As Celtic left the field at half time yesterday it seemed as if the improvement in performance against Kilmarnock in midweek was carrying on. And for a time at the start of the second half against Motherwell, particularly just after Odsonne Edouard finished brilliantly to put Celtic two up, it felt like Motherwell were about to suffer the same fate as Killie and lose by at least four goals.
But then we saw just how fragile the confidence is within the Celtic ranks, particularly defensively. Motherwell pulled a goal back and Celtic appeared to unravel. By the end what could easily have been a very comfortable win saw a goal line clearance required at the death to avoid a share of the spoils. But was what followed a confidence issue or a self-inflicted wound?
In that first half Stephen Welsh gave Celtic the early goal we all craved, one we hoped would settle Celtic down, and it certainly seemed that way. The only complaint you could have would have been the only goal came from a set piece and we’d had more than enough opportunities fashioned from open play to add to that solitary strike.
Motherwell were stout defensively, happy to concede territory to our full backs and focus on defending central areas, yet we managed to play well around them and had attempts getting in behind.
The tactics the opposition adopted also allowed Greg Taylor and Jonjoe Kenny a lot of space to run into and deliver. Taylor in particular enjoyed the freedom and probably had his best game in a Celtic shirt, supplying not only decent crossed balls but driving into the space afforded to him and mixing the type of deliveries he supplied. Kenny on the other hand preferred to drill his efforts and wasn’t always capitalising sufficiently on the open expanse of space in front of him, however given this was only his second game you can forgive a little hesitancy.
As that half-time whistle went Celtic only had that goal in the 2nd minute, the impressive Stephen Welsh’s first in a Celtic shirt, but you felt there was more to come. Yet let’s be honest we have seen very few 90-minute performances form Celtic this season so doubt creeped in over the course of the interval.
Then five minutes in Edouard supplied by Callum McGregor scored that great goals showing the benefit of shooting early rather than dribbling through packed defences- you may be on to something there Eddy.
In the moments after the second goal Celtic’s tails were up, the team looked balanced and we were attacking from all angles. It really felt like Motherwell would yield and more goals would follow. This was beginning to look like a game where Celtic could score for fun and build some much-needed confidence.
Then came Allan Campbell’s 66th minute goal to get Motherwell back in the game. Neil Lennon claimed post-match that moment changed the ‘psychology of the game’.
A two-goal lead is of course a precarious one and a concession can change a game’s landscape. However, given that it may have been prudent to ensure Celtic, who until then had been on the front foot, settled down and simply kept on going. Instead, Neil Lennon in the space of four minutes made three substitutions and added a further one in the 80th minute.
Albian Ajeti was first to leave the field for Griffiths straight after the goal and Diego Laxalt replaced the excellent Greg Taylor whilst Ismaila Soro came on for defensive midfielder Scott Brown a further two minutes later. It seemed the substitutions at that stage changed the psychology of the game more than the concession of the goal.
If the changes were designed to in some way break Motherwell’s perceived momentum it backfired as Celtic took time to settle down to three changes, two of which in defensive positions where continuity for a few minutes post concession may have been a little wiser. And Motherwell sensed a game that looked beyond them was far from over.
Prior to Allan Campbell’s chipped effort that would call into question Lennon’s persistence in using Scott Bain as his number one, Devante Cole’s shot was saved and Mugabi headed wide from close range, and then Celtic were hanging on from a position of total control.
Long’s driven delivery into the box could have caused concern but thankfully, Devante Cole was caught unawares and it hit off him, and Jordan Roberts failed to reach the ball at the back post. Then came the heart-stopping moment in added time as Harry Smith met a lobbed delivery and headed towards the far post, and Diego Laxalt had to clear off the line with Devante Cole thankfully losing a striker’s instinct to follow in. From cruise control to a nigh on car crash ending for Celtic.
And so that question of Celtic being able to put together 90-minute football crops up again, however on this occasion I have great sympathy for the players. The goal concession midway through the second half may well have spooked them, but the substitutions – three in a row – disrupted things more.
I’m convinced leaving any changes for at least ten minutes or limiting them to Soro replacing Brown and injecting some energy to protect the backline would have sufficed. Instead, we handed momentum to Motherwell as we not only reacted to the loss of an avoidable goal but we added a period of required reorganisation to three positions. It was unnecessary to make so many changes at such an important juncture and we nearly paid the price.
And Lennon wasn’t finished with the mind boggling in-game management either. There was still time for David Turnbull – who had been simply immense – to be replaced by Moi Elyounoussi. I have no problem with that change, it seems a habitual decision of Neil Lennon’s to replace our creative force at some point, but when Tom Rogic has been blowing out his backside since prior to Motherwell scoring their goal it seemed strange to replace Turnbull, who seemed capable of lasting the 90 minutes on this occasion, and leave on a man who looked like he was gasping for air and energy in the last quarter, in a midfield under pressure.
Celtic had control of this game and previous Celtic sides would have won this at a canter and with goals to spare. It would be too easy to put this down to a near capitulation due to an unnerving loss of a goal, or accuse Celtic of having an inability to supply a 90-minute performance. The psychology of this game wasn’t change by the loss of Allan Campbell’s goal to make it 2-1, the reason Diego Laxalt had to clear off the line in added time came from the decision making from the bench, the dreadful timing of it, the unrequired number of changes in one fell swoop and the momentum it handed to the opposition.
These Celtic players had shown they could play for 90 minutes yesterday. It was almost unfortunate the bench couldn’t quite do the same.