strength of the Rangers contingent, with Alan McGregor between the sticks, David Weir back in at centre half and Kenny Miller leading the line.

Most of these decisions are explicable - with Craig Gordon injured, picking a keeper is a judgement call between various candidates of lesser ability, and if McGregor is allowed a second chance then it might as well be in this game. Weir is old but has experience, though partnering him with the slow Steven McManus might just be asking for trouble. We'd much prefer Christophe Berra in there instead.

Kenny Miller earns the right to show if his goal-scoring start to the domestic season can be replicated in dark blue.

But elsewhere, the old injury curse has struck again, giving cause for chewed fingernails everywhere. With Lee Wallace out, Levein has chosen to move Steven Whittaker to left back and bring Alan Hutton in at right back.

Is Hutton fit? He's barely played for Spurs so this is a big ask, while putting the right-footed Whittaker on the left makes you wonder where the balance and width will come from. In midfield, only Barry Robson is left footed, and he's not a winger. There is a real fear that Scotland could be pulled out of shape this evening.

We're also relying on Lee McCulloch to do the holding job in midfield, another cause of worry. He's filled in there plenty for Rangers but international football demands a little more class and guile - Barry Ferguson, re-invented as a solely defensive midfielder at Birmingham, will be missed.

And then there's the reliance on Steven Naismith, too, who's hardly convinced in a Scotland shirt. Why not Graham Dorrans, who has been impressing so much at West Brom.

Having said all that, Lithuania ain't great, and Scotland shouldn't panic.

Fingers crossed, eh?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stokes proves player power rules

The transfer window closed today with the most intriguing switch of the summer, as Antony Stokes moved from Hibs to Celtic.

A straightforward deal on the face of it - another coveted player moves to the Old Firm - but there's more to this than meets the eye, and the clue is in the transfer fee, rumoured to be around £800,000.

£800k? For a player who scored 23 goals last term, and has two years remaining on his contract? Hibs sold Steven Fletcher to Burnley a year ago for £3.5m, and he never scored 23 goals in a season.

The days of Hibs being pressured into selling a player for a cut-down fee have long gone, and yet Celtic appear to have got a bargain. Gary Hooper suddenly looks rather overpriced compared to Stokes.

So what's going on?

Hibs have a recent history of getting their business done early in the summer - Scott Brown (to Celtic), Steven Fletcher and Rob Jones were all sold with lots of time left to bring in replacements. So maybe the club are a little short of money, or at least cash flow. With the new East Stand built this summer, Hibs probably banked on selling either Sol Bamba or Merouane Zemmama to balance the books.

But Bamba didn't play in the World Cup, although he was part of the Ivory Coast squad, so missed the opportunity to put himself in the shop window, while Zemmama is recovering from a serious knee injury so hardly attractive to potential buyers. Maybe the Stokes deal was the only one possible?

Or maybe Hibs wanted rid of Stokes. He's a player with baggage, who got dropped into the reserves by Roy Keane at Sunderland for his unprofessional behaviour. He managed to turn up for every game at Hibs last season, but rumours that he likes a flutter and a party remain.

But maybe the truth is that Antony Stokes was always in control of his destiny, whatever Hibs wanted. It was a massive coup for the club to sign him last summer, despite his baggage - he was a graduate of the Arsenal academy, after all, who signed for Sunderland for £2m. Hibs got him on a free, and on a massive cut in wages as well.

In his assured first press conference at Celtic, Stokes paid tribute to Hibs and manager John Hughes for helping him rebuild his career, but there was also conviction that he was now back in control of his future. Was there a clause in his contract that compelled Hibs to sell at a certain price?

We'll probably never know the full details. Hibs can justifiably claim this was a good piece of business, getting a proven striker for a year and then selling him on at a profit.

Who knows if Stokes will prove a success at Celtic. Denied a certain starting place, he might not enjoy the loss of status within the dressing room, and return to his bad old ways.

What is clear, though, is that Hibs are weaker tonight, and another player has journeyed along the M8 to join the Old Firm.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Europa disaster!

We've said it before and we'll say it again, no doubt - when the stakes are high, rookie gaffer Neil Lennon plays it all wrong.

2-0 up from the first leg, many were treating Celtic's progress into the Europa League as a given - and it probably should have been. But yet again their diabolical away form came back to haunt them, they conceded four goals to Utrecht and now they are out.

To be fair to him, Celtic had lots of defenders unavailable through injury - but that have made protecting a makeshift back four a priority. Instead Lennon picked a front two of Samaras and Fortune, plus new "wonderkid" James Forrest, plus Joe Ledley (who's not known for putting in a shift)... reckless stuff, and they paid the price.

Motherwell couldn't score the 1-0 victory that would have put them through against Odense, and Dundee Utd came close but missed the chance to progress ahead of AEK.

Both clubs acquited themselves rather better tonight than the green giant from Glasgow, however.

Where do Celtic go from here?

Dundee Utd tie finds a venue at last

Dundee Utd are in Athens tonight, trying to turn around a 1-0 deficit from the first leg that will allow them to progress to the Europa League Group Stage at AEK's expense.

But AEK's stadium isn't fit for purpose, so an alternative venue at Panionios was found. But Panionios, upset at the thought of AEK using their home, broke into the ground and destroyed the pitch.

So the tie has moved to Olympiakos' stadium. But now the fear is AEK fans will ransack the place, so they have been banned.

Dundee Utd now face the odd prospect of playing an away tie in front of 500 of their own travelling supporters, and no one else. It's going to be a weird atmosphere, that's for sure, more so if any AEK trouble makers manage to disguise themselves as Tangerines to sneak in and cause mayhem.

Anyhow, good luck tonight to the team, and to the fans who will hopefully avoid any trouble. Very much the underdogs here, maybe they can use these unusual circumstances to their advantage.

Rangers look forward

After a torrid few months, it's suddenly all going right for Rangers.

The squabbles over cancelled lucrative friendlies during pre-season have been forgotten, and focus has switched from the players who have left to the new arrivals who have been coming through the door - few in number, but decent enough to placate the fans.

Maximum points from their first two games in the SPL, too, even if both matches had a few issues of concern. The opening fixture was a narrow win over Killie, but a win nonetheless, while on Sunday Rangers reminded us all why we don't like them, with a disgraceful challenge from Kyle Lafferty and blatant cheating from Alan McGregor.

Lafferty got sent off for his antics and McGregor got a yellow for pretending Derek Riordan had hit him in the face - no complaints there. But any sense of justice was removed by the fact Kevin McBride and Riordan also got the same punishment - just for being in the vicinity, it seemed. You can bet that Hibs will be fired up for the Ibrox return.

Still, later today Rangers find out who their opponents will be in the Champions League group stage. As they are in pot three, there will be no easy route out of the group, but Rangers will be hoping for glamour and prestige aplenty, as well as looking forward to the money that will be coming their way.

Could it be that Rangers are dragging themselves out of their financial hole?