Had Celtic’s Europa League encounter gone to plan and Celtic had gained a valuable three points in Group H a discussion over who starts tomorrow game with Motherwell wouldn’t have been high on anyone’s agenda. Without injuries we’d all have been hoping for a consistent team selection, something we’ve not had the luxury to have for much of this season. Now Thursday night’s 4-1 reverse to Sparta Prague leaves Neil Lennon with a headache.
What appeared to be a return to form, borne of the ability to consistently choose a starting eleven, appears to have been cut off at the pass. What is certain is that there are a few players at present playing on past glories and reputation or simply struggling for form. Now Lennon’s own reputation is on the line it could well be time for the manager to make some tough decisions.
The decisions lie from goalkeeper through the team to the striking positions. Keep the same team and Lennon risks fatigue and weary limbs playing a part, change too many and any kind of fluidity gained in the last few weeks may go out the window. As such a balance has to be found.
We’ll have a look at the strikers and midfield later on but for now the now rather porous Celtic defence is worth examining as to where Lennon may be able to stiffen the backline.
Scott Bain and Vasilis Barkas would now appear to be a choice that Neil Lennon would rather not have to make. Indeed, I’m almost certain Neil Lennon trusts neither men with the gloves. But with Celtic unable to enter that transfer market again until January, then Lennon is going to have to decide.
In truth Barkas has done very little wrong but he was as culpable as his defence in conceding against theRangers. The lack of communication with his defence despite being left so exposed so often is also a worry. There weren’t many the ‘keeper conceded where you felt he was at fault, but at the same there was an absence of any great level of shotstopping to indicate the former AEK man was anything other than an ordinary keeper. He certainly needs to impose his personality on the back four. It was something he clearly wasn’t shy to do in Greece, it may be time he came out his shell.
Since the 3-3 draw with Aberdeen Scott Bain has come in to the side. In four games he’s conceded nine goals, so it’s fair to say the number going past him and his somewhat unorthodox approach to keeping the ball out the net may mean Lennon will have to reconsider bringing Barkas back in, in the hope the shock of being a big summer signing and sidelined so soon will have been the kick up the backside he needed.
It’s a tough call for Lennon but for tomorrow it may be time for Barkas to pick up the gloves again and see if a time out the team has allowed him time to reflect on what he needs to improve on. I’m sure the one-on-one time spent with Stevie Woods in the last few weeks could reap rewards.
Duffy already had a cult following prior to signing on with Celtic. When rumours surfaced of the possibility of signing the Irish captain, there was a groundswell of supporter opinion that was right behind the move.
Christopher Jullien and Kris Ajer were a settled partnership but hadn’t started the season well. Lennon, considering he wished to move to the perceived stability of a defensive three, required a clichéd no nonsense central defender. Shane Duffy on past reputations was certainly just that, yet at Celtic he’s not quite cutting it. Remember too that when Brendan Rodgers arrived at Celtic he tried to sign Duffy from Blackburn Rovers before he ended up heading to Brighton.
Duffy himself has mitigation. Nine months without football then thrust into two games a week, new teammates, illness and the loss of his Father are all likely to have impacted to an unimpressive start to his Hoops career. As would playing a high line, playing out from the back and carrying the ball into offensive areas. Something perhaps a little alien to the big fella.
It may just be too much to ask all at the one time for Duffy, but you don’t have a career like his without there being ability in there, and you couldn’t fault him for effort, he has that in abundance. So, will Lennon drop Duffy? In short, he can’t can he? Bitton is just back from illness, Ajer is injured and Jullien still seems a while off from returning from his back injury. Hatem abd Elhamed is back in contention but it’s likely he’s going to be required to play elsewhere. As such despite Duffy clearly needing some time out the limelight, he’s likely to play on come Sunday.
One of the reasons Elhamed may find that central defence is not an area where he’s going to be utilised, lies in the form of Jeremie Frimpong.
Frimpong is easy on the eye, talented on the ball and in the absence of hold up strikers he brings an ability to get Celtic up the park and let others breathe a little. What shouldn’t be overlooked is that his first job is to defend and too often still, Captain Scott Brown has to coach and cajole the player through games.
In the Scottish Premiership you can get away with positional indiscipline but in the European encounters’ opposition, as Sparta Prague did, will target that naivety. When the captain is busy battling in midfield and concerned as to his own form then Frimpong is having to grow up fast.
The other part to his game is his offensive abilities. Much like Greg Taylor his delivery is often found wanting. It’s a big call, but given how Celtic are shipping goals of late and Elhamed returning to fitness it may be time for Frimpong to step out of the firing line and allow Celtic to operate a more positionally disciplined operator to fill the right back slot.
Assuming Celtic head to Motherwell and continue with a back four then it’s time for Lennon to make some big decisions. Vasilis Barkas can return in goal and a back four of Elhamed, Duffy and Bitton with the brilliant Diego Laxalt at left back may allow for some stability to return to the Celtic defence. Much will depend on the players who play ahead of the defence as to how much exposure they get and that’s an area we’ll have a look later on.