Last night’s fantastic result and performance ensured Celtic will play European football this season until at least Christmas.
As someone who is quick to condem when things go wrong, it is only right to now follow up last night’s result with praise for the players, Neil Lennon, and his management team for guiding us to such a resounding aggregate victory over the Swedish champions and into the Europa League group stages.
With what is still a makeshift defence (Ajer at right-back – then going off injured to be replaced by Ralston – with Bitton covering in the middle) there were a few shaky moments, particularly early on in the game, as has to be expected from an away Celtic performance in Europe, but once the second goal went in, immediately following AIK’s equaliser, the tie never looked in any doubt. After the break Celtic displayed the type of composure and exuded a level of authority and control over proceedings which I, alongside many others, have recently been crying out for.
Last night, Celtic looked like a team who, this time, knew their gameplan.
After the defeat to CFR Cluj and the turgid extra time victory over Dunfermline I wrote that the “management team need to get these ones right [the fixtures against AIK, Hearts and Rangers] or they are at risk of holding the record of having the shortest reign ever in the history of Celtic.” Since this time the response on the pitch has been terrific from both the management and the players. A comfortable home victory over AIK took the sting out of the developing negativity, with the defeat of Hearts that followed providing an opportunity for the rarely seen Bayo to shine as he deputised for the rested Edouard.
Concerning the last three games the only criticism I have regards the avoidable injuries picked up by both Kristoffer Ajer and Odsonne Edouard. Ajer has looked exhausted in the latter stages of each game recently yet remained on the park until the 87th minute against Hearts on Sunday, with Edouard needlessly featuring well beyond the hour mark last night. However, if, as was reported this morning, both will recover in time to play on Sunday these qualms will quickly be forgotten.
The emotional nature of football, particularly to the Celtic support, and the seismic significance of these early season fixtures both provoke and rationalise such erratically fluctuating opinions as have been witnessed over recent weeks. It seems that we are currently only ever one victory away from triumph, yet one defeat away from disaster. To me this comes down to two factors: the importance of the reward on the line, coinciding with an underlying doubt concerning all levels of management throughout the club.
I have previously discussed my reservations regarding Neil Lennon’s tactical capabilities and, particularly off the back of such a tremendous result, do not wish to do so further today.
For me, Sunday will provide the sternest test we have faced tactically so far this season. Whilst Rangers’ late victory over Legia Warsaw last night reminded me of their limited footballing ability, we know that come Sunday, backed by an almost entirely home support – and one no longer deprived of their “songbook” by the competition’s governing body – Rangers will come flying out the traps with a high-intensity press and look to force us into early mistakes. During the two Ibrox fixtures last season the occasion overwhelmed us; Sunday offers up a chance for Lennon to exhibit his tactical development and display his aptitude to outmanoeuvre Rangers’ gung-ho approach. On footballing ability alone we should not lose to the Ibrox side.
Despite expressing doubts about Neil Lennon I, invariably, hope to be proven wrong. Mistakes have been made that must be learned from, and whilst Ibrox presents one opportunity to convey that they have, the appearance of CFR Cluj in today’s Europa League group stage draw provides a chance at, in his own words, “retribution” for Lennon and his squad. Alongside CFR Cluj, Celtic will face Lazio and Stade Rennais in a challenging yet intriguing group.
Although I do not want to further discuss Neil Lennon’s tactical nous, one element of the club’s top level (mis)management that I believe must not be ignored remains the strategic “forward” planning inside the boardroom. Just as two shocking performances were not enough to bring down those that sit at the top table, the three good ones that followed should not cement their place back in the hearts of the Celtic fanbase.
It should not be forgotten why we, once again, find ourselves in a position where we are having to play key players out of position in our most important games. In this regard Lennon’s hands have been tied behind his back by the people above him.
Following last night’s qualification to the Europa League I have today read plenty of exuberant, sarcastic, and frankly staunch appraisals of the board at Celtic Park, declaring that the £12m spent so far, aided by the loan signings of Fraser Forster and Moritz Bauer, demonstrates the sterling work done this summer in strengthening the squad in our bid to qualify for European football, particularly when compared to the sums our domestic rivals have spent.
Two fundamental points are being missed in these appraisals:
Firstly, it is not the total figure that Celtic have spent which causes concern, but the number of first team players brought in (currently 5).
Since the end of last season Celtic have lost three right-backs (Lustig, Toljan, Gamboa) and signed two (El Hamed and Bauer), though one arrived after our exit from the Champions League qualifying rounds; we have lost two first team centre-halves (Boyata and Benkovic – sorry Marv) and signed one (Jullien); and, lost two left-backs (Tierney and Izaguirre) and signed one (Bolingoli).
As we entered our most important games of the season, we replaced seven (six if you discount Gamboa) defenders with three replacements. This was not an area of the squad where Celtic were overly bloated and needed to reduce numbers, besides Cristian Gamboa all of the players named above featured in a significant number of matches they were available for last season.
As well as this, all of the players listed were expected to leave the club this summer with Lustig, Gamboa, Boyata and Izaguirre coming to the end of their contracts, Toljan and Benkovic coming to the end of their loans, and Tierney heavily anticipated to join Arsenal.
In order to maintain the desired minimum of two players competing for each position, Celtic required no less than six defenders to be brought in during the transfer window.
Having known the aforementioned players would be departing for, at a minimum, the final six months of last season, why was there no forward planning to sufficiently replace them early in the window?
If the answer is that the desired targets were too expensive then that simply indicates further weaknesses in the scouting department during the recruitment process; if we are not identifying realistic and affordable targets then what is the purpose of our, albeit limited in size, scouting team.
If the answer is that there is not enough money available to fund all six signings, then questions must be asked why we spent over half our budget on one player when we knew the size of the rebuilding task ahead.
And finally, if the answer is that we simply did not implement a process of succession planning to prepare for such a mass exodus then it indicates gross negligence amongst the backroom structure at the club.
Secondly, qualification to the Europa League was not our target this summer, and whilst in reality the competition perhaps better reflects the quality of our squad at present, it only became our goal having failed for the second year in a row to defeat a lower-ranked side in the third round of the Champions League qualifiers. The reasons for which are, partly, outlined above.
I do not plan on repeating myself every week concerning the neglect that the board have placed upon our playing squad once again this summer, and ideally this piece would have waited until after our trip to Ibrox, however with just a few days remaining of the transfer window the required further strengthening must happen now; albeit too late for this year’s Champions League hopes.
The widespread anger demonstrated towards the board two weeks ago should not simply dissipate because of our qualification to Europe’s consolation prize.
Every Celtic fan wants to support our team and help drive them forward, but that doesn’t require us to rewrite the recent history of mismanagement behind the scenes.
I will support the management and the players and hope that Neil Lennon proves my previously aired doubts wrong, but negligence in the boardroom has cost us once more, and I don’t plan on waiting until this time next year to continue that conversation.
The skies may have cleared for the moment but that doesn’t mean that the storm has passed.