Neil Lennon and The Changing of the Guards at Celtic

So, did we witness the turning of the corner or is it to be another false dawn? Time will tell, however there were many positives to take from last night and the feeling the day after the night before is of a glimmer of hope for a season so bereft of it to date.

If we are to build on last night’s 3-2 win against Lille, then there will need to be bravery shown by Neil Lennon and his hard pressed coaching team. (John Kennedy has been getting some amount of stick on social media, the alternative view is the man is exhausted, drained even and has been working double shifts for many months).

As a season stumbled from inconsistency to the staleness evidence against Ross County and St Johnstone, the light at the end of the tunnel flickered into view last night. If we’re to strive towards genuine illumination, then Lennon is going to have to march on with the answers he stumbled across last night.

As Bob Dylan sang “else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.”

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Who would have thought after weeks of permutations in defence and attack that a midfield tweak or two would afford protection for a defence and ammunition for a frontline? Well, a few like Juco James and Alan Morrison at Celtic by Numbers have been saying for weeks that the midfield is the issue, but to date Celtic have tried to avoid the pressure of Ten-in-a-Row and European performances weighing heavy on the young players. Instead, we stuck with the tried and tested and they creaked.

Against Lille two players in particular stole the show. Ismaila Soro arrived on the scene and deserves to keep hold of the shirt for now. He was simply immense. One block at the edge of the box to deny Lille a certain goal showed the appetite he has to stop the opposition, an opposition who congratulated him for the effort.

Tenacious in the battle as his 12 tackles and 83% success rate evidenced, it was his ability to protect a back four but always look for the forward pass that stood out the most, that and the speed and tempo with which he went about his work.

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Soro simply did his job and immediately looked to offload to creators to link with the attack. And that is where the match winner stepped up last night.

David Turnbull, making his European debut against a side on the coattails of PSG in Ligue 1 and looking to top the Europa league group, looked like he was a wily veteran of the scene. Sand wedge passes, accurate set pieces, as we saw for the opening goal, and a timing of runs to supplement the attack that was exemplified by his match winning goal.

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Both players appearance in the team seemed to spark others into life around him as captain Callum McGregor even looked like he was cracking a smile once or twice after the dourness of weeks of attempting to carry midfield positional discipline by himself. Even after his bizarre surrendering of the ball that led to Lille’s equaliser he stepped up as you’d expect a leader of men to do and grabbed the ball for the penalty that put Celtic back in front.

The midfield looked balanced with the introduction of Soro’s discipline and Turnbull’s vision, whilst the wide players particularly when Frimpong was on the field linked well.

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Patryk Klimala may not look entirely comfortable as a lone striker but what he did was defend from the front, press and harry and give Lille no time to settle at all. He gave all he had for the team last night. The ball may not stick with Polish Paddy and it may be when Albian Ajeti is fully fit, he would lead the line. But what was clear is if we continue to play this system – and we simply must now – thestriker will have to close down the opposition and work rate will be essential.

If Lennon and the coaching staff have seen just that and the penny has dropped then Odsonne Edouard, so out of sorts of late, will need to add industry and work rate to his undoubted talent to justify a starting shirt.

And although the forward players will rightly get the plaudits, Celtic may well have stumbled across a defensive line that could see us through to the opening of the transfer window. At least.

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Kris Ajer deputised at right back and it’s an area he may have to get comfortable in. Hatem abd Elhamed cleary wants and needs to return home, and with his mind off the job it would be foolish to risk an out of sorts player starting unless absolutely essential. And with Jeremie Frimpong certainly looking more suited to an advanced position than full back, then Kris Ajer seems the logical choice.

It may not be entirely natural to the Norwegian but he made a good fist of it and even set up a wonderful goal with no little skill in attack. That would mean Shane Duffy and Christopher Jullien continuing at centre half and Diego Laxalt at left back, and that may give some of the support kittens, but in theory it should offer more defensive discipline than playing with two full backs utilised as wingers.

We’ve been too open of late, and although we still struggled at defending set pieces on the second ball, as we showed when Elyounoussi nodded off for Lille’s second, we at least looked for comfortable defending our box from open play and that in itself is a forward step.

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And behind the re-shaped defence Conor Hazard had so little to do it would be difficult to pass judgement, but he did what was asked, the defence seemed to have confidence in him and I liked the way a new kid on the block wasn’t shy in barking instructions to his defence. Given the performances of both Vasilis Barkas and Scott Bain when they’ve been afforded chances, we can surely allow young Hazard a little more time to show his worth.


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It may not have been the perfect performance, individual errors again costing us cheap concessions but it was an entertaining and attack minded side. And we had a midfield that suddenly had energy, tempo and balance.

With that in mind Neil Lennon has tough choices to make ahead of Sundays game with Kilmarnock. Lille played an open and engaged formation, whilst Kilmarnock will play a system of deep lying defence and look to counter. It’s something the old guard have struggled to break down all season, and it will be a different challenge for Soro and Turnbull should they keep their place at the weekend. But they’ve earned it surely? They deserve the opportunity to go again.

As Bob Dylan wrote: ‘How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?’

Last night had a feeling of the changing of the guard, it is now up to Neil Lennon to place his faith in his new recruits for the weekend at least. It may well signify a change in fortunes, for both the team and the manager.

Niall J

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About Author

As a Bellshill Bhoy I was taken to my first Celtic game in the summer of 1987. It was Billy McNeill’s return to Celtic Park as manager and Celtic lost 5-1 to Arsenal . I thought I was a jinx, I think my Grandfather might have thought the same. It was the finest gift anyone ever gave me when he walked me through Parkhead's gates.

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