Midseason review: Top of the pile at New Year's

Posted by Andy Muirhead

Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesCeltic fans will long remember Victor Wanyama's header that helped the Scottish champions pull off their massive upset of Barcelona in November.

With the year's end fast approaching, it is good to take a look back and see what we can learn from past experiences, mistakes and what we can do to make the next year better than the last. For Celtic, they are halfway through their season and still alive in all four competitions they entered. More importantly, they are top of the Scottish Premier League and have secured qualification to the last 16 of the Champions League.

- Wilson charged over elbow
- Brown: We need to continue this form

All in all, 2012 has been a very good year for Celtic on and off the park.

Domestic Review
In all honesty, domestic football has been in the shadows of Celtic's European campaign and that proved out in some of the side's performances. Dropping points against Ross County (August 18), Hibernian (September 1), losing against St.Johnstone (September 15) and worse still, defeats to Kilmarnock (October 27) and Inverness (November 24) at home.

But since the loss to Inverness at Celtic Park in November, Celtic are unbeaten in eight games in all competitions. Out of those eight, they have won seven of those -- the only blip being the 1-1 draw at home to Arbroath in the Scottish Cup fourth round on the 1st of December.

Celtic currently sit top of the SPL, therefore the best in Scotland, seven points clear of second placed Inverness and with a game in hand.

They have never really hit top gear in the first half of the season, except maybe in the 4-0 win over Hearts (November 28), or the League Cup quarterfinal tie which saw Neil Lennon's side beat St. Johnstone 5-0 (October 30) or the 5-0 demolition of St. Mirren ten days earlier.

Celtic's last game of 2012 against Hibernian showed that Celtic are beatable and that is something they must shore up domestically. At times they can be bullied off the ball; they take their eye off the ball and are slack also. Not to take anything away from the victorious side, but if Celtic can defend against arguably the greatest attacking side in the world currently -- in the guise of Barcelona -- then why do they fail to do so against the likes of St. Johnstone, Kilmarnock and Inverness?

2013 will be a year to savour as they look to sew up their 44th league championship, their 36th Scottish Cup and their 15th Scottish League Cup. The treble should be the goal domestically for Lennon and Celtic.

European Review
Who would have thought it? Celtic are still in the Champions League after Christmas and for the third time. Success on the park means that Celtic have struck it rich off it, bringing in around 25 million pounds in revenue.

Celtic kicked off their European campaign back on August 1st as they beat HJK Helsinki 2-1 at Celtic Park. HJK were then put to the sword a week later as Celtic won 2-0 on the night, 4-1 on aggregate. That win led to Celtic facing Henrik Larsson's old side Helsingborg, who were easily dealt with as Celtic secured a 4-0 aggregate win against the Swedes.

That victory secured Celtic's place in the group stages of the Champions League and Lennon's side were drawn against Barcelona, Benfica and Spartak Moscow. A tough draw, and one that no one gave Celtic a chance of advancing out of. In fact, many claimed that Celtic would all flat on their face and end the campaign bottom of Group G.

In all honesty, after the first group game against Benfica at Celtic Park which saw both sides settle for a point after a 0-0 draw, I felt that Celtic had blown it there and then. But that poor performance against Benfica was binned, as Celtic secured a 3-2 victory over Spartak Moscow away from home. A goal from Gary Hooper, an own goal from Dmitri Kombarov and a dramatic late winner from Georgios Samaras secured all three points for Lennon's side.

Ian MacNicol/AFP/Getty ImagesCeltic manager Neil Lennon inspired his side to winning ways on both the domestic and European fronts.

So with four points secured already, Celtic travelled to the formidable Nou Camp to take on Barcelona, arguably the greatest side in the world. Samaras gave Celtic a dramatic and shock lead on 18 minutes, before the pressure from the hosts was all too much and Andres Iniesta equalised on the stroke of half time. Despite dominating the match, it looked like Barcelona would be held by Celtic, until Jordi Alba popped up at the death to break Celtic hearts and deny the Bhoys what would have been a great result.

The next match saw Barcelona travel to Glasgow as Celtic played host. In what would be a glorious night for everyone connected to Celtic, Victor Wanyama opened the scoring on 21 minutes, before youngster Tony Watt scored seven minutes before time -- a goal that the striker will be dining out on and reliving for years to come. Lionel Messi gave some hope as he scored in injury time to bring the score back to 2-1, but Celtic held on to send shockwaves across the continent.

All that hard work against Barcelona looked to have been in vain as Benfica secured a 2-1 victory over Celtic in Portugal on November 17th. That defeat set a final day decider as Celtic needed to better the Benfica result.
Celtic played host to Spartak Moscow, while Benfica travelled to the Nou Camp. Lennon's charges had the perfect start as Hooper scored on 21 minutes, but that was cancelled out by Ari on 39 minutes. With ten minutes remaining, both matches were all square and if it ended like that, then Celtic would drop out of the Champions League and into the Europa League.

However, with seven minutes remaining the Greek striker Samaras was brought down by Marek Suchy in the box -- minimal contact was made -- but it was a penalty all the same and under huge pressure, Kris Commons fired his spot kick in off the crossbar to send Celtic into the last 16.

That victory brought Celtic's financial gain from the competition, to around 25 million pounds. Not a bad day at the office.

Up next for Celtic is a mouth-watering encounter with Serie A giants Juventus. No one has given Celtic any chance of reaching the last eight and neither do I, but you have to be in it to win it.

Squad Review
Celtic have a young squad, with quality throughout it. Fraser Forster is arguably the best keeper in Britain at the minute and is the first name on the team sheet after some world class performances over the past few seasons. How Alan Pardew and Newcastle United will be kicking themselves selling the big Geordie for only two million pounds.

Lennon has two other easy choices in the guise of midfielder Wanyama and striker Hooper. Both players have been the main performers for Celtic, both domestically and in Europe, and this is telling in the number of clubs swarming around both players looking to snap them up.

Forster, Wanyama and Hooper are sellable assets as Celtic could secure significant financial remuneration for their signatures, but Celtic will not sell the trio before the end of the season. Hopefully they won't be sold until further down the line. If they are, then their departures would signal Celtic delving into the transfer market for replacements, and quality ones at that.

Injury-hit skipper Scott Brown has struggled in some games, but in others he has been superb. However, in my opinion, after the Juventus games and if or when Celtic end their European campaign, then Brown should be rested or even to undertake further surgery to cure his hip injury.

The defence is still somewhat of a 'headless chicken' at times, but with Emilio Izaguirre, Adam Matthews and Mikael Lustig, the full back positions are strong. Centre of defence, Celtic rely on Efe Ambrose, Kelvin Wilson, Thomas Rogne and Charlie Mulgrew.

Midfield sees the aforementioned Wanyama and Brown, along with Joe Ledley, Commons, Beram Kayal, Dylan McGeouch and James Forrest.

The strikers feature Samaras, Hooper, Lassad Nouioui and Watt.

There is no denying that Celtic's squad is the strongest in Scottish football, but the players mentioned above are the mainstay of the Celtic side and will hopefully be at Celtic for the next few seasons at least.

There are others in the squad, some youngsters who have failed to break into the ranks so far this season and those fringe players who have made fleeting appearances here and there. These players are available and should be de available for transfers whether loan deals or permanent deals.

Lubos Kamenar: Signed on loan from Nantes in the summer, he has not made a single appearance for Celtic and in reality, was signed as Celtic's third keeper. The deal was pointless and he should be returned to the French side as soon as possible.

Miku: Another loan signing in the summer, this time from Getafe and another one who should head back to his parent club. He's had his chances but has proved nothing of note to warrant his stay at Celtic Park.

Andre Blackman: Signed when he was released by AFC Wimbledon in 2011 and has played just three games for Celtic. He was loaned out to Inverness and made two appearances before being sent back to Celtic due to his attitude problems. The defender brings nothing to the team or the squad and is a waste of money and a jersey. He should be sold or released as soon as possible.

Rabiu Ibrahim: A signing from PSV in 2011, Ibrahim is another player who has not made it into the first team regularly, making just one appearance. Another player that Celtic can afford to ditch and bring in a better quality of player.

Paddy McCourt: There is no denying that the Northern Irishman is a skilful player and Lennon is a fan of his fellow countryman, but the winger does not bring anything to the club. He is, with all respect, a waste of a wage that could be given to a younger player who could challenge or even break through into the side. McCourt has had plenty of chances and has failed to be anything other than a substitute who comes on to waste time at the end of the match. McCourt should depart permanently rather than on loan as some speculation has been stating.

Anthony Stokes: The Irishman is a good striker; there is no denying that he is a goal threat. He has been injured this season but away from his footballing abilities, the player has brought unwanted negative press on the club and should depart Celtic Park.

Other players: Mo Bangura has returned from AIK and looks set to stay at Celtic Park, despite talk of a permanent move to Sweden. The Sierra Leone striker can pack his bags and leave Celtic and many fans would gladly buy his bus ticket to send him on his way. Daryl Murphy is currently on loan at Ipswich Town -- can the Tractor Boys not just take him permanently? Celtic should offer him as a freebie.

January transfer window signings
Celtic will strengthen their side in the January transfer window, with Lennon ditching the winter training camp in Spain to watch potential targets down in England. Some signings may be loan deals, as there is little movement permanently at this time of the year unless you spend crazy money -- something that Celtic and the money men would never do.

David Ramos/Getty ImagesFraser Forster has been a calm presence in goal this season for Celtic.

A list of around 143 SPL players were listed recently in the Scottish sports media and Celtic could take advantage of the pre-contract agreement ruling. Of those 143 players, Celtic, in my opinion, should snap up the following players:

Marius Zaliukas, Darren Randolph and Jamie Murphy are all set to leave their clubs in the summer if no deals are done to extend their stays. Considering my opinion on Kamenar being sent back to his parent club, Celtic need a third keeper and the Motherwell keeper Randolph should be snapped up as he has been one of the best in the SPL over the past few years. He would do battle with both Forster and Lukasz Zaluska for the number one and two jerseys at the club, and if Celtic inevitably sell Forster in the summer to snap up big money, then Randolph would be a low cost and quality option.

Randolph's Motherwell teammate, Murphy, also looks set to leave Fir Park and he would certainly be a great addition. Again, it would take not a huge amount of money to secure his services as McCourt's departure should signal Murphy's signature. Murphy has age and fitness on his side and he provides a different attacking threat that Celtic do not possess from the one trick pony of McCourt.

Then there is Zaliukas, who is maybe a strange choice, but the Hearts defender is good enough to deal with the SPL and has shown it over the years. Not one for European football, but he is a player who can do a job domestically for Celtic. His signing is the lesser of the three and is a wildcard signing.

Two players I believe Celtic should splash the cash for are the Dundee United duo of Johnny Russell and Gary Mackay Stevens. Both youngsters are quality players and two of the main threats from Peter Houston's United side. This won't go down too well with those acquaintances of a United faith, but they are quality players and with all respect to United, these players will be looking to move to a bigger club soon -- whether that is Celtic or in England is down to them -- but Celtic should snap them up now before they start to make a bigger impact on the scene.

MacKay Steven, Russell and Murphy will provide that attacking, creative spark that Celtic miss on occasion. They need some fresh blood and this trio would give Celtic a welcome boost for the second half of the season if the Celtic money men pull their wallets out.

As for signings from England, loan deals are the order of the day given the hugely overinflated wages and transfer fees for average players. In terms of who Lennon will be eyeing up, your guess is as good as mine.

2012 has been Celtic's year both domestically and on the continent. They have led the way and should step up in the second half. A domestic treble should be on the cards, while they will take anything they can get from the last 16 of the Champions League.

Celtic and their fans will certainly be celebrating Hogmanay as 2012 was a very good year to be from the green and white half of Glasgow. Can 2013 better it?

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