Turbulence ahead: What can Neil Lennon do to stop Celtic’s recent poor form?

It has been a fortnight to forget for Celtic. Having lost several players to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during the international break, the Hoops’ entered the early kick-off against theRangers with a much-depleted squad and ultimately suffered humiliation at home to their bitter rivals in the form of a 2-0 loss in the Glasgow Derby – sinking without trace by not even registering a shot on target.

In a bid to keep spirits high, the Celtic faithful remained cautiously optimistic for the arrival of Serie A table-toppers AC Milan to ‘Paradise’ in their first Europa League outing of the season; yet once again, they had to endure another frustrating performance at Celtic Park on Thursday in the 3-1 defeat to The Rossoneri. Having gone into the break two goals down (admittedly against the run of play) against the San Siro outfit, Mohamed Elyounoussi’s strike with fifteen minutes to go had Celtic pushing for a well-earned equaliser; before Peter Hauge broke Celtic hearts with a 92nd minute clincher.

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And, having dropped points in the league the weekend before, Neil Lennon’s side had a chance to reprieve themselves once more just three days later – but, in what should have been a confidence boosting victory away to Aberdeen on Sunday, the Bhoys’ conceded a stoppage time penalty to make it a paltry one point from six in the SPFL following their 3-3 draw at Pittodrie.

Much has alluded to Lennon’s weak game management in the last month; the Lurgan-born boss has been criticised in recent weeks for his inability to not only see games out, but for setting up his team to have minimal effect in few of them at all. It is a real far cry from the Brendan Rodgers era where Celtic looked formidable against pretty much anyone if they opened the scoring – which the 69-game domestic unbeaten run pays real testament to. In contrast, with the way things are now, it really does seem as though Celtic are having to score at least three in a game if they are to think about prevailing victorious.

Of course, this is not all solely Lennon’s fault; at the end of the day, Celtic’s recent leaky nature is certainly thanks in no small part of usually sturdy defence not playing to their maximum ability. Infact in reflectance, it is only Kristoffer Ajer who can hold his hands up and say that he has performed as well as he can recently – Shane Duffy is not fully living up to his solid reputation despite his form in front of goal (albeit he is still lacking match fitness) – and with Christopher Jullien still sidelined, it makes for grim reading.

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And the Celtic squad will not find it easy to put their poor form to rest on Thursday, in arguably their biggest test yet – against a Lille side who remain the only unbeaten team in the top tier of France. Having received over £225 million in player sales over the last fifteen months, Lille have spent wisely, bringing in a lot of superb young talents – which include former Bhoy Timothy Weah, rising Canadian star Jonathan David for £30m from Genk, and Angel Gomes from Manchester United – all of whom add a wealth of attacking options to Les Douges. Furthermore, by holding on to in demand shot-stopper Mike Maignan, defenders Zeki Celik and Jose Fonte alongside box-to-box midfielder Boubakary Soumare, the Hauts-de-France outfit look well prepared for the future.

Lennon’s problems are certainly well documented in terms of where his side are going wrong; the stats against Milan and Aberdeen especially point to wasteful finishing having had 27 shots in 180 minutes. The Hoops’ managed just 9 on target in those two games (a 33% shots-on-target rate), with just 4 of those resulting in a goal (meaning a substandard 14% conversion rate). Evidently, the Bhoys’ are missing Odsonne Edouard’s availability; despite Albian Ajeti’s strong start to the season and Leigh Griffiths’ return, the goals from attackers have dried up in recent games and this is a major cause for concern – Griffiths has scored those two recent goals (at McDiarmid Park and Pittodrie) this season whilst Ajeti hasn’t scored in four. It is not ideal for Celtic to be missing a player of Edouard’s quality on the continental scale – not forgetting he was linked to Napoli, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund – and their chances of winning in France will be greatly worse if the star man doesn’t play following his bout of COVID-19. There is an outside chance that Edouard could feature on Thursday evening in Lille – he has now trained for two days – but he is more likely to be on the bench rather than in the starting eleven.

However, Moi Elyounoussi has been in decent form recently when not being berthed in a striker role – and with Mikey Johnston potentially returning in time for the game, Celtic have good options on the wing to counter-attack under the sustained pressure they will endure at Lille. James Forrest, who would be invaluable in a game like this, and Christopher Jullien are the only notable absentees for the visit across the Channel.

Lille haven’t lost in ninety minutes of football since 16 February either, despite facing opponents such as Lyon, Marseille and Nice, and so this will be a tough record for the Celts’ to try and break. However, Lennon’s men will draw inspiration from recent European away days – most notably Lazio, who were third in the Serie A when Olivier Ntcham famously put them to the sword with a 95th minute winner in the Italian Capital. Lazio finished the season in fourth, duly qualifying for the Champions League – and represent a much tougher test than Lille do.

Despite this, no matter the result on Thursday, Hoops’ fans cannot lament about their side if they don’t win; it would be unfair to do so with a few key players missing, alongside their usually poor European away form. However, if the Bhoys’ put in an impressive performance, which could potentially stand them in good stead for the league campaign that has a lot of games still to come, then it will atleast be a step in the right direction on the way to securing Ten-in-a-Row.

Will Lancaster

About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor David Faulds has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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